Spanish lessons from popular fiction

My second-favorite souvenir from a Spanish-speaking country is a reading list. (My absolute favorite is a mama cuchara, an oversized spoon that I bought at the open-air market in Otovalo, Ecuador.)

My mama cuchara is about 2 feet long and usually contains soup, not a tree.

This precious list was a parting present from a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where I took summer classes about six years ago. She explained that for advanced non-native speakers like us (many of whom were Spanish teachers), the best way to keep improving our Spanish when we got home was to read for pleasure. The idea is that if you get absorbed in a story, your fluency will increase naturally.

I love this approach because it combines two of my deepest passions: Spanish and light reading. Now I get to read a mystery novel or an adventure story and count it as “professional development”. Not in any formal sense, of course (hence the ironic quotation marks), but enough to feel that I’m using my time productively. Sometimes I read like a student, looking up new words and even making flashcards for them. But usually I “just” read.

Last night I finished a terrific book from the list, Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. The plot describes a writer’s Rashomon-like quest to understand a series of deaths — or are they murders? Martínez is Argentinian and of course I got a big kick out of the voseo, but the biggest linguistic thrill for me, having just blogged on the topic, was the following passage, which combines both versions of the imperfect subjunctive:

Hubo un silencio del otro lado, como si Kloster ya tuviera el presentimiento correcto y se preparase a jugar una partida diferente.

Perhaps a native speaker who reads this blog can suggest an intuitive explanation for the author’s choices here.

One of my professor’s top recommendations was the wildly popular Capitán Alatriste series by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. These books feature a down-on-his-luck Golden Age swashbuckler with a knack for inserting himself into important historical events (like the siege of Breda) à la Forrest Gump and palling around with notable writers like Francisco de Quevedo. The series has spawned a restaurant in Madrid and a [by all accounts mediocre] film starring Viggo Mortensen, whose fluent Spanish comes from a childhood in Argentina.

Alatriste taverna

Taberna del Capitán Alatriste, Madrid

The Alatriste books are rich in vocabulary. Besides swordfighting and military terms, and adjectives good for describing sinister characters, they abound in idiomatic expressions involving a la or las pronoun that lacks a specific direct object referent. Examples include:

  • dársela “to pretend to be something”, e.g. “…que por ser antiguo sargento de caballos, mutilado en Nieuport, se las daba de consumado estratega.”
  • habérsela “to contend with”, e.g. “…permanecieron allí, quietos y silenciosos a uno y otro lado del candelabro … estudiándose para averiguar si se las habían con un camarada o un adversario”
  • tenérsela jurada “to have it in for someone”, e.g. (referring to Quevedo): “Algunos, como Luis de Góngora o Juan Ruiz de Alarcón se la tenían jurada, y no sólo por escrita.”
  • levantársela “to excite (sexually)”, e.g. (referring to an allegedly pure woman, a “santa”) “Y entre santa y santa — repuso Calzas, procaz — a nuestro rey se la levantan.”
  • arreglársela “to manage, carry out, finagle”, e.g. “A veces me pregunto cómo se las arreglan ustedes, los que no juegan [al ajedrez], para escapar de la locura o la melancolía.”

My favorite book so far by Pérez-Reverte, El maestro de esgrima, isn’t from the Alatriste series. It’s a complicated story involving the titular fencing teacher, an unusual student, and a blackmail plot. What fun!

¡Que disfruten!

8 thoughts on “Spanish lessons from popular fiction

  1. Daniel

    “Hubo un silencio del otro lado, como si Kloster ya tuviera el presentimiento correcto y se preparase a jugar una partida diferente”

    Hola. He estado leyendo en voz baja ese párrafo y siento que cuando pronuncio “… se preparase a jugar…” fluyen mejor las palabras por mi boca que cuando digo “… se preparara a jugar…”.
    En el caso de “… ya tuviera el presentimiento…” o “… ya tuviese el presentimiento…” no noto mayor diferencia.
    No es una explicación técnica pero espero que sirva.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Maybe the issue with “se preparara” is either (i) the ugliness of “rara” or (ii) the pleasing harmony between “se” and “preparase”.

      Or, is it possible that it’s the norm, when combining the two imperfect subjunctives, to use the -ra first, then the -se? I am thinking of the expression “fuera como fuese”.

      1. Daniel

        “Fuera como fuese”
        Entiendo pero me parece que nunca escuché ni dije algo así. Hay tantas maneras de decir las cosas.

  2. Mark Mayo

    Gracias por las recomendaciones. I read the preview in Amazon of La Muerte Lento de Luciana B, y me parece un buen libro. I lived in the province of Buenos Aire Argentina hace muchos anos, but I’m sorry to say that I only learned to appreciate the voseo, but can’t explain the double use of se in that instance.

    On a related note, it was common to hear a host tell two or more visitors in a home to “sientensen”, as though the reflexive ‘se’ needed to be conjugated. 🙂

    Mark Mayo

    1. jhochberg Post author

      That is a very cool error. I remember coming home my first year of teaching and telling my husband “These kids will conjugate anything that sits still!” It’s interesting to see native speakers doing the same. And of course you can always find a language where this is standard.

      Gracias por leer y escribir,
      – Judy

    2. jhochberg Post author

      Mark, I just reread your comment and wanted to let you know that I came across plural *sen* while researching Ladino. There are two examples in the sentence Eyos devian ambezarsen a durmirsen ‘they had to learn to fall asleep’, the Ladino equivalent of Ellos debían educarse a dormirse. If you are curious, I can get you a reference for this.

  3. Pingback: Viggo Mortensen, “el argentino” | Spanish Linguist

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