European Times: Madrid: Launched into literary heaven

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I'VE BECOME addicted to the book launch. It's an art form where the people of Madrid display their best qualities: their flash metropolitan verve and their provincial intimacy, their love for grand ideas and their fluent informality.

The purpose seems not, primarily, to sell the book. Single copies on show are whisked away as you disperse. Neither is it necessarily a chance for authors to read from their oeuvre.

What, then, is the point? Well, venue is crucial. It signals, broadly, whether you are with the establishment or against it. The author invites some famous friends to praise him or her in off-the-cuff remarks that combine the cringing chumminess of a best man's speech with the wacky erudition of an Oxbridge tutorial. You get a rambling, frequently hilarious, illumination of something you perhaps thought you knew about.

My local bookstore offers glasses of fizz to anyone wandering in for Sunday papers before lunchtime. It works every time. A few slurps and I'm lingering over the fat coffee table volumes celebrating the 400th anniversary of the artist Velzquez. Jostled by crowds, I realise I'm in the midst of an eloquent reminiscence by a columnist I read every week about his golden childhood in Andalusia.

I tear myself from the luscious art books, and later telephone a publisher to request a review copy of a more modest work. "Certainly, and do come to the presentacion." I arrive late and it's packed, as always. Three former directors of the Prado museum are engaged in a lively discussion of whether Velzquez's portrayal of Vulcan and Bacchus among mortal blacksmiths and drunkards meant he was mocking the gods, or painting real people for the first time in European art.

The three scholars could have been having a fireside chat, so unselfconscious were they. I spotted an empty chair at the front and plonked myself down. "It's occupied," hissed a miserable old git next to me. "There's no one here," I hissed back. "Ocupado, ocupado," he insisted. "If anyone comes I'll move," I rasped, scribbling in my notebook just metres from the nostrils of these eminent historians, who were pondering whether the master's work marked a revolutionary rupture, or was merely innovative.

Discussion opened to the floor. This is a precious moment, when the inarticulate, the starstruck and those just plain bonkers have their say. A thin man with grey locks, his feet crunched up on his chair, who had been sketching on an envelope throughout, asks an incomprehensible question about technique. The platform responds with the grave tolerance that Spaniards accord to genuine eccentrics.

One recent lit-fest promised to blow up into an intercontinental scandal. The Nobel prizewinners Jose Saramago and Gabriel Garcia Marquez introduce a three-day celebration of Ibero-American writing. The baroque Casa de America was packed to the frescos. A flurry on the top table. Garcia Marquez won't speak, never promised to, you'll have to wait for the closing session. Uproar, chanting: "We want Gabo."

Front-page headlines next morning. The day arrives. Gabo, correcting his notes to the last moment, speaks. But he's not making a speech, he's reading a story: a woman makes her annual visit to a mildly sleazy Caribbean island to lay flowers on her mother's grave, and has a little amorous adventure.

The audience is entranced, magically lifted. Ah, there's no finer spectacle than the launch of a good book.