Archive for July, 2016

The Buenos Aires Affair

July 28, 2016

buenos aires affair

Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine) proclaims in its subtitle that it is a ‘detective novel’ but it is unlike any other detective novel you will read. It begins in typical fashion when the mother of Gladys Hebe D’Onoforio discovers she is missing:

“Without hesitation Clara opened the bedroom door, the bed was in disorder and Gladys had disappeared. But surely she must have left a message, a few lines saying she had gone out to look at the sea?”

Even the second chapter may seem appropriate to the genre, though its format – a one paragraph description of a room with a man and woman in it– is a little unusual. We can, however, infer that the woman is Gladys:

“The woman’s skin is very white, the gag in her mouth has been improvised by a man’s silk handkerchief, multi-coloured but sober, her hands fastened behind her with a morning tie.”

Even the fact that each chapter begins with a quotation from a movie of the 1930s or 40s (the Hollywood glamour of the period contrasting with the seediness of the situation described) may not seem too strange. In Chapter III, however, we retreat from the ‘crime’ completely with a summary of Gladys’ life. Once again, the style of narrative changes, as it will do throughout the novel, Puig adopting the emotionless tone of a psychiatric report – particularly with its focus on Gladys’ sex life (“Sexually there were three important episodes during her prolonged adolescence”). The chapter ends with a numbered list of sexual partners, before going on to provide further detail: we discover a woman who did not have her first sexual experience until late in life and has since struggled to develop relationships, a result of low confidence and problems with her ‘nerves’:

“…during that winter the situation got worse, the lack of sleep produced growing headaches and she had to increase the dosage of tranquilizers, though the quantity necessary to make her rest the whole night made her sleepy for the rest of the day…”

We become even more intimate with Gladys in the next chapter as we return to the night she went missing in a description of her attempts to masturbate (complete with foot-notes) which echoes the final chapter of Ulysses, her fantasies originating from the real-life encounters of the previous chapter.

Having established the character of the victim, Puig moves on to the suspect, Leo Druscovich. A similar summary of his life reveals that Gladys’ sexual dissatisfaction is nothing compared to Leo’s tortured sexual longings. Leo can only be aroused if he feels he is being resisted, as he discovers with a class-mate, Susana:

“The girl did not offer any resistance, Leo penetrated her without difficulty. Suddenly his erection subsided and despite all his attempts it was impossible to complete the act that afternoon.”

All the pieces are now in place for the relationship between Gladys and Leo (which we will discover in an interview with Gladys for a fashion magazine) and the ‘crime’ with which the novel opens, ‘pieces’ being the appropriate metaphor as the novel is presented as a jigsaw which the reader must put together. The Buenos Aries affair is a detective novel where the reader is the detective, and the clues are the various texts which make up each chapter, including a CV, a transcription of Leo’s speech to a psychiatrist, extracts from a newspaper, a list of Leo’s imaginary actions while suffering from insomnia… Puig is particularly adept at telephone conversations where we hear only one side of the dialogue, the gaps once again stressing the reader’s role in creating the narrative.

Part of the plot revolves around Gladys’ (mediocre) career as a sculptor, awarded a prestigious role by Leo (an art critic) as a result of their relationship. This may be a knowing satire of the Argentinian art world, but Puig seems more interested in his characters’ sexual inadequacies and in the playful range of styles he utilises to display them. Both reach a climax when, during a final confrontation, Puig chooses to illustrate each moment of the action with elaborate images from opera:

“Sensations experienced by Leo upon taking of his towel and looking at Gladys – Siegfried, overwhelmed by a blind impulse, tries to embrace her. But she slips out of his arms. She has been a goddess and no man has ever touched her. She does not know that the kiss has transformed her into a mere woman…”

The Buenos Aires Affair is a kaleidoscope of a novel – at each turn we encounter a new style, a different perspective. This can, at times, be jarring, but it can also leave the reader spellbound with wonder. Beneath the theatrical presentation lies a surprising psychological depth.

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The Young Bride

July 25, 2016

young bride

Alessandro Baricco first found fame with his novel Silk, published in 1996, translated into English a year later, and made into a film in 2007. Since then his work has regularly appeared in English, generally, but not exclusively, translated by Ann Goldstein. Baricco is a restless writer, difficult to pin down to a particular style or subject. (This might partly explain the number of publishers: he is now in the safe hands of Europa Editions). The historical setting of Silk is replicated in a number of his novels, from his retelling of the Iliad in the voices of its protagonists in An Iliad to the Victorian setting of Lands of Glass, but other novels such as Emmaus and Mr Gwyn, have a more contemporary setting. They also vary widely in length: Silk and Without Blood are little more than long short stories. What they perhaps share is a sense of the story being more important than the reality created around it – in other words there is something of the fable about them – and this can be seen clearly in The Young Bride.

It has a historical setting but one which is vague and undefined. Its characters are known only by their label – the young Bride, the Father, the Mother, the Son – with only their servant, Modesto, granted a name, albeit one which refers to his primary quality. The family have a strict routine which begins when Modesto wakens them with a weather report, and continues with a lengthy breakfast:

“The usual practice keeps them at the table for hours, crossing over into the zone of lunch (which in fact in this house no one ever gets round to), as in an Italian imitation of the more stylish ‘brunch’.”

This routine is disrupted when the young Bride appears (“She wasn’t expected that day, or maybe she was, but they had forgotten about it”), promised to the Son in marriage three years earlier, now eighteen, the age at which it was agreed they would marry. In the meantime, however, the Son has been sent to England to study the textile industry, and needs to be summoned by telegram.

The novel, then, is set up very much like a 19th century novel (I couldn’t help thinking, for example, of The House of Ulloa) where a stranger (acting as the eyes of the reader) is introduced to the household of an eccentric and isolated family, the primary concern being marriage. Two aspects, however, make it very clear that this is a contemporary rendering of an old tale: one is the sexual awakening of the young Bride; the other the self-reflexive commentary by the writer (not Baricco, but a character he has created) on the process of writing. The novel also has an unusual style where it drifts into first person at points in the story, frequently, but not only, with the young Bride:

“…writing about the young Bride, I more or less abruptly change the narrative voice, for reasons that at the moment seem to me exquisitely technical, or at most blandly aesthetic, with the obvious result of complicating the life of the reader; that in itself is negligible, yet it has an irritating effect of virtuosity that at first I even tried to fight, before surrendering to the evidence that I simply couldn’t hear those sentences unless they slipped out that way…”

The writer, though female, is not the young Bride looking back on he life When she reflects on being that age she remembers “only a great confusion but also… the waste of an unprecedented and unused beauty,” whereas the story of the young Bride is very much about learning to use her beauty.

Her grandmother tells her at a young age that her beauty is a danger to her:

“Forget that you’re a woman, don’t dress like a woman, don’t move like a woman, cut your hair, don’t look at yourself in the mirror, ruin your hands, burn your skin, don’t ever wish to be beautiful, don’t try to please anyone, you mustn’t please even yourself. You have to inspire disgust, and then they’ll leave you alone…”

It is only when she arrives as the young Bride that she allows herself to feel like a woman again, encouraged by, first of all, the Daughter, who teaches her to masturbate. This is followed by a sexual encounter with the Mother, who herself possesses beauty of great power – an index of the ‘incidents’ it has caused follows. (The Father limits his input to taking her to a brothel). As its title suggests, the novel is also an erotic story (when the writer is asked what attracts her to writing about sex, she replies, “That it’s difficult”) where sex is seen as a liberating force.

The contemporary female writer telling the story of a young woman’s coming of age set in a now-distant past couldn’t help but remind me of Elena Ferrante, but what we have is in fact a riposte to Ferrante’s work:

“I’ve never though the job of writing could be resolved by wrapping one’s own affairs up in a literary package, employing the painful stratagem of changing the names and sometimes the sequence of events when, instead, the more proper sense of what we can do has always seemed to me to put between our life and what we write a magnificent distance that, produced first by the imagination, then filled in by craft and dedication, carries us to a place where worlds, non-existent before, appear.”

This is what gives The Young Bride its fable-like quality, its refusal to entirely imitate reality, moving in single sentence from the everyday detail to the echo of a dream. It is both enticing and elusive at the same time, leaving the reader seduced but also teased, delivering a series of climaxes but never satisfying. As it says at the end:

“The young Bride knew the answer with absolute precision but she kept it to herself.
“Here I ask the questions, she said.”

Umami

July 21, 2016

umami

Umami, if (like me) you didn’t know, is a flavour:

“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s Umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”

So explains Alfonso, an anthropologist who has spent his life studying diet, and owner of Belldrop Mews, the setting of Laia Jufresa’s novel, which he has divided into houses each named after one of the five flavours. That the novel bears the name of a difficult to identify taste seems appropriate as what we experience with umami on the palate, it achieves tonally. Written with a deceptive lightness, and some humour, it is, at heart, about grief and loss.

Alfonso is among those who lose someone close to them (his wife, Noelia) but the death which resonates through the novel most powerfully is that of a child, Luz. Her sister, Ana, makes a comparison between Alfonso’s grief and her mother’s:

“He carries his grief better than my mom. He doesn’t act like a ghost, or go totally nuts over songs. At least not in front of me he doesn’t.”

Alonso also makes the comparison:

“…in the same year my wife died, aged fifty-five, so did the five-year-old daughter of my tenants. Noelia’s death seemed almost reasonable compared to Luz’s, which was so incomprehensible, so unfair. But death is never fair, nor is fifty-five old.”

We know what both Ana and Alfonso think as this is a novel of many voices scattered across time. The novel itself doesn’t quite “tell it backwards” as the quote from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Last Post suggests, but each of four sections do, beginning in 2004 and retreating towards 2000, the year before the deaths took place. This has the effect of focusing on the grieving process before exploring the causes; the novel is concerned with the living rather than the dead. (Jufresa has said that the five year time period leads us towards the end of grief, and that the structure reflects the waves of grief as those who have lost someone return to the same memories again and again).

Other characters in the novel have also suffered losses, for example Ana’s best friend, Pina. Her mother left her without warning and she has heard nothing from her since. In Marina’s case (the occupier of ‘Bitter’), the separation is voluntary:

“It was the first time she’d left her parents’ home, where she’d lived all nineteen years of her life… She didn’t want her family to know where she was, not yet, so she mustered all her charm and said she found the house names to be very original…”

Marina, however, struggles to escape her past: in and out of therapy, and hospitalised at one point as the result of an eating disorder. An artists who is unable to paint, she instead names the colours she finds around her:

“…a hard, futuristic light appears, as pristine as the pills she takes. This one, she decides, is called whozac.”

As the novel opens in 2004 Ana is intent on creating her own garden: “A proper, traditional milpa, with corn and beans and squash.” The project suggests a renewal of life, but one which is connected to the past. The novel’s structure prevents this becoming the predictable culmination of an obvious story arc, emphasising that the grief will never entirely disappear, but demonstrating why the novel does not appear gloomy or depressing despite its subject matter. This optimistic tone is also created by the wonderful chorus of voices which Jufresa has created – not only unique to each of the five characters which narrate, but also changing according to the year. (This is, of course, particularly true of Ana who develops from a child to a young adult in this time). In this she is ably supported by translator Sophie Hughes.

Umami is an extremely accomplished first novel which tackles it subject in a way that is neither sentimental nor despondent. In it we enter a community in troubled times, and leave feeling, perhaps more hopeful, but certainly more human.

The She-Devil in the Mirror

July 18, 2016

she devil

Horacio Castellanos Moya is a Salvadorian novelist who has had a number of his novels translated into English (with Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador due out next month) and published by New Directions in the US; only one has so far made to the UK, The She-Devil in the Mirror, which was released in 2010 by Alma Books in the same translation by Katherine Silver which had appeared across the Atlantic the year before. It’s impossible to say whether this is typical of Moya’s work as he has made it clear (here) he feels a writer’s style should change according to his subject:

“I think the one who most influenced my idea of literature was Elias Canetti, with his conception of the writer as a “custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has to be able to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are. And so it is that, in my case, every novel has its own stylistic requirements born out of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.”

The She-Devil in the Mirror certainly has a particular style, both in terms of its structure and voice. In some ways a murder mystery, it is presented as a series of monologues from the victim, Olga Maria’s, friend, Laura Riveria. Laura is not ‘investigating’ the crime; she is inquisitive in a gossipy way, her breathless narration a series of confidences liberally interspersed with opinion.

Laura is there from the moment she hears of Olga’s death – literally there, as she rushes to the scene:

“But there was her body, stretched out on the living-room rug next to the sofa in a pool of blood, covered in a white sheet. I knelt down and lifted the edge of the sheet: the hole in her head was small, but all the brains had poured out the back. Oh, my dear, I felt horrible – I even felt like vomiting.”

Laura’s murder, originally classed as a robbery gone wrong, soon seems more suspicious, particularly when we discover “they didn’t steal anything, they didn’t even try to.” Laura, however, part of the country’s wealthy elite, is reluctant to help with the police investigation:

“I’m not just some nobody, they couldn’t mess with me, they’d better be very careful and show more respect or they’d soon find out who they were dealing with.”

When asked about Olga (any enemies? any extra-marital relationships?) she explodes: “how could he suspect such an honest, honourable woman, someone so devoted to her family and her work, what a scandalous insinuation.” Unwilling to talk to the police, Laura soon reveals to the reader that Olga was not, in fact, averse to an extra-marital relationship, first with a colleague of her husband’s, Julio Iglesias, and then with a photographer, Jose Carlos:

“There it was again, that gleam in her eyes I was telling you about, that same gleam I saw when we were at the American School, that she got whenever she’d start to get interested in a class-mate, the same gleam I saw with that Julio Iglesias.”

It’s her affair with an old friend, Yuca, now an important politician, that is the most likely to have placed her in danger, however.

The She-Devil in the Mirror works surprisingly well as a mystery, despite its narrator showing more interest in ensuring she has the latest gossip than in searching for the truth, upset when the police discover something she thinks only she knows or (worse) she doesn’t. Her indiscretions, though, are as revealing as any investigation, made all the more amusing by her self-absorbed, faux-emotional style. Both Laura and Olga’s unpleasantness are slowly uncovered, Laura happily sleeping with Olga’s ex-lovers while hypocritically mourning her to be sure of knowing what’s going on:

“A moment later we were at it again, hard and fast, there in the hammock, but more intensely, as if remembering Olga Maria had injected us with renewed passion, something delicious, something I’ve never felt before.”

Rather than being an unreliable narrator, Laura is a too reliable narrator, over-sharing whenever she can.

As the title suggests, there is a vanity to her, accompanied with an inability to see herself as she is, that reflects the society around her. This world of illusions is mirrored in the collapse of the fraudulent financial scheme her husband has been selling. The She-Devil in the Mirror is a brilliant example of how flexible the crime genre can be, working here as both a first-person character assassination and a political satire, while still containing the tension of a thriller.

Affections

July 16, 2016

affections

What motivates writers to borrow their stories from reality? Perhaps a need to understand a particular person or event; sometimes simply the pleasure of recreation, to novelise hostory; and on other occasions, to provide the anchor for formal daring, in the same way that landscape once allowed painters the licence to look beyond the photographic towards the impressionistic. Rodrigo Hasbun’s second novel, Affections (the first to be translated into English, by Sophie Hughes) falls into the latter category. Its ‘real-life’ character is Hans Ertl, a German film-maker who left Germany in 1952 for Bolivia having been too closely associated with the Nazi regime as a war photographer (he also worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Olympia, and was her lover for a while). He continued to film in Bolivia until he lost his most recent work when a bridge collapsed in 1961 and promptly turned to farming instead, living until the year 2000. (For a more detailed account of his life you can read The Last Days of a Nazi-Era Photographer here – in an interesting link to Hasbun’s novel it refers to Ertl as an “unaffectionate” father).

His role as a father is central to the story Hasbun tells: Affections concerns itself largely with Ertl’s family, his wife and three daughters, and, in particular, the eldest, Monika, as her sister, Heidi recognises:

“With her recurring panic attacks, she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters.”

The novel is largely told in the voices of the daughters, in chapters which often address the reader directly, but not each other. Only when we reach Monika’s consciousness are we kept at one person remove:

“You are the motherless daughter who never stops thinking about her father, half of the time hating him profoundly, and the other half admiring and loving him unconditionally.”

Monika’s character is presented in such divided terms from the start:

“On the days when she was in good spirits, I envied my sister’s lightness, her ability to make friends with anyone. I couldn’t understand how her good nature could have such a terrible flipside. It didn’t make sense to me that the sunny and despairing girl were one and the same.”

Monika marries but the marriage is a failure, leading only to a miscarriage and an affair with her brother-in-law:

“I wanted to believe that what happened later wouldn’t have if she had become a mother.”

For Monika has her own Wikipedia entry as a guerrilla fighter (and assassin of an army Colonel). Monika, like her father, is attracted to extremes, though in Bolivia, Ertl had withdrawn from politics, and refuses to help the guerrilla movement when Monika asks him. Such connections with the past are perhaps best seen in Trixi who is offered her first cigarette by her mother when she is twelve, and continues with the habit:

“…to fill Mama’s shoes for the duration of those cigarettes, because it was when I smoked that I was most like her.”

In that same moment of the first cigarette, her mother warns her to be “suspicious of anyone in too much of a hurry”:

“The moment she said this I thought of Papa and maybe Monika too.”

The novel becomes a series of echoes through the generations. This is perhaps why Hasbun almost entirely removes the politics – both from Ertl and Monika. Monika’s motivations remain opaque making her actions seem fated – which, of course, is another reason writers write from reality: there is no escaping the ending, something Ertl realises as he supervises the digging of his own grave.

In discussing his story ‘So Much Water So Far From Home’, Hasbun said, “I think that, ultimately, this is a story about memory, about how we exist in the memories of others and how others (the living and the dead) exist in ours.” This same concern permeates Affections:

“It’s not true our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.”

Affections is a fascinating novel which seems to flicker before the reader’s eyes like a fire, creating as many shadows as it removes.

Quesadillas

July 6, 2016

quesadillas

Last July I finally read Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, the story of a young boy’s privileged but isolated upbringing, his wealth and loneliness the result of his father’s senior position in the Mexican underworld. It quickly became one of my favourite books of the year, and it didn’t take me long to acquire a copy of Villalobos’ second novel to be translated by Rosalind Harvey, Quesadillas – though a little longer (okay, a year) to read it. Quesadillas also has a child narrator – or, at least a teenage one – Orestes (all his siblings also have Greek names) or Oreo. The novel is both a coming-of-age story, in which Oreo seeks to discover his place in the world, and a historical novel, as Villalobos recreates the Mexico of the 1980s from the ground up. Above all, though, it is a meditation on poverty.

The novel may be political satire, but it is political satire of the homelier sort, reflections on the state of the economy being measured in the quesadillas of the title:

“We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.”

Oreo’s father is the political commentator of the family, but this mostly consists in throwing insults at the television. Oreo’s own political awakening occurs when he discovers he is poor. When his twin brothers go missing on a shopping expedition, this realisation overwhelms his ability to either worry or look for them:

“The only thing the search achieved was to prove to me that we were poor, really poor, because in the shop were a shitload of things we’d never bought.”

Later his mother insists they are middle class, “as if one’s socio-economic status were a mental state.” (The Greek names now look like a desperate attempt to establish that middle class identity). As Oreo is coming to realise, class has practical implications, emphasised by the arrival of wealthier neighbours. When offered Maria cookies, their son asks, “Don’t you have any Oreos?” only to receive an angry glance from his mother:

“’Hush, they’re poor,’ her whispered stare seemed to shout.”

Oreo’s brother, Aristotle, insists that the twins were kidnapped by aliens and persuades him to accompany him to a well-known extra-terrestrial hot-spot to search for them (after they have stolen provisions from their neighbours first). On the way they join a pilgrimage, but even the sight of the poorer people around them doesn’t comfort Oreo:

“…the poverty of the pilgrims all around us didn’t modify our own. At the most it left us classified as the least poor of this group of poor people, which merely proved that one could always be poorer and poorer still: being poor was a bottomless well.”

It’s on this journey that Oreo decides not to return home, surviving all the world throws at him until he meets a politician:

“I ran as if I were a stray dog fleeing from the blandishments of the town dog-catcher.”

The second half of the novel retains the same comic tone, but we begin to see the more damaging effects of poverty and, in particular, the powerlessness which results. The neighbours arrange for Oreo to spend a night in the cells to teach him a lesson, and then insist he works for the father (who inseminates cows – perhaps a metaphor for what he will do to Oreo’s family). From a middle-class perspective it may seem that Oreo is being ‘helped’, but he has lost control of his own destiny, and meanwhile his (not entirely legal) home is in danger, and not even his father’s indignation can save it.

Quesadillas is another wonderful novel from Villalobos, honest and angry about the poverty of its narrator, but as far from a misery memoir as you could imagine. Often laugh-out-loud funny, we never feel we are laughing at Oreo but laughing with him, all the way to the novel’s uproarious ending.

No Man’s Land

July 4, 2016

no mans land

Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti is probably the least known of the great Latin American writers of the twentieth century. Mario Vargas Llosa credited him with writing the first modern Latin American novel, a sentiment echoed by Carlos Fuentes who said, on the same topic of modernity:

“That civilization, far from providing happiness or a sense of identity or the discovery of common values, was a new alienation, a more profound fragmentation, a more troublesome loneliness. No one came to see this better or sooner than the great Uruguayan novelist, Juan Carlos Onetti.”

No Man’s Land is Onetti’s second novel, originally published in 1941, and not translated into English (by Peter Bush, Onetti’s main translator) until 1994. The novel begins dramatically with a sudden knocking, and a gun:

“Once more the anguish of wakefulness and all because of three measured knocks on the door. He sat there, shaking his head in the dark. The knocks went bang, bang, bang. His hand felt for the gun butt on the counterpane.”

The weapon in Oscar’s hand is unnecessary: the man knocking at the door, Larsen, is a friend, as far as friendship means anything in Onetti’s world. He comes with a warning: “You know they were out looking for you last night,” offering him a lawyer’s card and the advice he should give himself up. Oscar calls the lawyer, but the phone rings unanswered.

The ringing phone, rather than the gun, is the key prop in both this scene, and in the discounted society Onetti will portray over the course of the novel. The gun, whatever Chekhov says, will soon be forgotten – this is a novel of inaction rather than action. The unanswered phone – which features in short scene of its own revealing that it is within hand’s reach of someone – illustrates the inability of the novel’s characters to communicate, and also something of the effect the novel has on the reader. Onetti may borrow his style – the short, staccato sentences – from hard-boiled pulp fiction, but the tension which they build is never released. Larson, Oscar and Aranzuru (the lawyer) will reappear, part of the novel’s rotating cast of characters, but the plotline which has seemingly been set in motion will simply ring out.

Though Larsen will reappear in later Onetti’s novels (The Shipyard and Body Snatcher), Aranzuru is the closest we have to a main character in No Man’s Land. Like so many of Onetti’s characters, he drifts through life, unshackled but aimless (The onset of the Second World War in the background, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact in particular, add further to the sense of life’s meaninglessness):

“He felt that man’s friendship with the earth was at an end. What were they to him, the colours in the sky, the stunted city trees, the shadowy crowds and odd solitary window lit up in the night? What were they to him, the things that make up life, thousands of them creating life itself, like words shaping into a sentence?”

He dreams of escape – to an island “not on the maps…Not a single white man, it’s the only one left.” It’s a dream, however, which he circles round, never daring to approach until the near the end. Typically, when given money that would allow him to change his life, he soon finds excuses to give it, in turn, to someone else. It’s not surprising that Onetti has frequently been linked with existentialism, Michael Wood once commenting:

“He was an existentialist before he read Sartre, but everybody else had read Sartre before they read Onetti.”

Focusing on Aranzura, however, does not truthfully represent the experience of reading the novel which, I think it’s fair to say, can be a frustrating one. Onetti introduces at least ten characters in the first chapter, identified only by name, with little indication of existing relationships. Explanatory narrative is non-existent, and, like a badly edited film, chapters do not begin from any point we have previously paused at. There are some piercing moments (a one page chapter on an abortion, for example) but the overall sensation is of entering the disconnected, meaningless world of the characters.

Persistence pays off, however, as you reach the final third of the novel and the cumulative effect begins to tell on the reader; when the trigger is finally, pointlessly, pulled it is almost a relief. The final pages feature trams, train stations and docks, but, unsurprisingly, Aranzura remains “becalmed,

”…alone at the centre of the huge circle closed by the horizon.”

Onetti is not a writer to turn to for light relief, or indeed any kind of relief, but his portrait of a fractured, dislocated society still feels modern today.

The House of Ulloa

July 1, 2016

house of ulloa

While my knowledge of contemporary Spanish literature is probably deserving of the accolade ‘adequate’, anything pre-20th century would fall into the category ‘could do better’. I haven’t even read Don Quixote, despite owning two copies. Less ambitiously, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss when Emilia Pardo Bazan’s The House of Ulloa was included in the initial Pocket Penguin titles – just as Spanish Literature Month was approaching!

The House of Ulloa, published in 1886, remains the most famous of Bazan’s eighteen novels (in fact, though widely available in Spanish, little of her work is easily accessible in English). Bazan was an important literary figure in 19th century Spain, in particular for introducing and defending naturalism. While this is evident in The House of Ulloa, Bazan would clearly not be restrained by one literary approach, and we see everything from the shadows of Gothic to the sting of satire in the novel.

The novel is set in Bazan’s native Galicia, far from the civilised society of Santiago, from where Julian, a young priest, arrives, allowing the reader to see the area through a stranger’s eyes: “What a land of wolves!” That his first sight of the Ulloa manor coincides with his horse bolting at the sound of gunfire (“The clergyman froze with terror”) indicates the characteristic timidity which the reader will greet with a mixture of sympathy and irritation throughout. The hunters are Don Pedro, the down-at-heel, rough-and-ready aristocrat into whose service the priest has been pressed, and his factor, Primitivo, whose name may be an indication (okay, it is) of his primitive nature:

“His hair was cropped very close and his face was lean and shaven, with a strong bone structure and an expression of concealed shrewdness, of savage cunning, more fitting in a Red Indian than a European.”

The novel pits civilisation (closely identified with the Catholic religion) against nature, with the characters placed on either side of the divide battling for the souls (literally, one assumes, in Bazan’s view) of those in between. Julian has explicitly been sent, according to Don Pedro, by his uncle on such a mission:

“He says he has sent a saint to instruct me and convert me.”

We see an early skirmish take place when Julian questions whether the maid, Sabel’s, young son, Perucho, should be allowed to drink wine. Primitivo (the boy’s grandfather) insists (“Do you think the lad can’t take it?”), eventually pouring a bottle’s worth into the boy’s mouth until he falls unconscious. Don Pedro, at first encouraging, is seen to be torn between the two extremes:

“’Don’t be barbaric, Primitivo,’ said the marquis, half serious and half in jest.”

Sabel and Perucho, too, fall into the category of those who might be saved. Julian, we are told,

“…felt a growing pity for Perucho, the lad whose own grandfather had intoxicated him. It upset Julian to see him pass his days rolling about in the mud of the yard, or, covered in cow dung, playing with the young calves and sucking warm milk for the mother cow’s teats, or sleeping on the grass meant for the donkey’s feed.”

Julian views Perucho’s glorying in the natural world as an evil to be cured and offers him the alphabet and catechism instead. Sabel is a more difficult prospect for Julian, her inability to clothe herself as fully as he would like (at one point he sees her “exposed legs and feet”) leading him to avoid rather than convert her, “as one avoids a harmful, dirty animal.” Bazan’s imagery makes clear it is her uncivilised, natural state he abhors:

“…it was wretched to have to live with that wicked female, who had no more modesty than a cow.”

Julian’s attempts to civilise those round him are as fruitless as his reorganisation of the neglected family archives, which leaves him with only “an aching head and sore feet,” and so he decides Don Pedro must marry. Julian convinces him to choose a devout wife – his cousin, Nucha – and so gains an ally in the battle for his soul, while also agonising over whether he has brought her to the manor to suffer.

The House of Ulloa is a wonderfully readable 19th century classic, thanks, no doubt, in part to the translation by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves which dates from 1990. Julian’s piety may grate at times, but the novel’s central conflict unfolds with convincing drama (and occasional melodrama), and in Primitivo we have a tyrannical figure worthy of booing whenever he appears on page. An Epilogue, set ten years after, ensures the novel ends with a final twist. The House of Ulloa may be ideally read in a book-lined library as a crackling fire warms the pages, but it holds up well under electric light.