Archive for August, 2017

The Back Room

August 13, 2017

Carmen Martin Gaite’s The Back Room is the only one of the five of her novels to have been translated into English still in print, though it is, perhaps, not the ideal starting point. Written in the middle of a writing career which lasted forty years, it features a writer who we take to be the author (there are references, for example, to her first novel The Spa) reflecting on her childhood in the company of a stranger who arrives one night shortly after midnight, and might be anything from a journalist to the devil; perhaps simply a dream.

The novel begins one sleepless night and the narrator’s mind is already very much on her childhood – “the little girl form the provinces who can’t manage to fall asleep is looking at me in the light of the little yellow lamp.” We also sense a restlessness in the untidiness of the rooms and a lack of focus in her writing. At one point she loses her footing over a copy of Todorov’s Introduction to Fantastic Literature:

“When I finished it I wrote in a notebook: ‘I swear I’m going to write a fantastic novel.’ I suppose it was a promise I made to Todorov. That was around the middle of January, five months have gone by since then. Projects often flare up like will-o’-the-wisps in the heat of certain readings, but then one’s enthusiasm flags…”

The ringing of a telephone wakes her (the novel is full of awakenings, making the differentiation of dream and reality difficult). The visitor claims he is expected though the narrator is less certain (“I don’t know what interview he’s talking about but I don’t dare admit this.”) He quickly brings doubt to his existence, commenting on the narrator’s fear of a cockroach she has sighted in the kitchen:

“They’re mysterious….Like all apparitions. Don’t you like mystery stories?”

Later she will find with a print of ‘Luther’s Discussion with the Devil’ which was earlier pinned up in her bedroom in his hand; looking at it then she had felt “it was taking on depth and relief, that I was entering into it.”

Her visitor (“the man in black” she calls him) prompts her to further memories of her youth, though in no particular order, beginning with her departure from Spain on a scholarship to study in Portugal. Her memories take place partly in the images she recalls to her mind, partly in what she tells him. At times, for example when she goes to the kitchen to make him tea, her memories are entirely separate from their conversation. This jumble of memories she associates with the back room:

“I also imagine it as the attic of one’s brain, a sort of secret place full of a vague jumble of all sorts of miscellaneous junk, separated from the cleaner and more orderly anterooms by a curtain that is only occasionally pulled back. The memories that may come to us as something of a surprise live hiding in the back room.”

She compares memory to the childhood game of Red Light where the participants attempt to approach one child who has their back turned, freezing when they turn and say ‘Red Light!’

“…time steals by so furtively that we don’t even notice it, we don’t see it passing. But all of sudden we turn around and find images that have moved behind our backs, frozen photographs that bear no dates, like the figures of the children in the game of Red Light, who could never be caught moving.”

To some extent her recollections focus on her development as a writer: “That child and her mania for sitting reading with her face glued to the balcony!” She talks of the romance novels she loved, and her own childish romances. But her memories are also a record of Franco’s dictatorship, a point she makes by describing two moments when she saw Franco’s daughter, Carmencita (who is of a similar age) – as a child and at Franco’s funeral:

“We’ve grown up and lived in the same years. She was the daughter of an army officer from the provinces. We’ve been the victims of the same manners and mores, we’ve read the same magazines and seen the same movies.”

At one point they are interrupted by a phone call from a woman claiming to be her visitor’s girlfriend. She also claims to have discovered love letters from the narrator (signed with a C) – though the narrator has no memory of them. (Missing letters, and other papers, are another recurrent motif of the novel). In the final chapter, we are given a strong impression that the novel is a dream –the narrator is awoken by her daughter’s kiss – but how much of it? And in what way does that explain the manuscript she finds:

“The place formerly occupied by Todorov’s book is now occupied by a pile of numbered pages, one hundred and eighty-two of them. On the first line is written, in capital letters with a black ballpoint pen: THE BACK ROOM.”

As the man in black reminds us:

“Ambiguity is the key to fantastic literature… Not knowing whether what one has seen is true or false, and never finding out.”

The Back Room is both puzzling and prepossessing, marking Gaite out as an intriguing writer who deserves attention.

Cry, Mother Spain

August 10, 2017

Though Lydie Salvayre writes in French (here translated by Ben Faccini), her parents were among those who fled Spain at the time of the Civil War. The ‘Mother Spain’ of the title therefore is both the country from which her family originates, and a reference to her own mother, Montse, whose story forms the basis of the novel. As Salvayre explains in a preface, however, the novel’s origins lie elsewhere, with the writings of George Bernanos, a Catholic monarchist who initially supported the Nationalist cause only to be disgusted by the atrocities he saw committed in its name. Bernanos’ perspective gives a historical context and relevance to Montse’s story, which in turn allows the reader to experience the impact of these historical forces on the individual.

The novel opens with Montse’s political awakening. When she is taken to be introduced to the Burgos family as a potential maid, don Jaime comments, “She seems quite humble.”

“But that comment, my mother says, throws me into a turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.”

Her brother, Jose, an anarchist, is even more furious:

“Who does the bastard think he is? He’ll regret it, the bare-faced carbon. I’ll teach that bourgeoisie to think twice before opening his mouth again.”

This particularising of the class conflict which was emerging is typical of the novel. Salvarye is at pains to exemplify the various shades of opinion which exist in the village, and how they are also linked to personal relationships. While Jose represents the anarchist viewpoint, don Jaime’s adopted son, Diego, is the resident Communist. The uncertain parentage of his unruly red hair means he is largely distrusted, however, and he is jealous of the way Jose is admired by his peers. Both have difficult relationships with their fathers, don Jaime being the largest landowner in the district, and Jose’s father, though poor, also owning a few acres he wishes to hold onto. Most of the farmers in the village, however, rent their land from don Jaime and are initially entranced with Jose’s proposal for a commune:

“We no longer want to do all the whoring for the landowners: they’re keeping us in poverty and pocketing our money… We can live differently. It’s possible.”

The novel captures the initial joy felt by the villagers at the thought they might be on the verge of a better life:

“The village was in a state of effervescence the next day, at boiling point. Red-and-black scarves hung from windows and balconies, people basked in their newly acquired slogans, babbling away gesticulating, panting, throwing themselves on the few copies of Solidaridad Obrera that had finally reached the village.”

As the days pass, the mood changes, however, and Diego’s more cautious approach begins to win the argument. (One of the areas the novel explores is the conflict between the anarchists and the Communists, making clear that opposition to the Nationalists was not united).

The joy of revolution is also shown when Jose and Montse leave the village to join the Republican army. Salvayre describes it as “a brief interlude of freedom for my mother, a moment of enchantment.” Her mother tells her she had never before seen two people kiss, or heard a foreign language:

“In one evening Montse discovered (her creased, wrinkled face lights up with joy when she describes this) the existence of running water, hot and cold, bath tubs with wrought-iron tiger feet, lavatories with flushing mechanisms and flip-up lids, electricity in every room, refrigerators, clocks, thermometers on walls, telephones made out of ebonite.”

Superficially this may not seem political, but, of course, it is the entrenched poverty of the existing system, now broken in the anarchist held city, that has prevented her from experiencing these things before. Salvayre, as she does throughout, demonstrates how events impact the individual beyond the abstract ideas which create them. The passion for revolution is echoed in Montse’s falling for a French volunteer; the rebellious times reflected in her adolescence.

Cry, Mother Spain is a wonderful novel. It recreates the period of the Civil War in both the particular and the general. It does not stint on detailing the cruelty and violence which accompanied it, but at the same time it reveals the idealism and passion. In the turbulence of its forces we can also see something recognisable in the coming of age of both Jose and Montse. They guide us through the hope and horror in stories, which we know from the start, end very differently.

Lost Books – The Miracle-Worker

August 6, 2017

In recent years, Carmen Boullosa has become one of the most regularly translated of women writers, her third novel from Deep Vellum due to be published this month. For her first appearance in English, however, we must go back to 1994 when Amanda Hopkinson translated her novel of the previous year, The Miracle-Worker. The novel tells the story a healer, Milagrosa, who falls in love with the detective sent to discredit her – part of a plot for the presidency which soon endangers both their lives. That this sounds like a thriller is only one of a number of postmodern tricks the novel uses to entertain the reader – its plot unfolds far from conventionally, and reaches no neat conclusions.

The Miracle-Worker is introduced to the reader as a bundle of papers and an audio-tape found clutched in the hands of a dead man. (Though nothing is certain, we assume this is the body of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez). This makes even their order uncertain, as an editor (also unknown) informs the reader:

“I have ordered them into what appears, to the best of my judgement, to be the most easily comprehensible sequence.”

The novel begins in the words of the miracle-worker, Milagrosa. Her gift, she feels, depends on her isolation:

“The terror of losing the gift I have repels me from even the notion of physical closeness.”

She discusses some of the difficulties of meeting her supplicants’ wishes. When a woman asks her to heal her brain-damaged son, to whom she has dedicated her life, Milgrosa can “foresee her loneliness and abandonment as soon as the boy acquired a normal intelligence.” There is also an amusing story of a man who wants his much younger lover to see him as a younger man (fifty instead of seventy); then his lover comes to beg that he see her as older to bridge the remaining gap (fifty instead of thirty). Of course, he leaves her. Most of the requests, however (a number of which are reproduced in the novel’s next section) only serve to remind us how difficult life is.

From there we move on to a transcript of the tape-recording of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez. He explains that he’s been hired by the Industrial Textile Workers’ Union: “the Union ordered me to pursue the Milagrosa, with a specific mission to destroy her.” The reason is only vaguely suggested later:

“They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa.”

Of course, this may mean much more to a Mexican reader, but I suspect Boullosa has no intention of writing a political thriller. The lack of exposition lends terror to the rising death count as Aurelio and Milagrosa go on the run. Aurelio’s endangerment is established early on when he is recognised as “the shit of a strike-breaker” (again never fully explained) and beaten. At this point he has already fallen for Milagrosa, and when she rescues and heals him their relationship blossoms. Soon she rejects her role as healer, reverting to her own name, E, and planning to escape the country with Aurelio.

Things are further confused when we discover the elderly man who dumped his young lover, Felipe Morales, is now running for President. Aurelio witnessed him returning to Milagrosa to ask that his wife respect and admire him again: “That fool Morales…He took advantage of me.” This, somehow, has given him the confidence needed to win the election. Aurelio begs Milagrosa to use her power to stop him:

“Please destroy Morales… I’m pleading with you. For the sake of our love, for dignity and justice.”

It is perhaps possible to read The Miracle-Worker as a political satire, but Boullosa’s primary intention seems to be to impress a sense of Mexico, in flashes, on our flinching retinas, a madcap mixture of religion, passion, corruption and violence with no obvious resolution. The novel can sometimes feel like a chase scene, with unexpected corners and no clear end point, but there’s a breathlessness to it that’s worth pursuing.

A Broken Mirror

August 1, 2017

That the final chapter of Merce Rodoreda’s A Broken Mirror is told from the point of view of a rat gives some indication of how far behind she had left the first person narration of her previous novels by the time she came to write her ninth, her first to be published since her return to Catalonia in 1972. “A novel is a mirror carried along a road,” claimed Stendahl, warning his reader that it is as likely to reflect the mud beneath as the blue skies above. Rodoreda certainly shares Stendahl’s intent to show us the high and the low, but her fractured viewpoints suggest that what appears in the guise of a nineteenth century novel is in fact its epitaph.

The novel opens as a young wife, Teresa, is presented with a brooch – “a bouquet of flowers made with diamonds and as big as the palm of his hand” – by her elderly husband, Nicolau Rovira. Teresa is not of the same class – the daughter of a fishmonger – and already has an illegitimate child by a married man. She later returns to the jeweller and asks him to buy back the brooch, using the money to pay the father to adopt the child, telling her husband she has lost the brooch while at the same time arranging to become her son’s godmother, “a rather mature infant who had no mother, poor little thing, she’d died in the hospital in childbirth.” Teresa is no Becky Sharp, however: she is simply practical, contriving the best outcome for all concerned, a cool-headed capability that will be shared by many of the women in this novel of three generations. Neither is her married lover a cad (she remembers him fondly on her death bed) nor her aged husband a breathless letch; from its opening pages, Rodoreda’s humanity shines through. Her characters have flaws and failings, but we will not be expected to boo and hiss from the stalls as they pantomime their way through a nineteenth century melodrama.

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We also quickly learn how quickly she will turn our heads. We have only just begun to follow Teresa with our eyes when we must look to Salvador Valldaura, who makes his entrance trailing a seven page love story that ends tragically, only to be introduced to Teresa, “the widow of the financier Nicolau Rovira.” (We only looked away a moment!) Rodoreda flits between her characters’ feelings with ease, as we see in the obligatory ball scene where they fall in love:

“If I could, Valldaura thought, I would take her to the end of the world. The applause was deafening. Teresa, panting, her head thrown back, was telling herself that she’d never known a night like this one. She was hot. She took of her gloves slowly – they seemed endless – and wiped her face with her hand.”

By the time we reach the phrase “they are endless” we are no longer even certain whose consciousness we inhabit. Rodoreda is equally at home with the servants. In one memorable scene, in the heat of the summer, they undress in the yard and cool themselves with water sprayed from a hose:

“Since the hose was very long, Armanda started to chase the terrace, and for a long time they did not stop running and screaming.”

Such moments of joy stand out as the overall atmosphere of the novel is elegiac. It’s one of a number of scenes which are repeated either exactly or in echo, an inescapable recurrence which suggests that, for all its wealth, the family are trapped within a life which changes little. Attempts at wilful independence (see Teresa’s grandson, Ramon, and the ‘adopted’ (another illegitimate child) Maria) tends to end badly. As Teresa ages she loses the use of her legs, a paralysis which further emphasises a frozen existence. There is little sense, however, that Rodoreda therefore approves of the violence which will sweep it away. The civil war provides the novel’s endpoint but hardly features of itself, perhaps because it is a topic Rodoreda has explored elsewhere, but also, I think, to emphasise that her characters are largely detached from politics, and, indeed, the twentieth century. Teresa’s daughter, Sofia, leaves Spain, and when the house is taken over, even Armanda moves out:

“She spent the remaining wartime in an apartment very near the villa, an apartment that after the war would become hers… As soon as the war ended she went to see the villa.”

In these few sentences the war is over and Sofia returns, but with no intention of returning to the life she led before. Perhaps that is why the novel ends with Armanda recalling an act of disobedience from Sofia’s childhood, walking the gardens of the villa where only ghosts are left:

“…very near her, level with her eyes, the black trees as background, something drew her attention: a shard of mist almost nothing, hesitant, a transparent wing that moved away and finally vanished as if the earth had sucked it up.”

Even the rat dies.