Archive for the ‘Ana Maria Matute’ Category

The Trap

July 14, 2020

The Trap is the third novel in Ana Maria Matute’s Los mercaderes (The Merchants) trilogy, the first of which, The Island, was published in a new translation earlier this year. Originally published in 1964, it was translated by Robert Nugent and Maria Jose de la Camara in 1996 and, although it was released by a US university press, I placed it on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list of 1996 to ensure there was at least a moderate representation of women writers.

The Trap is a very different book to The Island, written with little regard to plot, and described on the first page as a ‘Disordered Diary’. In the opening chapter Matia is back “in this island within the island” as her grandmother prepares to celebrate her ninety-ninth birthday (or rather celebrate her hundredth birthday on her ninety-ninth). The tone is bitter:

“She is like a stationery mockery of life and death. A sedentary outrage, without any emotion, in the presence of life and death.”

“Ruin is never her ruin,” Matia goes on to say, “Death is never her death… What does not happen to her does not happen to anybody.” (Does the grandmother represent Spain? “I was born in tyranny, I will die in it,” Matia later says). Already we see the novel’s strength and weakness: the language is powerful and emotive but the emotions feel unearned – particularly if you have not read the previous books. Matia also mentions Borja who, in The Island, was a boy only a little older than her:

“The eyes of that boy who cried once, on a certain daybreak, no longer exist. They have turned yellowish with the years. No one could any longer believe them to be golden, or pale green, like this June sky.”

Returning to the island revives a sense of being trapped – “the feeling of a hidden snare does not leave me” – and the diary, in opposition, “would be one of the many free acts of my life.” The novel, then, is Matia trying to make sense of her life, and in particular her relationship with her son, Bear, who is at the centre of the next chapter. However, Matia herself is almost entirely absent from the chapter, appearing at the end as ‘the Mother’, when she meets Bear, who has apparently been in the care of his grandparents in America, after he travels to Europe on finishing high school. This change in focus is indicated by the chapter title, ‘Wasting Time’ – as we shall see, these titles repeat and each one suggests a particular perspective. ‘In This City’ is from the point of view of Isa, ‘Three Days of Love’ from that of the man she loves, Mario. All are connected to each other, yet these connections need unpicked by the reader. Thus the novel is not simply a ‘disordered diary’ but a shifting sands of narratives which hint at a whole we never quite arrive at.

The Bear chapters often concern his relationship with Borja after arriving on the island, echoing Matia’s relationship with Borja in The Island which was a complicated one. The chapter title suggests that Bear is using his time there as a ‘pause’ in his life, perhaps deciding what to do next, rejecting his education in the way Matia once did. Borja tells him:

“But, Bear, you must realise how you are wasting your time. If you want to put the world in order, first you must finish your degree.”

At the heart of the novel is Matia’s concern about her son, and her relationship with him:

“What have I ever known about the maternal purpose? It is painful to think about it now, when I see him grown up, absolutely alien. His youth pains me, as it once pained me to see him advancing clumsily on his two-year-old legs; with a handful of dry leaves in his hands.”

Meanwhile, in the Isa chapters we discover that Mario is missing, and in the Mario chapters that he is being hidden by Matia (part of the difficulty in deciphering this can be seen in the fact that neither knows the other’s name). Matia is hiding him as he is a friend of Bear’s, and the suggestion is that they are involved in acting against the state. This becomes a little clearer in the final chapters when there is a plan to shoot a man.

The Trap is a novel which benefits from an attentive, indeed a note-taking, reader – there are no concessions to ‘readability’ in what is, at times, a sea of unattributed pronouns. Ultimately it is less than the sum of its parts as those parts don’t obviously add up. The absence of a UK publication is now less of a mystery.

The Island

June 2, 2020

Ana Maria Matute is a Spanish writer who has not been much translated into English. The Island, newly translated by Laura Lonsdale, will hopefully be a first step in rectifying this, although it has actually been translated before as The School of the Sun (the original title, Premira Memoria, has yet to be used). It is the first in an autobiographical trilogy, followed by Soldiers Cry by Night and The Trap. Matute was ten years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out and this has had a profound effect on her writing. The Island, set on the island of Mallorca, opens as the war begins on mainland Spain and influences events on the island as old divisions and hatreds come to the surface. The story is told from the point of view of Matia, a fourteen-year-old girl, who is staying on the island with her grandmother as her mother is dead, she has been expelled from her convent school, and her father has abandoned her to fight for the ‘other side’ (the family are Catholics):

“The war that had lost, shipwrecked, scuppered my father, with his wicked ideas.”

(The reference to shipwreck is surely meant to remind us of another island, Prospero’s, and the separation of father and child in The Tempest, which begins with its own civil war, pitting brother against brother).

Matia’s only friend on the island is Borja, but it is a friendship of convenience:

“We were bored and exasperated in equal measure, amid the oily calm and hypocritical peace of the island.”

Borja steals from his grandmother but is “sweet and gentle” when he is with her. Matia describes him as “weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man.” Among those he bullies is the young man who has been hired to tutor them, known as Chinky. Borja claims to know something about Chinky that gives him power over him. Matia is indifferent to this: though not cruel, she, too, would rather roam the island than study Latin.

The title of the original translation, The School of the Sun, is easily understood on only a brief acquaintance with the novel:

“On the island I came to know the sun, which made the flowers tremble in Guiem’s garden and which pierced the mist to become a damp, slow fire evaporating over the chalices of their petals.”

The sun is generally portrayed as violent and hurtful, creating a “whiplash of light in the air.” The atmosphere on the island is oppressive: “a grey sky” we are told, is “swollen like an infection.” Even a word like ‘shimmering’ is immediately tainted by the simile which follows:

“…the sea shone a pale green, shimmering like a sheet of metal.”

The natural beauty of the water becomes something unyielding and imprisoning.

That oppression is echoed in the deep-lying tensions which exist on the island, now exacerbated by the war. As Laura Lonsdale points out in her introduction, these tensions were partly political and partly racial. Islanders with Jewish origins, even if they have long converted to Christianity, are still regarded with suspicion. In the novel Matia befriends Manuel Taronji after his father is murdered. The murder is political, but presumably sanctioned by the fact that the family are ‘Chuetas’ or originally Jewish, as can be seen from their name and red hair. They live isolated and shunned:

“…it was as if they lived on a different island, in the middle of my grandmother’s lands.”

Borja is particularly dismissive of Manuel – “Redhead. Dirty Jew. Filthy Chueta” – a dislike that becomes personal when the possibility that he is the illegitimate son of Jorge of Son Major raises its head. Jorge is one of the few people Borja admires, while also harbouring hopes of being his undeclared son:

“If there was one thing in the world he wanted… it was that one day people would talk about him as they did about Jorge of Son Major.”

Matia’s decision to befriend Manuel, and move outside Borja’s influence, is at the heart of her coming-of-age story. One particular moment of epiphany is brilliantly captured by Matute when Matia declares that the way Manuel’s family has been treated is wrong and she realises “I was saying something I hadn’t thought of until that moment, a thought still hazy in my mind.” She goes on:

“Suddenly, I lifted myself out of it all. I was myself, alone.”

What before had simply been loneliness is now also an affirmation of self, something separate from circumstances. At the same time she is aware that their friendship cannot last:

“I remember I entered a strange zone, like a stretch of unsettled waters, and with each day that passed I felt fear gaining ground in me.”

Matute plays out the tensions and conflicts of the civil war among the inter-related families of the island and, as Matia will discover, no-one will be left guiltless. The Island is a dense, demanding story which deserves to be read slowly, at the pace which one might walk in the fiery heat of Mallorca. Not only is its sense of place tangible, but it perfectly captures the uncertainties and confusions of adolescence while unveiling a pitiless political landscape.