Guelbenzu, José María 1944-

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GUELBENZU, José María 1944-

PERSONAL: Born April 14, 1944, in Madrid, Spain. Education: Studied law.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Alfaguara, Torrelaguna 60, Madrid 28043, Spain.

CAREER: Novelist, poet, and essayist. Worked in publishing beginning in 1964; Taurus Publishing Company, managing editor beginning 1977; Alfaguara Editions, editorial director beginning 1982. Madrid film club, Imagen, codirector. Full-time writer, 1988—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Premio de la Crítica, 1981, for El río de la luna; Premio Plaza & Janés, 1991, for La tierra prometida.


El mercurio, Seix Barral (Barcelona, Spain), 1968.

Antifaz, Seix Barral (Barcelona, Spain), 1970.

El pasajero de ultramar, Galba Edicions (Barcelona, Spain), 1976.

La noche en casa, Alianza Editorial (Madrid, Spain), 1977.

El río de la luna, Alianza Editorial (Madrid, Spain), 1981.

El esperado, Alianza Editorial (Madrid, Spain), 1984.

La mirada, Alianza Editorial (Madrid, Spain), 1987.

La tierra prometida, Plaza & Janés (Barcelona, Spain), 1991.

Ver Madrid, photographs by Ramon Manent, Ediciones Destino (Barcelona, Spain), 1991.

El sentimiento, Alianza Editorial (Madrid, Spain), 1995.

Cuentos populares españoles, Ediciones Siruela (Madrid, Spain), 1996.

Un peso en el mundo, Alfaguara (Madrid, Spain), 1999.

No acosen al asesino, Alfaguara (Madrid, Spain), 2001.

Guelbenzu also authored prologues and introductions for collections of works by José Emilio Pacheco, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Horacio Quiroga, Rudyard Kipling, and Albert Camus.

SIDELIGHTS: José María Guelbenzu is considered among the most creative novelists in modern Spain. With the publication of his first novel, El mercurio, in 1968, he is credited with breaking with the prevailing social realism of the time and creating a purely aesthetic style which corresponded to the spirit of Spanish youth coming of age at the end of Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship.

Guelbenzu was born in Madrid in 1944 and took his Bachillerato with the Jesuits and began to study law and business administration before leaving the university for a career in the publishing business in 1964. He worked first for the literary journal Cuadernos para el diálogo and was the co-director of the influential Madrid film club Imagen.

While working both as a contributor and editor Guelbenzu completed his first novel, El mercurio, which was a finalist for the Premio Biblioteca Breve and was critically well received. In 1979 Guelbenzu moved to the Taurus publishing company where he became managing director in 1977. For six years beginning in 1982 he was editorial director of the prestigious Alfaguara Editions in Madrid.

Although El mercurio showed some of the rough spots of first novels and was perhaps too influenced by his literary hero James Joyce, it covered new ground in the Spanish novel. A reviewer for Times Literary Supplement wrote, "It was welcomed then as a break from the grey and earnest social realism of his seniors, but was spoiled by adolescent nihilism and literary pose." David Herzberger, writing in Hispania, noted, "Guelbenzu's first novel, El mercurio, was immediately recognized as an important vanguardist experiment. The work consists of a potpourri of innovative techniques and stylistic complications derived in a large part from Joyce, Beckett, and Cortázar, and modified to fit the particular requisites of Guelbenzu."

Guelbenzu's second novel, Antifaz, follows the same general pattern of experimentation, though the author mitigates some of the excesses and fragmentation in favor of a tightly structured ordering of events and alternating presentation of characters. The three principal characters are the same age as those of El mercurio, and they exhibit the same problems: no sense of purpose, aimless wandering through Madrid, and lack of identity. A writer for The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature wrote that "based on the mystery of a love relationship, [El mercurio] is an experiment in novelistic creation, with the complexity typical of any work written as a literary search."

El pasajero de ultramar is a development away from the fragmented and experimental style of Guelbenzu's previous novels toward a more incisive analysis of character. Herzberger commented, "[Guelbenzu] examines his protagonist in the Britanic tradition of E. M. Forster. . . . El pasajero shows authorial concern for elements of narrative other than language."

La noche en casa portrays a young man and woman, each pursuing a different means of fulfillment. The author reintroduces some of the characters from earlier novels, including Chéspir, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer and part-time poet who undertakes a covert mission. He travels to San Sebastián to deliver a message. Herzberger noted, "La noche en casa presents more forcefully and explicitly what is only implied in Guelbenzu's previous novels; that the characters (all of whom are in their early thirties) are products of the philosophical, political, and moral sterility of postwar Spain. The sterility has not only deprived the postwar generation of values and ideal, but has imposed an inflexible norms that engenders the fundamental loss of identity of Spanish youth. . . . With La noche en casa Guelbenzu approaches the thematic traditions of existential narrative in the vein of Camus, Sartre, and Kafka, of Delibes and Martin Santos in Spain."

El río de la luna, which won Spain's critic's prize in 1981, is a love story divided into five sections of seemingly unrelated narrative. The ineffectiveness of the protagonist to express feelings for anyone but themselves is mirrored in the "New Spain" that has overturned the traditional values of Catholic hierarchy and a national mythology. The eventual decision forced on the protagonist, not unlike Raymond of Camus's L'etranger, is to face the dilemma of choosing or denying a creative life for its own sake.

Guelbenzu's sixth novel, El esperado, conveys dialogue and settings realistically, creating a narrative about family intrigue in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. In a review for World Literature Today James Abbott added, "allusions to Greek mythology and to Christianity imply a meaning beyond the plotting of events and episodes."

La tierra prometida again reflects the impossibility of a personal relationship living up to the unreachable expectations of a society that places success above all else and assumes anything less is tantamount to failure. The story begins with a chance encounter in a German airport between two old college friends who are both entering middle age. The liberating setting of an anonymous airport allows a free-flowing introspection of two individual who are fully aware of being consumed by the society they live in.

In 2001 Guelbenzu wrote No acosen al asesino, a police thriller that is a sub-genre generally denigrated in the world of Spanish letters. Lacking the enduring popularity and often very high quality of the French polar noir, the Spanish versions of this genre have never taken the high road with the uniquely American hard-boiled detective story. The story in this case is relatively simple. Magistrate Mariana de Marco is assigned to investigate the death of fellow magistrate Celso Medina. His body is found in his home and no apparent motive is found. De Marco solves the case in record time; in four days, with the help of a wonderful analytical world, inspired intuition, and a talent for the job, she has the murderer. A Terra Cultura contributor wrote, "José María Guelbenzu gracefully leads us out of this strange beginning which could have been a quick ending with his protagonist Carlos Sastre, who committed the crime for revenge. . . . The real mystery turns out to be something else again: How we come to learn Sastre's real identity is what makes the book a real page turner."

Conte wrote in Quimera, "Guelbenzu is, more than any other writer, a true reflection of his generation. . . . The generation, for better or worse, that was formed by May of '68; an historical touch-point that heightened the concept of the individual at the expense of mass movements, militancies or membership in artistic vanguards."

In addition writing novels, Guelbenzu is a regular columnist in the "Opinion" and "Literature" sections of El País.



Bédé, Jean-Albert, and William Edgerton, editors, Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, Columbia University Press, (New York, NY), 1980.

Landiera, Ricardo, and Luis T. Gonzalez del Valle, editors, Nuevos y novísimos, Society of Spanish-American Studies (Boulder, CO), 1987.

Mechtild, Albert, Vencer no es convencer: literatura e ideologia del fascimo español, Vervuet (Frankfurt, Germany), 1998.

Ward, Philip, The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1978.


Booklist, May 15, 1984, Erwin Buttler, review of El río de la luna, p. 1335.

Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, June, 1989, Maria Altisent, "El erotismo en la actual narrativa española," p. 128.

Hispania, September, 1981, p. 367.

Letras Peninsulares, winter, 1988, Robert C. Spires, review of El río de la luna, p. 285.

Quimera, March, 1988, interview with José María Guelbenzu, p. 128.

Times Literary Supplement, May 28, 1971, review of Antifaz, p. 610.

World Literature Today, winter, 1997, Luis Larios Vendrell, review of El sentimento, p. 126; winter, 1986, James H. Abbott, review of El esperado, p. 75.


Terra Cultura, (July 30, 2002), review of No acosen al asesino.*