Spain’s version of Elena Ferrante has been revealed to be three middle-aged men.
Late on Friday night the €1m Planeta prize — the world’s highest paying literary trophy — was awarded to Carmen Mola, an author who until now has been presented as a female university professor who writes under a pen name because of her desire for anonymity.
Although Mola’s books are decidedly gory, the writer has been publicised as the “Spanish Elena Ferrante” — a reference to the reclusive, and also pseudonymous, Italian literary novelist.
But when the main prize at the Planeta awards ceremony was announced in the presence of King Felipe VI in Barcelona, three people stepped up to the podium — and none of them was a woman.
Neither Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez nor Antonio Mercero are academics, but in fact television scriptwriters in their 40s and 50s who have worked on Spanish shows such as On Duty Pharmacy, Central Hospital and No Heaven Without Breasts.
Their story could barely be more different from past examples such as Mary Ann Evans, the 19th century English author who wrote as “George Eliot” to protect her privacy and avoid being stereotyped as a female light novelist.
“Carmen Mola is not, like all the lies we’ve been telling, a university professor,” said Díaz on winning the prize. “We are three friends who one day four years ago decided to combine our talent to tell a story.”
Martínez suggested in an interview with Spain’s EFE news agency that the authors chose to write under one name because “collective work is not as valued in literature [as in] other arts such as painting or music”.
In retrospect Planeta tipped its hand to more than one person winning the prize on Thursday, when it announced the main award would be increased from €600,000 to €1m, so outstripping the Nobel Prize for literature, which at current exchange rates is worth just over €100 less, at 10m Swedish krona. Each of the authors will take away a third of the €1m total.
Carmen Mola is best known for a trilogy of violent novels starring police inspector Elena Blanco, a hard-charging police inspector with a fondness for karaoke, grappa and casual sex. The books, published by Penguin Random House, have sold more than 200,000 copies, been translated into 11 languages and are being adapted for television by Endemol Shine and ViacomCBS International Studios.
But the Carmen Mola book that won the Planeta prize — beating 653 other contenders — is a historical thriller, The Beast, dealing with the murder of children during a cholera epidemic in Madrid in 1834.
The prize is also a way of securing and publicising works of fiction for Editorial Planeta, Penguin Random House’s great rival in Spain. The award is reserved for unpublished work, and the winner’s acceptance of Planeta’s publishing rights is a condition of entry. The conditions also state that all pseudonymous authors must include their details in a sealed envelope, which will only be opened in the event that they win.
In the case of Friday’s win, as the prize’s organisers said, there was a “pseudonym behind a pseudonym”, since The Beast was submitted under the pen-name Sergio López, which was then revealed to be Carmen Mola, and subsequently unveiled as Díaz, Martínez and Mercero.
The book is due to be published by Planeta under Carmen Mola’s name next month, although Mola is still listed as a Penguin Random House author.