Victoria Mir runs from her house in obvious distress, pauses for a moment, and then lies on the road, her head ostentatiously across the tramlines. Her suicidal impulse seems less serious when we discover that the tram no longer runs along this particular street, but the emotional trauma that has led her here is undeniable, an early indication of the fine line between comedy and tragedy that this novel will journey along. One observer among the curious crowd which gathers to witness Mir’s behaviour is fifteen year old Ringo, the protagonist of Juan Marse’s The Calligraphy of Dreams. In the disconnect between Mir’s desperate actions and their less than desperate repercussions, Ringo senses something:
“Possibly this is the very first time that the boy intuits, in however vague and fleeting a manner, that what is invented can carry more weight and truthfulness than what is real, more life of its own, be more meaningful, and consequently have more chance of triumphing over oblivion.”
The reasons for Mir’s actions remain the novel’s central mystery; Ringo’s interpretation of them a signpost on his journey to manhood in a coming-of-age novel which contains echoes of Marse’s own life. (In both cases they are adopted after their mother dies).
Another obvious similarity is that they are dreamers with a powerful imagination. A teacher comments on his “rich interior life” and we find him regaling his friends with stories of cowboys and Indians. Imagination comes first (“I can have a beach wherever I want one”) and he doesn’t like it when reality, in the form of needing a sea to have a beach, intrudes:
“Ringo feels as though reality has burst into his world like a shockwave after an explosion…and has torn something form his hands.”
Later, when he loses a finger at the jeweller’s where he works, it his dreaming that is to blame;
“…he was caught daydreaming at the electric rolling mill, trying to hum the first notes of a simple tune he could not remember properly, when in a flash the machine swallowed his index finger.”
Ringo’s daydreaming nature is also shown through his innocence. His father is a rat catcher and Ringo is particularly fascinated by the blue rats he mentions: “He often hears him curse and blaspheme against the terrible, disgusting plague of blue rodents infesting the city.” This reference, however, is not to rats but to the Nationalists who have recently won the Spanish Civil War (this is made clear later when one such is referred to as a “blue dummy”). His father’s political activism explains his frequent disappearances, and also why in one scene he has to burn his books, telling his son it is “just in case, because of the flies.”
Ringo’s seemingly harmless nature becomes dangerous when it intersects with Mir’s love life. Ever since her time on the tramlines, she has been awaiting a letter from the man she says she threw out of her house that day. Ringo is aware of this as, after he loses his finger, he spends a lot of time in a nearby bar where the letter is to be delivered. He becomes directly involved when he meets the man one night and promises to deliver the letter for him, only to become so drunk he loses it. His attempts to reconstruct the letter (hence the calligraphy of the title) display the gap between his imagination and reality.
This is only one aspect of the way the novel shows Ringo entering the adult world, a world still shaken by the Civil War, the repercussions of which require an extra layer of secrets to be decoded. Strangely, Marse chooses not to tell the story chronologically, with episodes from Ringo’s childhood interrupting the main plotline. While Marse’s portrayal of Ringo is sympathetic, he also shows him to be detached from the urgency of the post-war period, as if representing a generation who had not fought in the war, but, having seen their parents dreams shattered, were now retreating from reality to write dreams of their own. In Ringo’s experience, we see the disillusionment of a country.