Of Saints and Miracles

Of Saints and Miracles, the first novel by Manuel Astur to be translated into English (by Claire Wadie), begins with a killing: with one punch, Marcelino kills his brother, Manuel. Marcelino is provoked, not only by the contempt with which Manuel addresses him (“All right you fucking retard, just scribble down four of your shitty letters and job done”), but by the fact that Manual is demanding his written consent to sell the farm they have inherited from their parents where Marcelino still lives and works. Marcelino’s simple-mindedness is demonstrated when he fails to understand at first his brother is dead – assuming that, when his car is missing next morning, he has returned to the house, and, on later finding numerous tyre tracks there, that he has retuned with friends looking for revenge. When he is told the police are looking for him (fearing he may be injured) he goes on the run.

First, he goes to the “Old World” – an abandoned village where his mother came from. His present life on the run is interspersed with stories of his past – for example, the moment when he kills his brother is juxtaposed with a scene where they play together as children:

“He loved that little boy more than anything in the whole world.”

In this way, Of Saints and Miracles is a novel of stories – “We have the voice and we have the time,” the narrator tells us. The idea of abandoned villages is introduced not at Marcelino’s arrival but in the story of Sofia, the first to seemingly interrupt the main narrative, as she walks seven hours each year to return to the village where she was born, “the one remaining inhabitant having died thirty years ago.” (These feel very much like the villages we find in Jean Giono’s early novels). Far from an interruption, her story is simply one of many, past and present, which will take their place in the narrative. The past is of particular significance:

“The past is a village folklore, a fairy-tale rewritten every day to get us through the winter, and to help us imagine a vast world beyond the valley.”

One of the things which marks Marcelino out as different is that he lives in the present – “as if on a floating island” – the stories of his childhood revealed by the narrator rather than presented as his memories:

“Like all children, Lino was reborn with every new day.”

The memories of his childhood exist instinctively rather than intellectually, in, for example, his fear of the dark:

“The night was evil, the night was his mother crying… His father carried the night in his clenched fist.”

Living in the present, Marcelino – or so the narrator speculates – exists outside of time. When he takes refuge in the wreck of an abandoned car, he imagines him as the “sole survivor” of our world:

“Time has ceased to exist, or been reborn.”

As if to emphasis this, he is visited by his dead mother. The longer he remains on the run, out of sight the more he becomes a ’story’ rather than a person. When the novel’s third section, or ‘Song’, begins with “the strangest looking pilgrim they’d ever seen… long dirty hair merging into the dirty beard” we would be forgiven for thinking this might be Marcelino, but it is another moment from his childhood when a man comes to his door describing himself not as a beggar but a storyteller:

“He said that stories were more important than anything, and that they had to be protected to prevent evil spirits from sucking the life from the earth.”

Towards the novel’s end, Marcelino begins to encounter people and finds only kindness. When a hunter gives him his coat he realises, “It was the first time in his entire life that anyone except his mother had given him a present.” Marcelino’s time in hiding feels more like a religious retreat than the act of a dangerous fugitive. The novel itself, as the title suggests, has something spiritual about it, though perhaps not quite religious despite references to Judas and hanging, and a Biblical plague of maggots. The way in which it takes the plotline of a thriller and applies the pace of a wandering stream forces the reader to look at life differently, from moment to moment, story to story:

“Everything is happening at this moment and it’s all of equal importance, the only difference being who is telling the story and why. Everything is a miracle.”


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One Response to “Of Saints and Miracles”

  1. International Booker Prize Predictions 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Smith’s Thread Ripper (translated by Jennifer Russell). Peirene Press also have a contender in Of Saints and Miracles by Manuel Astur (translated by Claire Wadie) – Body Kintsugi is too grim; History. A Mess a […]

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