Holiday Heart

The title of Margarita Garcia Robayo’s novel, Holiday Heart, her second release in English translated by Charlotte Coombe after the stories of Fish Soup, is not that of the original Spanish (Tiempo Muerto – Dead Time), but it is the title Robayo wanted. Its apparent light-heartedness provides an ironic contrast both with its meaning (it is used to describe a heart disease which afflicts those who over-indulge on holiday) and the novel’s exposure of a marriage in crisis. It is also used in the novel in the sense of the heart being on holiday, that is, absent, a metaphor that might apply to both of its main characters, Pablo and Lucia.

Pablo and Lucia have been married for nineteen years, and it is soon clear that, over that time, they have drifted apart. As Lucia thinks to herself:

“The really bizarre thing is to look at the other person and wonder who they are, what they’re doing there next to you, when it was that their facial features changed so much.”

Pablo sees the origin of this slow separation with the birth of their children, the twins Tomas and Rosa:

“You excluded me from the pregnancy like a cat with toxoplasmosis.”

He describes his wife as the most intelligent person he knows, and goes onto say:

“Before giving birth, she’d been both the most intelligent and the kindest person he knew.”

This has increasingly driven Pablo into the arms of other women. The novel sees him drunkenly fuck a neighbour, Elisa, at a barbecue (“Did he like Elisa? Not in the slightest.”) before falling down in the street. The students he teaches have written a letter of complaint about his teaching, attendance and personal hygiene. And the novel he has been writing for two years has yet to elicit a positive response from anyone.

“He felt lost and he felt old. A sad old man.”

He has developed a friendship with one of his students, Kelly Jane, who he tells anyone who will listen, he has ‘not touched’, as if that will provide redemption for his other actions. This friendship simply seems to be a safe, undemanding space for him:

“The time he spent with Kelly Jane was comfortable.”

The novel is written in an anarchic, non-chronological style, juxtaposing events before and after Pablo’s heart problems, in a way that initially makes the reader sympathetic towards Lucia, though it soon becomes clear that she, too, has her faults. She has little patience with anyone, including her two children:

“After giving birth she morphed into a person with two increasingly heavy appendages.”

She is both reliant on her parents’ maid, Cindy, to look after them, and resentful:

“Cindy seems hell-bent on subjecting her children to a frenzy of non-stop, noisy vulgarity.”

We discover that she writes a column for Elle in which she describes her family life, featuring increasingly unflattering pictures of Pablo (“Pablo was deeply hurt by it, treating it as the height of injustice”). Whereas Pablo acts out his frustrations, Lucia contains them:

“She goes to such great lengths not to show her family what she is really thinking that it exhausts her.”

Holiday Heart, however, is about more than a disintegrating marriage. Robayo also tackles issues of nationality, immigration and race. Though Pablo and Lucia live in America, Pablo stills holds onto his Chilean nationality. Lucia on the other hand, when the children ask her where she is from, replies, “From here, from our house.”

“Lucia was transplanted like a tree never given time to put down any roots.”

The complexity of this issue is reflected in comments by the children: Rosa asking, “Why don’t Venezuelans live in Venezuela?” and Tomas declaring on the beach, “I don’t like black people.” Both Pablo and Lucia have their own forms of racism. When Pablo’s boss comes over to tell him he’s fired he thinks to himself, “Born Latino, but gringo to the core,” going on to assert:

“Being brown isn’t an advantage… Being black gets you further.”

Meanwhile, when Lucia first meets American sports star David Rodriguez, she is dismissive of his inability to understand Spanish (“Third generation Dominicans in the United States”). Back in his hotel room, she thinks of him as a “black pig”, but when he rapes her it’s unclear if this narrative stereotyping is an ironic commentary on her own stereotyping.

Holiday Heart, like Fish Soup, can be uncomfortable reading at times, not only for the queasy racism on show, but in the way it more generally fillets Pablo and Lucia’s lives, exposing their often unprincipled, excuse-ridden existence. There is often some dark humour in this, though that may well depend on how close it hits to home. What is not in doubt is that it once again demonstrates that Robayo is a fearless writer who refuses to look away.

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3 Responses to “Holiday Heart”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Well done for getting a good start on Spanish Lit Month, Grant – I’m well behind with this. This *does* sound quite a damaged relationship, though I have some sympathy witha wife struggling to cope with motherhood. A worrying book all round, by the sounds of it, and there does seem to be racism existing between *all* races…

    • 1streading Says:

      Initially I felt quite sympathetic to Lucia but as the novel progresses you realise she is far from perfect either. It’s a novel which offers little in the way of redemption!

  2. Seven Books of Summer | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] the case with Spark’s novels, we are well aware of what is on the horizon long before we reach it.Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo, translated by Charlotte […]

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