How to succeed doing nothing

Michi Panero grew up in a literary family, but the Spaniard never published a word.

by Guido De Franceschi

Culture 13 May 2021

I’ve had a good time, and once, I almost met Michi Panero And that’s much more than you’d ever dream of doing in a thousand lives. – Nacho Vegas, The Man Who Almost Met Michi Panero

Michi Panero is a legend. In Spain, and beyond. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason for the ongoing cult surrounding him, which has been quietly handed down for generations, because Michi, in essence, has never done anything. His most cursory biographies call him a “writer,” although he was not a writer. Or rather, Michi was a writer without any work. And, at most, he was a relative of writers. Yet, as time has passed, now that the Paneros are all dead, he is the one who appears, in people’s memories, as the brightest and most captivating star of the entire lineage.

Although he grew up in a Spanish family embraced by literature, nourished by literature, deceived by literature, crushed by literature and in the end, to an extent exterminated by literature, in a family that in literature had found all the reasons for its greatness, and that in literature had found all the excuses for its crookedness, inadequacies and vices, Michi Panero never wrote anything. Not a single line.

His father, Leopoldo Panero (1909–1962), had been the official poet of the Francoist regime. His mother, Felicidad Blanc (1913–1990), was the author of short stories and an excellent autobiography. His older brother, Juan Luis (1942–2013), was, in turn, an acclaimed and mindful poet. The other brother, Leopoldo María (1948–2014), was an even greater poet than Juan Luis and was included, when he was only 22, in the seminal anthology Nueve novísimos poetas españoles. But Michi (1951–2004), the third and last son of Leopoldo and Felicidad, never wrote anything.

Michi read a lot—really a lot. In his childhood, he frequented the most influential Spanish writers of his generation, Javier Marías and Enrique Vila-Matas, and won them over with his intelligence and the brilliance with which he expressed it. Everyone instinctively considered him a writer and a poet, almost as if by osmosis with his family and friends. And yet, no, he never wrote anything, not even a single line, except for the columns he wrote as a TV critic for some Spanish newspapers in a clumsy attempt to curb his catastrophic financial collapse, and—if confined within their real scope, that of brilliant but unripe literary embryos—a few visionary insights that he had scribbled in his teens and which were published posthumously as trouvailles.

The enduring literary fascination for the Panero family’s saga, however, is mostly due to Michi. To he, who confided his thoughts not to carefully crafted verses, but to chance encounters in Madrid’s bars. To he, who had preferred not to express on paper all the talent as a writer and poet that whirled in his head or who perhaps had simply failed to get this talent out of his head. To he, who died before his time without anyone having listened to him for years. To hei, who had often spoken of wanting to write at least a book of memories, but who then went no further than its table of contents. To he, whose main occupation was, in his words, “escaping the unfortunate responsibility of being the youngest of the Brontë sisters.”

The Panero’s celebrity started with El Desencanto. In the 1976 film (nowadays we would call it docufiction) the widow and the three sons of patriarch Leopoldo publicly exposed all the plight of their family and, along with it, all the plight of Spain, and of the Spanish Family that dictator Francisco Franco, who had died just a few months before, had made the cornerstone of his regime. El Desencanto is still a compelling film and is still capable of generating obsessions, like the one that in 2019 led the American writer Aaron Shulman to spread the Panero’s contagion to the Anglo-Saxon world through his monumental, remarkable essay, The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War. And, as in the film El Desencanto and its sequel Después de Tantos Años (1994), Shulman’s book focuses all the fascination of the Panero family’s story on the figure of Michi because the fascination of that story lies in its failure and it is in him that failure finds its purest expression.

Michi’s father was an alcoholic, but he was also a great poet, even though he had to walk a tightrope between genuine inspiration and a distasteful homage to the regime. His mother was an unhappy wife and an unresolved woman, but she was also a good writer, albeit squeezed into the role of an amateur writer by her role as the wife of the poet laureate in the mephitic atmosphere of Francoism. Her brother, Juan Luis, was an alcoholic, but he also wrote brilliant verses, although his literary talent was tarnished by his perverse inclination to pose, without any self-irony, as a great poet. His brother Leopoldo María was an alcoholic and drug addict and spent most of his life in psychiatric hospitals, but he was also a great poet, although his conscious role as an “officially insane poet” made him a bit tedious in the long run. Michi, who also had a good time every night in Madrid in the ‘70s and ‘80s, drinking more than his father and brothers put together, was nothing more than that and did not impinge upon the purity of his vocation to disaster by trying to be an artist as well. No, Michi was perhaps too shy or perhaps too modest to be yet another poète maudit. Like his brothers and a thousand others, Michi did not allow himself to be a poet as well as a maudit, he did not give in to the temptation to try to be something else besides a professional loser nor to contraband his existential defeat as artistic romanticism. Michi preferred not to do anything other than shine and sink. And so, instead of producing literature, he became literature, as the protagonist of memoirs (El Desconcierto by Javier Mendoza), novels (Los últimos días de Michi Panero by Miguel Barrero) and one of the most intense songs of all time (El hombre que casi conoció a Michi Panero by Nacho Vegas).

It is difficult to identify the profound reason for the widespread mystery cult celebrated by the devotees of Michi Panero, given that collective obsessions are nothing more than the convergence and summation of many private obsessions. One can only make an assumption. Handsome, tormented, fascinating, self-destructive, a fierce critic of any vulgarity, of any clumsy phrase, of any unsuccessful verse, a self-styled involuntary victim of any misfortune, ironic, seductive, Michi, too, always had, like his father, like his mother, like his brothers, like all of us, a strong urge to give in to temptation, and to try to do something else, to be something other than the wonderful shipwreck he felt he was and that others saw in him. But while even the most eccentric among the other protagonists of Madrid’s movida of those years, even though they often burned all their attempts at activity in alcohol and heroin and even though they often died very young, tried to do something, whether it was a prostitute or a pusher, Michi, never did anything. He probably wished with all his heart to stain, with any attempt to be anything other than a castaway, the spotlessness of his position as a professional loser. But then he didn’t succeed. He planned some things. He even married twice. But he didn’t succeed.

Michi sank, without even clutching a scrap of a lifeboat in his hands. And without even leaving a message in any bottle (on the other hand, he said: “there is no manuscript within the bottle; there is only liquid.”). Michi remained like that: a total loser, a miraculously pure loser. For him, this was probably the reason for an unhappiness that could not be conceived any greater. For all the others, for those of us who, once, almost met Michi (or at least dreamt that we did), this is the very reason for our endless affection for him.

Michi died in the wee hours of the morning while trying to get out of bed. He stopped with one foot out of bed and his body partly up. As an allegory of his life, Michi left this world trying to do something. Just as he had lived, he died. – Mercedes Unzeta Gullón, No hablemos más de Michi