The International Association of Crime Writers
IACW IN BARCELONA
The International Association of Crime Writers met during early October, 2002, in Barcelona, Spain. The Mediterranean seaport -- and center of the province of Catalonia -- suffered major street fighting during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's. However, visiting the city today, you'd never know it. The Catalan language (closer to French than Spanish) can be a bit bewildering, though, especially when you're trying to read signs. We were especially fortunate that the province was celebrating its magnificent architect/designer, Antoni Gaudi, who believed life should be writ large and colorfully (in fact, the English idiom "gaudy" was derived from his name and works).
The "Asociacion Internacional de Escritores Policiacos," founded in 1986 by Paco Taibo II (of Mexico) and the late Julian Semionov (of Russia), translates roughly into the "International Association of Crime Writers." The worldwide organization, with nearly 1,000 members in 22 branch countries, is usually known by its Spanish acronym of "AIEP." For ease of reference here, I will use "AIEP" to denote the worldwide organization and "IACW/NA" to denote our North American branch, Each year, AIEP holds a conference in a member city, and this year, Barcelona volunteered.
As is pretty typical nowadays, I left Boston in the early evening on Tuesday, landing in London's Heathrow Airport at dawn local time on Wednesday. I'm not really comfortable with jetlag to start with, and the connecting flight to Barcelona carried an extra hour of time-zone differential, meaning that when I arrived at the Hotel Rivoli Ramblas around 1:00 PM local time, my body clock was six hours and a lot of air miles out of kilter. However, I was warmly greeted in the lobby by Miguel Agusti, (of Barcelona, and our conference host), Jose Latour (late of Havana, Cuba, and our regional vice-president for Latin America but now of Gijon, in the north of Spain) and Jim Weikart (of New York City and the former president/current treasurer of IACW/NA).
After dumping my bags into a lovely room in the four-star Rivoli, Miguel took the three of us to lunch at a local restaurant known for its traditional cuisine. Jose excused himself to use the men's room, leaving Jim (who speaks no Spanish), Miguel (who speaks no English), and me (who speaks some of both) to pore over the menu. Jim asked me what "conejo" meant, but my jetlagged vocabulary wasn't up to the question, and, even then, I realized the word might be Catalan and not Spanish, anyway. When I asked Miguel in Spanish what the menu item was, he began describing a small creature that ran through the woods. When I clearly wasn't following his description, Miguel rolled his lower lip under his front teeth, brought both hands up, wrists limp, and flapped them, saying, "Bugs Bunny, Bugs Bunny."
I thought, another triumph for American popular culture in promoting world understanding. I also thought the "conejo" tasted pretty good.
After lunch, I walked the Rambla, a boulevard that might remind you of a treeless Commonwealth Avenue mall in Boston but serving the approximate function of Harvard Square with better weather. The strange and the different were all around me, from newstands offering papers, magazines, and paperback books to shops consisting of cube cages with exotic birds to "human statues." The last that day consisted of a medieval knight in armor, Cleopatra on her throne, and my own favorite, a tuxedoed, "headless" accordion player performing for the passersby. In front of each statue was a little hat or bucket and a sign asking "1 Euro for photographs/videos."
After returning to the hotel, Miguel hosted an informal reception for the writers as they arrived. I went to sleep early that night to nurse my jetlag. When I woke up the next morning, however, I immediately noticed two things. One, the bathroom, while exquisite and modern, had no shower curtain (for some reason, as those of you who've read about AIEP's past conferences in Vienna and Prague on the pages of earlier MYSTERY SCENE issues, this lack seems to be a chronic affliction of mine). The other thing I noticed, in looking out my window onto a lovely courtyard, was that someone had "Gaudi'ed" with brown and black mosaic tiles the stovepipe on the building next door, making it look like the erect penis of a giant sea turtle.
I knew then that I was going to love this city.
Thursday was devoted to the AIEP business meetings. Minutes of these (generously taken by Peter Chambers of England, with "streaming" translation by Jose Latour and Fernando Martinez-Lainez, the latter of Madrid and our regional vice-president for Western Europe) are available to AIEP members. Summarizing our efforts, the focus was heavily on our budding webpage (thanks to J. Madison Davis and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma) and our next several conferences, to be held in Germany for 2003 and in the Netherlands for 2004. Emanuel Ikonomov (of Bulgaria, and our regional vice-president for Eastern Europe) presented Grandmaster Awards to our late colleagues, Atanas Mandadjiev (also of Bulgaria) and Julian Semionov (as aforementioned, of Russia).
Thursday night we broke into smaller groups, and I ended up with Piet Teigeler (of Belgium), Charles den Tex (of the Netherlands, the president of that branch and our host for 2004), Chris Rippen (of Holland, past president of the Netherlands branch and the first winner of the Mandadjiev International Award for Best Short Story), Reinold Vallinga (of Flanders), Carmen Iarrera (of Italy and past president of that national branch), Thomas Pryzbilka (of Germany, and our host for 2003), Fanny Tsurakova (of Bulgaria, whose first book was translated into English and published in the USA this year), and Jutta Motz (of Switzerland). We chose another restaurant featuring Catalonian fare. This time I recognized a dish I'd never tried before, and the grilled loin of kid goat was tasty, if a bit meager.
On Friday, we took the wonderful Bus Turistic tour of Barcelona. While most of us started off together, the advantage of the tour is that you can get off the bus and then back on again whenever you'd like, and it has a second tier open to the air. Seeing John Wessel (of the USA) briefly, but teaming up with Virginie Brac (of France and president of that national branch), her partner, Guillaume, and Jim Weikart, I enjoyed the wonders of Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's incredible vision for a Catholic church like no other. Begun in 1882, optimists hope it will be completed by 2050 (just four years before Boston's Big Dig will be done). From there, we visited Parc Guell, another ambitious concept of Gaudi's: to build 80 "mini-estates" on a beautifully landscaped hillside with breathtaking views of Barcelona and the sea spread below. Alas, only 3 of those houses were ever built, including one in which Gaudi himself lived for twenty years. However, the entire park is a magic land of impossibly vaulted walkways, contiguous benches of wavy stone, and buildings with fantastical shapes and mosaic inlays, all anticipating Walt Disney's visions by three-quarters of a century.
Friday night we wandered like a lost tribe through the crowded, 13th-14th century section of homes and shops known as Barri Gotic (in Catalan, "the Gothic Neighborhood"), looking for a restaurant that could accommodate 19 of us. At one point, we moved by a passageway that had a nearly life-sized plaster statue of a camel, and all I could think of was a gastronomic hat-trick: rabbit, goat, and dromedary on three successive days. Unfortunately, as to the restaurant we eventually hit, the less said the better.
On Saturday morning, Miguel arranged a group pass for those interested in attending the Iberian Fereria Liber (literally, "Book Fair," roughly our Book Expo America, though on the scale of a regional booksellers convention like NEBA or SEBA in the USA). I'd been published in Spanish already, but that house went bankrupt (cause and effect NOT implied). Thanks to Miguel's efforts, I met with representatives of a dozen Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese publishers. One of the many benefits of AIEP membership is the possibility of such opportunities, though we'll have to see if any of these contacts result in foreign sales.
After a lovely lunch at an outdoor cafe, we moved to the Caixa Forum to hold a group discussion on the priorities I should address during my remaining two years of as AIEP's worldwide president. The consensus was to focus on our webpage and translations of our members' works into English (in addition to Fanny's breakthrough, mentioned earlier, Bob Mendes [of Flanders], as well as Carmen, Miguel, and Chris have had short stories published in the states during the last two years).
On our way back to the hotel, we were serendipitously treated to one of Barcelona's great, though more recent, traditions: the Magic Fountains. On a long, broad expanse in front of a majestic government building, computer-directed fountains illuminated in varying colors shot a hundred feet into the air, accompanied by equally majestic music (the movie scores of John Williams seemed favorites, but my vote went to the perverse playing, during a "water" show, of the signature theme from James Cameron's TITANIC).
Back at the Rivoli, our farewell banquet was held in a magnificent third-floor ballroom. Both Lawrence Block (of the USA) and Nina King (the retired editor of the Washington Post's BOOKWORLD) were able to join us. After [mercifully] short toasts, and our thanks to Miguel for all his efforts, we repaired to the bar, where Peter Chambers, who played jazz piano professionally for decades, treated us to the best rendition I've ever heard of one of my favorite songs, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME.
Most of us left the next day. As always, the best part of the conference was meeting with writers from other countries and becoming informed about their situations, often more threatened than our own. One of the major purposes of AIEP is to promote and protect writers in every country from censorship and governmental oppression, and it is in convening each year that I think that purpose is best served.