A visit to La Fontana de Oro played a pivotal role in my love of Spanish literature
As an undergraduate student at Marquette University, studying abroad at La Universidad Complutense de Madrid for a semester in spring of 1998 was an adventure. On the second night there, having mostly overcome the jet lag, some trip mates and I agreed to meet up at la Puerta del Sol, which is the geographic center of the city. Coming out of the metro station, my senses were bombarded with stimuli. Everything felt new and meaningful. Not knowing where to explore first, we chose a street at random and started walking. I recall being towards the front of the group, turning right after a few short blocks, and suggesting we enter what looked like an Irish pub. It had painted tiles outside and lots of old bottles in the window, and it seemed like a good place to start the night because the environment would be somewhat familiar. This establishment, called La Fontana de Oro, was clearly very old and had unique decorations. We breezed right past a sign near the front door that commemorates the publication of a book, also called La Fontana de Oro, written by someone named Benito Pérez Galdós, who used this bar as his setting.
We ordered our drinks and sat down, anxious to talk about our plans for the upcoming semester. I also took some time to wander around the pub with my eyes, and different things caught my attention. First was a statue of a man with a big mustache on a stage, gesturing to the people below. My first thought was that this decoration, although strangely cool, was a bit eccentric and out of place, but the figure also looked vaguely familiar.
Instead of stopping to think about where I knew this man from, I conversed with the others. We were going to go to a Real Madrid soccer match in a few days, so that would be fun. Our different host families had various quirks that we enjoyed gossiping about. It felt odd not to have many people at such a cool place when it was already somewhere around 9:00 PM, not fully realizing yet that Spaniards tend to start their night much later than we do. Shortly thereafter, as I wandered around a bit more in search of the bathroom, I came across another image of this sharply dressed, mustachioed man, this time painted on some tiles, with the same name as the man commemorated on the plaque outside.
As I went to fetch another round of drinks and paid the bartender, I finally realized that the currency I was using had the same man depicted on it. A country doesn’t put just anyone on its currency, I thought. Coming from the United States, I only knew former presidents and other founders of the nation to be on our currency. Whoever this Benito Pérez Galdós guy was, he had to have been important. I didn’t mention it to anyone else I was with, but I made a promise to myself to learn more about who this man was and why he was so important. Of course, if this story had taken place in 2021, I would’ve simply taken out my cell phone and did a Google search, but in 1998 none of us had cell phones of any kind. Yes, we had internet, but it wasn’t that fast, and most of us didn’t have it in our homes. During the spring of 1998 in Madrid, if we wanted to use the internet, we had to leave the apartment where we were staying, walk a certain number of blocks to the closest internet café, wait for a computer to open up, then do whatever we needed to do on it in the short amount of time we had. They were charging by the minute, after all! My discovery of who Pérez Galdós was and why he was so important would have to be a slow one.
The few Spaniards I knew at the time were certainly familiar with Pérez Galdós, and they helped me out with the basics: that he was a nineteenth-century writer whose long realist novels took place (mostly) in Madrid, and that he was widely considered the second greatest Spanish author, only taking a backseat to Miguel de Cervantes himself. Even though people knew who he was, I didn’t know that many people who had actually read him, primarily, I think, because like most realist novels, his are quite long and not always easy to read, given their often frank depictions of life and the painstakingly detailed descriptions. Over time, I returned often to La Fontana de Oro. I liked to think that the statue of Galdós was the great master himself, standing in the corner with a pad of paper, eavesdropping on the patrons, and taking notes for his next great novel. I know how silly that must sound.
It took me a long time to get around to actually reading a Pérez Galdós novel. In part, this is because I was quite busy and my somewhat short attention span wouldn’t let me invest the necessary time to make it comprehensible. I also think that my Spanish, although pretty decent at the time, wasn’t quite good enough to appreciate fully the rich language Galdós uses in his work. At least that’s what I told myself. Nonetheless, I was determined to read one of his books. But which one? He has written so many novels, all of which are of a high quality. According to many experts, the most famous and representative of his works is Fortunata y Jacinta, but I was intimidated by the fact that it’s usually sold in two thick volumes. For me, there could only be one choice that made sense, La Fontana de Oro, which was also the first of his so-called novelas contemporáneas; his previous works were mostly historical novels. To my surprise, the novel wasn’t difficult to find, and even if my understanding of the novel wasn’t perfect, it was good enough for me to be entertained.
If we fast forward a few years, I would be in grad school, reading several Galdosian novels each year and studying the Spanish master in depth. Not only would my doctoral dissertation be on Spanish literary realism, but I would have a chapter dedicated to two novels, Nazarín and Halma, written by Pérez Galdós, which would be the foundation for my first peer-reviewed article of literary criticism, a milestone in my career. During each of my trips to Spain after my first study abroad experience there, I would take some time to explore the real life places that Pérez Galdós writes about in his novels, as well as the different homages to him throughout Madrid. For example, I found the home where he lived and ultimately died.
My favorite homage to Pérez Galdós in Madrid, besides La Fontana de Oro, is his statue in the largest park in town, el parque del Buen Retiro, or simply El Retiro, which has always been my absolute favorite place to spend an afternoon. I must have been there 100 times, however, before I came across the rather large statue that is dedicated to Pérez Galdós. This tribute was created while the author was still alive, and there are photos of Pérez Galdós with his own statue. Coincidentally, when I took the photo below, it was during Madrid’s feria del libro, in which writers from all over Spain appear to promote their books and sign some autographs for their readers. I’ll have to tell the story of an experience I had at this event on another day, but for now I just want to express my admiration for Madrid’s literary community, which is friendly and active. At almost every corner there’s a reminder that Miguel de Cervantes lived here, Lope de Vega is buried there, Mariano José de Larra lived in this building, etc. It’s so refreshing, from my point of view, to experience a city with such a connection to its literary greats.
One day I was determined to find Galdós’s burial place. I found the cemetery where he is buried, named La Almudena, which is kind of on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough research on where exactly in the cemetery his tomb is located. On a very hot day, I wandered around and spent I don’t know how many hours looking for his final resting place, to thank him for creating his work and sharing it with the world. I found many tombs of famous people, but the cemetery itself is so big and confusing that I eventually had to give up. I’m sure I must have went right past it several times. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to go back and try it again, this time with a map.
I bring up these personal anecdotes about one of my favorite writers because earlier this month, people around the Spanish-speaking world, not just Madrid, paid homage to him on what would have been his 178th birthday. Leading the celebration was the Casa-Museo Pérez Galdós in his native Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (in the Canary Islands). This museum organizes prestigious exhibitions and conferences on Pérez Galdós; it’s on my list of places to visit in Spain. On their Facebook page, they shared perhaps dozens of short videos that people around the world created to commemorate the influence that this novelist has had on their lives; many of them read short passages from his works that they especially enjoy. Although I didn’t get to add my voice to the others, their messages touched me and made me reflect on his influence on me.
¡Feliz cumpleaños, don Benito! Y gracias por todo.
Has any author influenced your life in a profound way? Tell us about it in the comments below.
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