Archive for the ‘Jordi Llavina’ Category

London Under Snow

February 12, 2021

Jordi Llavina’s London Under Snow (translated by Douglas Suttle) contains six stories infused with loss and regret. Despite this it is far from depressing, perhaps because the narrator (who may or may not be the author) of most of the stories generally looks back with a self-deprecating acceptance. Take, for example, one of the shorter stories, ‘San Diego, For the Record’, which begins with the narrator hanging out clothes on his balcony, commenting that he is neither “prudent nor bothered enough” to put the pegs away when he takes the clothes in. On his terrace he finds a homeless man sleeping; his initial shock and fear soon fade and he invites the man in to have a shower and something to eat. Despite the fact that he is aware that the man’s story is “outrageous”, he accepts his temporary presence though his doubts remain:

“Were he some highly trained thief, now was the time for him to pull out his knife and shove it into my heart or neck before emptying the flat of all my belongings.”

Yet after two hours he trusts his visitor “implicitly” and, when he leaves, declares:

“I decided he was an angel.”

Even when he discovers that the man has stolen his money from his wallet and his grandfather’s watch, he isn’t despondent:

“Perhaps I had only been the guardian of old grandad Andreu’s watch and now it had finally reached its destination.”

This spirit of accepting losses, of not allowing regrets to dominate, makes the sadness which often inhabits the stories bearable.

The longest story, ‘Hand & Racquet’, which is in a sense the title story, being set in London during winter and having once had that title, is also suffused with regret. It is, for example, the narrator’s first visit to London despite previous chances – including one opportunity he gave up for a girl he later married – and then ten months later divorced. It takes place at the insistence of a friend who has asked him to return a (very expensive) hat which has a stain on it. He stays in an amusingly rundown hotel:

“On the wall near the ceiling, the wallpaper had bobbled up from the damp and a little further down there was a new shadow, made thicker by drops of a sooty substance, as if behind the bedroom wall there was a working coal factory furnace.”

In London he thinks of a girl he once knew, his “first love”, Marta, who went there to study. He never takes up her invitation to visit and a few years later she dies. This regret ties her to the Hand & Racquet, a pub the narrator has always wanted to visit in London, as when he finally gets there it has closed:

“By then there wasn’t a single doubt in my mind: the Hand & Racquet had been waiting for me for more than thirty years and, weary of my repeated absences, year after year, had, like so many things in life, decided to let itself die.”

Lost opportunities and relationships haunt most of the stories. ‘My Andalusian Cousin’ begins with the statement, “My Andalusian cousin is dead.” The news leads the narrator to reflect on his cousin, Andre’s, visit as a child. In fact, he only sees him once more and later Andre moves to Mexico:

“Perhaps fifteen years ago he wrote me a letter that I didn’t answer and that, a few months later when he was about to write me another, he decided – as we decide many things in life – not to.”

The phrase “as we decide so many things in life” is key as what interests Llavina are the decisions we make without taking, the paths we drift into, the people we lose touch with. We find another example of the latter in ‘A Man Called Amat’ where the narrator discovers an old teacher is eating at the café where his brother works. Amat’s reappearance leads the narrator to reflect on his importance in his life:

“Memory doesn’t require much: the vestiges of some letters cut into a warm tombstone and gnawed away by erosion; the half-erased name and some illegible, neglected dates.”

Llavina’s interest in memory is also evident in the final story, ‘The Linden Tree’, where he talks about his friendship with his wife’s mother who is now suffering from dementia. The story is heartfelt and the author is perhaps a little too close to the subject. Its ending is ambiguous, as he wonders whether “in her relative unconsciousness… she was entirely happy.” Given the association of memory with regret, this feels like a genuine question coming at the collection’s conclusion.

The one story I haven’t mentioned, ‘We, Too, Are Expecting’, stands out for not being in the first person. It, too, however, is one of loss and regret, and perhaps the saddest in the book, as a woman struggles with the loss of a child.

Overall London Under Snow is perfect winter reading (as we know, ‘a sad tale’s best for winter’), a time of year when we often look back. Its melancholy is never overpowering, and its narrative voice is companionable and often humorous, including comments which draw attention to the fact we are reading a story. That, too, is part of the honesty in what is an open-hearted book.