Boyd Tonkin: Small places with broad horizons - a farewell from the Rock

The week in books

The fictional imagination, we are told, leaps across all boundaries. It reaches out to touch people far in origin and culture from the writer's own roots. That sounds like sanctimonious bookish piety. Until you see it happen. Last weekend, at the first Gibraltar International Literary festival, I heard the Sri Lankan-born novelist Roma Tearne perform a new story in the elegant and rather Jane Austen-ish surroundings of the Garrison Library, opened in 1793.

Tearne first saw Gibraltar when, aged ten and in flight from bloody divisions on the island of her birth, the boat docked there en route to England. Now, she read a story about the 1969 closure of the border between the Rock and Spain (fully reversed only in 1985), and the fissures it created for the many families with members living on both sides of that still-disputed line. Tearne had checked the dates and essential events, but otherwise done little research. Yet, at the end, local people with memories of that enforced partition warmly endorsed her invented version – even down to the separated relatives crying out family news and holding up new babies across the "fence".

Tearne deals, as she said, in the universal currency of "grief, longing and loss". The size or heft of the territory that mints it matters very little. Nowhere better to re-learn that lesson, perhaps, than in a tiny community of 30,000 people that still manages to entwine a variety of complex histories around one limestone block: Andalusian, British, Jewish, Genoese, Maltese, Moroccan and Indian. As local historian, and deputy chief minister, Dr Joseph Garcia put it in his talk on the peninsula's recent past, "What we got after 1704 [the British takeover] was immigration, a mix of different people over 300 years that has created the Gibraltar of today."

So alongside the star visitors - Madhur Jaffrey and Ben Okri; Joanne Harris and Antony Beevor; Kate Adie and Ken Hom – we heard authors from Morocco and from Spain; local mystery writers Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe; and Levi Attias, a Spanish-language poet from a Sephardi Jewish family of Gibraltar. The surname of Sam Benady gave me particular pause (a writer since retirement, he formerly served as the community's paediatrician). A forebear of his surfaces in the finest celebration of Gibraltar as a rendezvous for many worlds.

In James Joyce's Ulysses, Molly Bloom's final soliloquy incorporates a glittering mosaic memoir of her Gibraltar girlhood in the 1880s. At one point, Molly mentions that her biscuits came from "Benady Bros". After Dublin, Gibraltar is the most important location in Ulysses. The ever-meticulous fictional master-planner takes his usual pains to get the geography and chronology correct. What matters most to Joyce the quietly fervent cosmopolitan, however, is Molly's sensual awakening in a place of many creeds and mingled peoples. Her monologue rises to its climactic memories of "the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens… and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls".

This is the last time that I shall write this column as Literary Editor. It has often had reason to reflect that, in a publishing world marked ever more strongly by homogenisation and uniformity, the most memorable stories still often emerge from – or else find a home in – small places with broad horizons. So Gibraltar, a geopolitical speck generally either overlooked or patronised (though not by one of the greatest novelists who ever lived), feels like a fitting spot for a farewell. I will leave you with the never-existing but immortal Molly, whose little statue stands now in the Alameda Gardens, as she recalls "the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe".

Manchester United creams Norwich City

Manchester, so much to answer for… After native son Morrissey topped the charts with his so-called "classic" Autobiography, his ouster is none other than Sir Alex Ferguson, adoptive godfather. His memoir sold 115,000 hardback copies last week: the biggest first-week sale for a non-fiction hardback since they began to count. He breaks a record set by the "joint majority shareholder" in Norwich City FC, Delia Smith. Delia can, we know, yell heartily from the touchline; but how is Sir Alex's Victoria sponge?

She'll take Manhattan – and Paris?

They do these things a bit differently in France. The permanent panel of judges, the Académie Goncourt, has just announced its shortlist of four – the dernière sélection - for the most illustrious of all French book awards. Yet the Prix Goncourt itself will be awarded not after a month of speculation and punditry but almost straight away: Monday 4 November.

As for the robust-looking final quartet, it features new novels by Pierre Lemaitre (check out his Alex, published by MacLehose), Jean-Philippe Toussaint (try his The Truth About Marie from Dalkey Archive), Frédéric Verger – and Karine Tuil, for her splashy blockbuster about a high-flying French lawyer in New York and his murky past, L'invention de nos vies. Even if Tuil doesn't win next week, she ticks so many topical boxes that we can surely expect an English version of her novel pretty soon.

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