Wilder Winds

Wilder Winds, a collection of short stories from Catalan writer Bel OIid (translated by Laura McGloughlin), may be small but it is fierce. Although under a hundred pages, it contains sixteen forceful stories lined up like a series of fiery shots, intoxicating and unforgettable.

Memory is often at the heart if these stories, nowhere more evident than in ‘Anna, Anne, Anna’:

“There are memories that shine like a brand new coin on the pavement when touched by the midday sun and you, walking with your head bowed, looking at the ground, wake up suddenly, pick it up and feel you are very lucky.”

In this particular story the memory is of finding a book lying on the street as a child, a book that turns out to be The Diary of Anne Frank. Later the book disappears but the narrator, Anna, decides not to read it again when older and instead preserve the memory intact. Childhood memories are also at the heart of ‘Static’ as the narrator, returning home as an adult, remembers how she

“…used to sit with her younger brother Toni in front of the TV and watch the grey, white and black screen that meant it wasn’t tuned in to any channel.”

Despite a difficult relationship with her mother, when she arrives home “the white noise of happiness surrounds everything, even if only for a moment” – the memory gives her comfort. In ‘She’s a Woman’ a memory suggests the narrator’s awakening sexuality as she finds herself playing with the master’s daughter, Helena, while her aunt visits her dying mother in hospital. Helena leans over her – “her breath, so close, smelled of fruit” – and, confused, she retreats to the toilet, only to find Helena’s mother, naked, shaving her armpit. These experiences become interlinked in her mind, alongside her mother’s death, perhaps creating a fear of her own desire, as, at the story’s conclusion, she refuses an invitation to stay night with Helena and returns home with her aunt.

Compassion is also key to many of the stories. In ‘Anna, Anne. Anna’ the narrator tells us:

“I felt bad leaving her there, alone in that attic, not knowing what would become of her.”

This empathy is not unusual in Olid’s characters. In ‘Sea of Maimuna’, a visit to a refugee camp by Margie leaves her endlessly thinking, “I am here and they are there,” a statement which she particularly applies to the young girl of around the same age, Maimuna, whom she meets there. It is a feeling she only overcomes when she takes Maimuna to the sea in a story that, like ‘She’s a Woman’, is also about the awakening of desire:

“The water was dark and warm, like a cave, like a uterus, like the desire sharpening their fragile happiness.”

Action against injustice, such as Margie’s, is highlighted in other stories, some more overtly political. In ‘Baba Luba’, set in Ukraine, the title character lives a comfortable life as an old woman, “alone and contented, cradled in her daily routine.” But when she sees soldiers set upon protestors in Independence Square she becomes restless, eventually attending a protest herself armed with a mirror. This is soon copied buy other protestors, and, even though she knows “no one will know she was the first to carry the mirror that wanted to reflect humanity” she feels companionship. Other stories feature revolutions in Portugal and Lithuania, the latter told from the point of view of four characters: the mother of one of the protestors, one of the protestors themselves, a journalist at the occupied television studio, and a child at school.

Other stories are political in a different sense, as, for example, ‘Linda’, where a young woman “kills two men for some poisoned catcalls” (as a newspaper describes it). This is how the story opens, in Venezuela, with her friend asking her:

“Girl, why did you kill them? Their saying that they greeted you, maybe said something to you, nothing out of the ordinary.”

Her action inspires women in Spain and America to different acts of protest, but the story is unusual in feeling forced, a little too determined it make its point. Far more successful is ‘Invisible’ a two-page tale of a woman’s daily life, beginning at 5.40am. Only at the story’s end, slamming her hand against the train window “for a moment it’s as if I truly existed in that city where every day so many live without living.” The daily toll of work, physical and emotional, is also visited in ‘Three’ where the narrator, who works with children whose mothers are prisoners, tells us:

“If she could have avoided it, she wouldn’t even have learned their names.”

The story cleverly alternates between her children and the children in the unit, demonstrating how difficult it is to keep a distance.

This concern for the ordinary – ordinary people, ordinary jobs – gives the collection a cumulative power, as if its characters, for a moment “truly exist”. Yet, at the same time, Olid demonstrates a remarkable versatility, with stories set throughout Europe, with characters of all ages, and with one venturing into the far future. Don’t be deceived by the slenderness of the volume – this a writer of real breadth.


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5 Responses to “Wilder Winds”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oh, this sounds great, Grant! I’ve only read a few of the Fum D’Estmpa books I have so far, but they’ve all been stunning. (And I do like the fact they name the translator on the cover here!)

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    These stories sound excellent, Grant, but probably too arresting for me right now. The sense of range really comes through in your review. I must take some time to have a proper look at Fum D’Estmpa’s list as they sound like another up-and-coming publisher – I remember your previous review of Forty Lost Years.

  3. Booker International Predictions 2022 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] If I could place one European writer on the long list myself, however, it would be Bel Olid for Wilder Winds (translated by Laura McGloughlin), a collection of short stories where quality far exceeds […]

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