Madrid Stories: Madrileños sing and dance - and now they read, too

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The Independent Online

Books are the latest thing. Madrid's metro is full of passengers with their noses in a novel, and the mayor announced this week plans to launch a lending library on the underground.

You can't walk down the street without tripping over bestsellers, classics, thrillers, detective stories, love stories, children's tales, comic strips, atlases and encyclopedias clamped in clingfilm to slabs of cardboard. These garish offerings fan out from the news kiosks like gorgeous, obstructive art installations.

I attended a party the other night to celebrate the novelty that Spaniards have suddenly become avid readers. Star of the evening was Aranzazu Sumalla, of the small publishing house Umbriel, who brought Dan Brown's blockbuster The Da Vinci Code to Spain. "Never has a book sold so many copies in such a short time," she enthused. El Codigo Da Vinci has sold 1.2 million copies in Spain, twice as many as the latest Harry Potter. Ms Sumalla picked up the English galleys one Sunday, she said, and was glued to her chair all day and evening, leaving her three-month old daughter to all but fend for herself. "We had to buy it. I'd never pushed for a book so hard. I knew it would sell, but I never expected such a sensation."

In the first week, reports from bookshops told the publishers they had an unprecedented hit. More surprising, "as months went by, shops told us readers kept coming back for more books," Ms Sumalla says. "So no one can say Spaniards don't read!"

The gypsies of Madrid turned out in their finest the other night to honour young flamenco dancer Farruquito, the waif-like star from the Seville slums. But he was disgraced when he killed a pedestrian in a hit-and-run accident involving an unregistered BMW. He faces trial for murder, years in prison and a career in ruins. Freed on €300,000 bail, Farruquito and his family have created a show that blazes with drama and fierce gypsy pride. Madrid's gypsies flocked to the opening night on the fringes of the Lavapies gypsy quarter. Extended families, from ancient patriarchs to young women with babies at the breast, stood, stamped, wept with emotion and roared olés through the show, then erupted from the theatre dancing and singing.

These late summer evenings I often hear cheery arias wafting from the operetta theatre next door. With the opening of the new season, the violinist who entertains theatre-goers as they enter and leave has taken up his post again. Frankly, he can't play a note, but people greet him, and some give him money. Last week I realised the old boy had competition as a rumbling bass voice soared above the scraping violin. Intrigued, I wandered downstairs. The performers faced each other from opposite corners. Around them cologned, blazered gents exclaimed "Hombre! Don Alfonso!" to each other, while scarily made-up ladies teetered up the steps. When the pitch was deserted, I expected a confrontation. To my astonishment, the singer walked across to the violinist and engaged him in lively conversation before the two strolled off together. In the distance I heard a skirl of bagpipes.