BOOKS / Postcard from Spain: Sage enemas and insults: Justin Webster on a swinish literary row with a long tradition

AS ANYONE who has indulged in the teenage game of swapping swear words with a foreigner while holidaying in Spain will know, Spanish is a rich language when it comes to insults. Most of them end with '. . . the mother who bore you.' Similarly, when you ask a Spaniard if he speaks a foreign language, the cautious answer is not the rather limp 'Yes, a little,' which usually springs to an Englishman's lips, but a sly, combative phrase meaning, literally: 'I can defend myself.'

Certainly, the verbal duel conducted recently between, on one side, a Spanish Nobel-prize-winning novelist and his followers and, on the other, the younger generation of contemporary writers and a famous elderly female poet, produced plenty worth listening to. The spat began when Franciso Umbral, 59, one of the country's leading newspaper columnists and the author of numerous books, brought out his latest opus The Words of the Tribe, an unusual set of literary memoirs. They are his very personal feelings on 20th-century Spanish literature, written almost as if he had lived with each of the protagonists. As he is obviously a dedicated reader, and the line between the physical and the imaginary is less cut and dried since Don Quixote, in one sense this is true, and Umbral fortifies the conceit by dropping in his own name alongside those of the authors he really did meet wherever possible. 'I do not think I have a single friend who is not a writer,' he says in the introduction, 'It is the only human species that interests me.'

One of those with whom Umbral claims a more than purely literary relationship is Camilo Jose Cela, the Nobel laureate, at 78 the grand old man of Spanish letters on whom Umbral heaps praise. With Cela as a model it is not surprising Umbral's book has become controversial, as the laureate himself is known for his acidic and often very basic sense of humour. In the event Umbral has passed through the gallery of Spain's most illustrious 20th-century writers leaving few of them unscathed and some heavily mauled by his dandyish, aphoristic wit.

Pio Baroja, for example, the prolific Basque writer whom Hemingway admired (he was one of the pall-bearers at Baroja's funeral in 1956) earned Umbral's undying hatred for his anti-lyrical action-packed narrative style which Umbral found clumsy and careless. Miguel de Unamuno (another Basque - nearly all of whom are timid, according to one of Umbral's most sweeping judgements) is damned as an egomaniac. He picks off several more on his way to the present, including Rosa Chacel, the 96-year-old poetess.

The present is occupied by Cela, and as we might be led to believe by the dust-jacket, by Umbral: 'the greatest prose-writer in Spanish of the century.' According to Umbral the Nobel laureate's genius obliterates his contemporaries: 'By imitating him or not imitating him, many writers have lost their way and ended up in the gutter. For this reason it is pointless to continue these memoirs after Cela.'

Umbral's views - given his splenetic past - might not have caused much of a reaction had not Cela, while promoting a novel by one of Umbral's fellow newspaper columnists, decided to back him up. He let fly a carefully- honed dismissal aimed at Antonio Munoz Molina, 38, winner of Spain's top literary prize - the Premio Planeta - in 1991, and the man who called Umbral's book boring.

Titled Song for a Half-baked Adolescent, a short paragraph signed by Cela appeared in the Madrid daily ABC recommending Munoz take 'enemas with a mild infusion of medicinal herbs which, for upset sphincters, should be of sage and aniseed in equal parts.' This treatment, he advised, should last as long as the 'charitable and provident udder of the taxpayer . . . continues oozing milk and honey,' implying Munoz thrives only on government subsidies. ABC called them Cela's best lines in years.

With the battle made public there was a kind of festival of invective. Rosa Chacel responded to Umbral's implication in his book that she had tried to seduce a young woman: 'You have to be a cretin, a real imbecile, to say something like that. I don't understand the reason for such swinery . . . This is the mark of a lout, of a secondary figure in literature and not of an intellectual.'

Javier Marias, author of All Souls and contemporary of Munoz, called Cela's defence of his friends a 'belch' of no interest. 'I know he is taking the part of older writers who consider themselves great stylists, but they are behaving like pig-farmers,' he said. 'I have got nothing against invective or an amusing literary attack. What bothers me are belches, uninspired attacks.'

To put it all into perspective it was soon remembered that this kind of thing was a 'Spanish tradition', that Lope de Vega and Cervantes insulted each other. Munoz, however, has refused to find it funny. Although he claims not to have insulted anyone in his article referring to Cela and Umbral's book, he might have guessed that some of his comments would have touched a nerve.

Apparently without noticing, he did come up with the most telling comment of the entire saga when defending his fellow contemporary novelists against unfavourable comparisons with the columnist's book, promoted by Cela. 'It is possible that over the years we will become inclined towards sclerosis and vainglory,' he wrote: 'for the moment we can rest assured that none of us is a genius, a great relief in a country so overpopulated with them.'