Barcelona is mourning the death of Carmen Balcells, the grande dame of 20th-century Spanish literature, whose agency dominated the Spanish-language literary scene in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. She was a larger than life figure who backed her authors to the hilt and transformed the fortunes of several generations of writers.
In his biography of Gabriel “Gabo” García Márquez, Gerald Martin tells the story of how, after she had read a draft of his early story “La Mama Grande”, she visited the young writer in Mexico City in July 1965. The meeting did not go well. Eager for fame and wealth, García Márquez was unimpressed by the contract she had brought. But he then rallied to his duties as host and after three days of expeditions and parties the writer found his very own Mama Grande— and not long afterwards into his head floated the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel that would ignite the Latin American boom. Thereafter, Carmen did deal after deal for Gabo, and then for Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes, and many more of the best Latin American and Spanish writers of the time, including Nobel Laureates Miguel Ángel Asturias and Pablo Neruda.
She was renowned for tough bargaining, insisting on time-limited and fair contracts, good royalties and keeping back the translation rights (a novelty at the time), which she then sold expertly around the world. This work of championing and cherishing her clients carried over to succeeding generations of writers, including Isabel Allende and Javier Cercas, and to succeeding generations of agents.
According to Cercas, “what she did was to create a new thing that had not existed in Spain before—the literary agent—and this started a revolution. As a result, the Spanish-language novel recovered a central position in Western literature that it had not held for centuries. It is impossible to imagine the boom without her. For example, Vargas Llosa was able to become a professional writer because of her, and the younger generation, even those not represented by her, benefited because other agents sprang up, almost all women (some of whom had worked with her), who followed the standards set by her contracts.”
My own experience when working with Martin on his substantial biography of García Márquez was, I suspect, typical. The idea was welcomed by Carmen and all assistance with permissions and contacts a publisher might need was provided, but as the publication date neared and understandable anxieties arose within the author’s circle, Carmen, having decided that this was a good book, and one which would benefit her client, did everything in her power to ease its passage into the world, while simultaneously standing stoutly by her celebrated client and enjoying the drama of the situation.
Martin, who knew her well, said: “I interviewed 400 people for the biography, many of them extraordinary, but my top trio would be Gabo himself, Fidel Castro and Carmen Balcells. Every interview with her was an unforgettable drama. With her death, something utterly irreplaceable has departed the literary world.”