Possibly there has been no publisher in the 20th century that has influenced Spanish literature as much as the Galician Francisco Porrúa. His extraordinary catalog as an editor, and even as a translator, has surrounded him with an aura of legend. He was the editor of two works that changed the course of literature: One hundred years of solitude of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar, both in the Sudamericana publishing house. But he was also a pioneer in the publication of the science fiction genre in Spanish, in which he made known in his editorial Minotauro The Lord of the rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, and Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, works that are part of his curriculum as a translator, which includes more than fifty books. “Sometimes I think that One Hundred Years of Solitude it’s like my second surname, because everyone adds it to my name”, he joked in one of the last interviews he gave. Porrúa was a close friend of García Márquez and Cortázar. With the latter he maintained a long correspondence of a hundred letters. He also had a close relationship with Jorge Luis Borges, Doris Lessing or the Tolkien family.
The slow decline of the Filmoteca de Galicia
Born in Corcubión, on the Costa da Morte, in 1922, raised in Argentina and died in Barcelona in 2014, this October marks the centenary of his death, but judging by the null reviews that exist about this commemoration, the work of this historic publisher seems to have fallen into oblivion. Neither his hometown, where a street was dedicated to him years ago, nor the Xunta de Galicia nor the Ministry of Culture have paid even the slightest tribute to remember this man, considered a key figure in the development of the so-called boom of Hispano-American literature, the movement that in the middle of the 20th century revolutionized letters in Spanish. Porrúa’s eventful life trajectory and his life as an editor are a mixture of intuition, perseverance and large doses of chance.
“Porrúa is a publishing giant, an indisputable number one”, affirms the editor and gallery owner from A Coruña, Rocío Santa Cruz, who dealt with him frequently in his last years of life. “He did not like to talk about himself as a notable figure, he denied interviews, he was a misanthrope who ran away from people and was very critical of everything,” adds Santa Cruz, who managed to maintain a fluid relationship with him due to their common friendship with another Galician, Aurora Bernárdez, translator and first wife of Julio Cortázar. Porrúa refused several times to receive the editor: “Until I told him that my family was also from Corcubión and he was amused.”
“There are no celebrations of his centenary because perhaps there is still no real awareness of the dimension of this extraordinary publisher,” says the writer Francisco Fernández Naval, who spoke with him shortly before his death at his home in Barcelona. Fernández Naval was then preparing his book The Galician dream of Julio Cortázar (Publisher Linteo, 2014).
He had arrived in the Catalan capital in 1977, moving away sad from a shady Buenos Aires where the military dictatorship had murdered and ordered the disappearance of several of his friends, in addition to having censored several of the texts of Sudamericana, something that he considered “unacceptable”.
Two years after being born in Corcubión, Porrúa had to change Galicia for Argentine Patagonia. His father, a merchant marine, requested a posting on land and was sent to the city of Comodoro Ribadavia, where Porrúa grew up. An illness of his mother caused a temporary return to Galicia in the years before the Civil War, but the family returned to Argentina. In Buenos Aires he studied Philosophy and Letters and began to forge the legend of him as an editor, especially as literary director of the mythical Editorial Sudamericana, associated with the literary magazine Sur and which had had as promoters, among others, Victoria Ocampo and Jorge Luis Borges. In it, he left his mark on the catalog between 1960 and 1972. “Editing such a number of relevant books, with that intelligence of choosing each title, is something unique,” said his friend Marcial Souto, writer and prestigious translator, in a colloquium on Porrúa. born in A Coruña, who knew the legendary editor closely. “He had a very good eye for books and an extraordinary editorial nose,” explains Fernández Naval, who remembers him as “imposing, very cultured but quite reserved.”
However, Paco Porrúa stated in several interviews, especially those conducted in the most important newspapers in Latin America, that chance was always very present in his editorial successes. “The books that I have edited with the greatest pleasure are the ones that themselves decided to come into my hands,” he explained in one of these conversations.
Chance played its part in the publication of One hundred years of solitude, the work that consecrated García Márquez as a writer and elevated Porrúa as a reference editor in Sudamericana, in 1967. He discovered the Colombian in a collective book and decided to write to him to ask for the rights to what he had published until then, three novels that until now At that time they had not enjoyed much recognition. “Gabo knew Sudamericana, but he didn’t know who I was. He told me that he had pledged the rights to those books, but that he was writing a new book and he offered it to me.” It was One hundred years of solitude the Galician editor told the newspaper The viewer from Colombia in 1997 about the work that changed the fate of this writer who would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. “I received the book and decided to publish it in the first paragraph. Any sensible editor would have understood that he was facing an exceptional work”, the editor recalled in another interview.
The print runs of the books were at that time between 3,000 and 5,000 copies, but Porrúa trusted the work so much that he proposed an initial print run of 8,000. Gabo proposed to reduce the amount, which he considered excessive, but the persevering editor continued with his plan. They would end up printing 67,000 books in a year and he ended up shipping around half a million in three years. “That was tremendous, it was almost a perpetual reissue and it was everywhere. The women went to the market and carried among the vegetables a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitudesaid Porrúa at the time.
“The good books he edited were a mixture of chance and intuition, but always with a good nose for business,” explained his friend Marcial Souto in a meeting about the figure of Porrúa. Part of that intuition and his intelligent strategy as an editor is condensed in the publication of Hopscotchby Julio Cortázar, another key work of the boom of Latin American literature. With Cortázar and with his first wife, the Galician translator Aurora Bernárdez, he had a great friendship. Aurora would visit Porrúa until her last days and with Cortázar she maintained an intense epistolary relationship of more than a hundred letters. “I met Aurora in Paris and discovered the legacy of Cortázar’s photos and his relationship with Galicia. Paco Porrúa was in them, of course, and that’s why he started to interest me a lot, until I met him”, explains Rocío Santa Cruz, architect of convincing Aurora Bernárdez to deposit this splendid legacy, in the years of the bipartisan PSdeG and BNG at the head of the Xunta, at the Centro Galego das Artes da Imaxe (CGAI), where it languishes after a first presentation exhibition. “Paco always said that he was a Galician without say goodbye, but at the minimum he was talking about the sea of Corcubión and remembering the silhouette of Mount Pindo”, recalls Santa Cruz about this editor, who returned many summers to his hometown.
In Cortázar’s long epistolary relationship with Porrúa, the keys to the edition of Hopscotch, a risky and innovative work, which offers the reader the possibility of a discontinuous reading, jumping from one point to another. “It is an atomic bomb for South American literature”, Cortázar anticipates in one of the letters he writes to him. “Sudamericana was not a publisher suitable for Hopscotch but, sometimes, the introduction of a work that may seem foreign to the catalog changes its character”, the editor explained years later about this decision. That is another of Porrúa’s obsessions, the construction of “a catalog”, the set of works that define an editor.
Years before entering Sudamericana, Porrúa set up with his brothers in 1955, his own publishing adventure, Editorial Minotauro, with the intention of building his own catalog, in parallel with his work in Sudamericana. His own project consecrated him to an emerging genre: science fiction. “I was on the left and read the modern times, the newspaper directed by Sartre. There I read the term science-fiction for the first time and it interested me a lot, ”explained Porrúa in one of the few interviews with him. Decides to buy the rights to Martian Chronicles Y Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which he himself translates into Spanish under the pseudonym Francisco Abelenda, one of the various names he uses “so that it doesn’t seem like one person does everything.” It was the beginning of many books, building from scratch a catalog of names that impress, pioneering, once again, the path of the historical novel: Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnengut, or Marguerite Yourcenar.
In the 1970s, chance again, mixed with literary flair, led him to what would be another of his great literary successes: the publication in Spanish in Minotauro of The Lord of the rings, the popular work of JRR Tolkien. Porrúa knew that Tolkien was a cult writer in the Anglo-Saxon world. In 1954 he had published the book, but in 1971, 16 years later, no one had yet translated it into Spanish. Porrúa was interested in the situation of rights. “I called and they told me that the publishing house that had them went bankrupt and they had been released just 10 minutes ago,” he recounted with grace in one of his interviews. With hardly any publicity, the book sold 40,000 copies in 15 days, and it is estimated that the complete trilogy reached three million copies between 1977 and 2001.
Just a week before the premiere in Spain of the first of the films in the saga, in 2001, Porrúa decided to get rid of Minotauro and sell it to Planeta with the aim of facing the final stretch of his life without financial burdens. It was the sale, above all, of his soul, of what Porrúa appreciated most about the editor’s job: his catalogue. “This office must be anonymous because an editor is nothing more than his catalogue. The publisher dies and there is nothing left but his published books”, he sentenced in the final stretch of his life.