Don't look back!

Andrew Hussey on the tales of medieval Moors preoccupying Spanish readers

Most Spaniards would agree that, as a nation, they have never been big readers. But over the past ten years, the Spanish book world has undergone a revolution. Crisol and Fnac, the country's versions of Borders or Waterstone's, have made shopping for books an integral part of the new, metropolitan Spain. For the first time in years, book sales are booming.

But what exactly have your Spanish neighbours been reading on the playa this summer? The chances are that they have been enjoying a meaty historical novel by a living Spanish author. The writers Matilde Asensi, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Julia Navarro and - perhaps the most respected in literary terms - Arturo Pérez-Reverte have between them sold more than 11 million copies in 40 countries. The wave of high postmodernism that defined Spanish culture in the late 20th century, characterised by the films of Pedro Almodóvar and the über-hip novels of Ray Loriga, has been replaced by an appetite for old-fashioned, if entertaining, hokum.

One of the most controversial members of this new literary generation is 36-year-old Javier Sierra, the slick host of a television show devoted to the paranormal on the Telemadrid channel. In 2006, Sierra became the first Spaniard to reach the New York Times bestseller list with his novel La Cena Secreta (The Secret Supper) - a Da Vinci Code-style thriller about Jesus, Renaissance mysteries and a 21st-century police investigation. A new edition of Sierra's La Dama Azul (The Lady in Blue), a tale of visions of the Virgin in New Mexico, will be published simultaneously in the US and the Spanish-speaking world in 2008.

In the pages of El Mundo, the critic Isabel Pisano has pointed out that much of Sierra's career has been stage-managed "in the Anglo-Saxon manner" by literary agents and greedy publishers. But this still doesn't explain the demand in Spain for these novels. In El País, the literary journalist Winston Manrique Sabogal offers a simple explanation - that the Spanish historical bestseller relates history to a nation that traditionally prefers mystery to facts. The philosopher Juan José Tamayo has gone a step further, pointing out that, because the Church in Spain has always played tricks with the truth, contemporary readers trust writers more than they do the official guardians of historical reality.

"Novels reflect their era," says Manrique Sabogal, "and these books are no exception." In particular, the focus of many of them on medieval Islamic Spain is a way of addressing the taboos concerning the Muslim presence in Spanish culture and the fear of the "Moor". These anxieties have been visibly heightened across Spain since the Madrid bombings.

Most importantly, while these historical novels may offer fantasy and thrills, they are, in touching on such difficult subjects, a long way from mere comfort-reading. The popularity of Sierra and his peers clearly suggests that, in 21st-century Spain, the way forward is also the way back.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?