Posts Tagged ‘Roland Buti’

Seven Books of Summer

July 31, 2020

Now we are in the very midst of summer, it seemed an appropriate time to suggest some summer reading, but, rather than choosing books based only on the pleasure to be had from reading them (which would presumably be unchanged even in deepest winter) here are seven which are specifically about summer and holidays…

Agostino by Alberto Moravia, translated by Michael F Moore

Agostino, Alberto Moravia’s fourth novel, written in 1942 but refused publication in fascist Italy, is set almost entirely on the beach. And when not on the beach, the characters are most likely to be found at sea. It’s a coming of age story in which the title character suddenly realises that his mother exists outwith her role as his mother a she pursues an affair with a “tanned, dark-haired young man” she has met. Meanwhile Agostino demonstrates some independence of his own as he joins a gang of rougher boys who roam the coast.

In summery: “The two of them would dry themselves languorously in the sun, which became more ardent with the approach of midday.”

Any clouds on the horizon? It’s suggested that Saro, the boatman is a paedophile – after Agostino has been out on his boat with him, he cannot convince the other boys he hasn’t been ‘interfered with’.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home was Deborah Levy’s sixth novel (if you include Diary of a Steak) but its Booker nomination catapulted her to deservedly wider acclaim. Poet Joe Jacobs is holidaying with his family in a villa near Nice. The idyllic setting is in contrast to the cast of damaged individuals and failing relationships paraded across it, not helped by the arrival of Kitty Finch, a young women who believes she has a special connection with Jacobs.

In summery: “Two plump bumblebees crawled down the yellow curtains searching for an open window.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The novel begins with a body in the pool. This is a false alarm, but also a warning of what is to come.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute, translated by Laura Lonsdale

Ana Maria Matute’s 1960 novel, The Island, recently issued in a new translation by Laura Lonsdale, is set on the island of Mallorca, now a popular holiday destination, though not so much at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War when the action takes place. 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 Republic. Over the course of the novel she is exposed to the prejudices and violence of the island.

In summery: “Santa Catalina had a very small beach with a fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge, and the seashells cracked under our feet as we leapt from the boat, shattering like bits of crockery.”

Any clouds on the horizon? Though the war is distant, the island does not escape its repercussions. Matia and her friend Borja discover a body on the beach one day…

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, written prior to her Neapolitan quartet, tells the story of a middle-aged woman, Leda, who feels liberated when her daughters leave home and decides to take a holiday by the sea in southern Italy. Once there, though she finds herself observing a young mother and her child. When the child goes missing it is Leda who finds her and, mysteriously, keeps hold of the girl’s doll.

In summery: “The sand was white powder, I took a long swim in transparent water, and sat in the sun.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The missing child may seem like the novel’s most dramatic moment, but Leda ahs a secret in her past to be discovered.

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Anyone of a certain age will remember the eerily hot summer of 1976 where Roland Buti sets his coming of age story, Year of the Drought. For thirteen-year-old Gus, the sun is not a pleasure as his father is a farmer who recently bought hundreds of chickens which are now dying in the intense heat. This is not his father, or Gus’, only worry as a newcomer to the village has developed a very close friendship with Gus’ mother, and his parents’ marriage is under threat.

In summery: “The heat that had accumulated during the day now rose freely up to the sky. A warm wind, sequinned with burning particles, swooped down from the mountains like the breath of a huge animal crouching in the shadows.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The scene where Gus helps his dad clear out the dead chickens is far from pleasant.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds…” doesn’t immediately suggest ‘summer holiday’ but Spark’s 1970 novel begins with Lise shopping for holiday clothes before she flies to a city in southern Europe (probably Rome) in search of the ‘right man’. Of course, in Lise’s case, she means the right man to kill her. Spark described the novel as a ‘whydunnit’ but don’t imagine that question will receive an answer.

In summery: “…they stand on the pavement in the centre of the foreign city, in need of coffee and a sandwich, accustoming themselves to the layout, the traffic crossings, the busy residents, the ambling tourists and the worried tourists, and such of the unencumbered youth who swing and thread through the crowds like antelopes whose heads, invisibly antlered, are airborne high to sniff the prevailing winds, and who so appear to own the terrain beneath their feet that they never look at it.”

Any clouds on the horizon? As is often the case with Spark’s novels, we are well aware of what is on the horizon long before we reach it.

Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe

Don’t be fooled by the apparently happy-go-lucky title – holiday heart is, in fact, a heart condition caused by over-indulging while on vacation. In Margarita Garcia Robayo’s novel it might also suggest that Pablo and Lucia, married nineteen years, find that their own hearts have left home. Pablo finds solace in other women as Lucia becomes colder. He is in danger of losing his job, she of losing touch with her children.

In summery: “He rubbed his eyes. They were still dazzled from the glare of the afternoon sun bouncing off the sand, white and burning like dry ice.”

Any clouds on the horizon? As well as Pablo’s possibly life-threatening heart condition, there are numerous uncomfortable scenes, including their young son declaring on the beach, “I don’t like black people.”

Year of the Drought

September 7, 2017

The Year of the Drought, in Roland Buti’s novel (now translated by Charlotte Mandell, his first to appear in English), is 1976. Auguste, or Gus, is thirteen years old – only a few years older than I would have been that year – and living on a farm with his mother, father and older sister, Lea. His father has invested in hundreds of chickens which he plans to fatten and sell but the intense heat is causing an ever-increasing mortality rate. The real threat to the family, however, arrives in the form of Gus’ mother’s friend, Cecile. The oppressive weather, and Buti’s decision to end each chapter not so much with a cliff-hanger but with a moment of heightened emotion, creates a sense of impending doom unusual for a coming-of-age novel.

Gus, like any other thirteen-year-old, lives much of his life in his imagination; he has, for example, his own explanation for the heatwave:

“I myself was of the opinion that an asteroid had fallen somewhere in the area, a huge heavenly body composed of an unknown metal, and giving off toxic vapours.”

He longs for something out of the ordinary to happen:

“In the hope that something astounding might happen to me, I had acquired the habit of remaining still for very long periods of time… But nothing changed… No mysterious stranger, having floated done from the sky in a basket after an immense voyage through space and time, was ever threading his way towards us through the woods.”

When a stranger does arrive she is both ordinary and extraordinary: a woman who works in the Post Office yet seems to possess a sophistication and glamour absent in the countryside. She initially charms Gus, when she meets him by the roadside, with her enthusiasm for his drawing, his dove (which he is caring for while its tail feathers regrow) and even the farm horse, Bagatelle’s, defecation.

“Looking straight into my eyes she gave me a big, loud, slow kiss on each cheek. I inhaled her breath. It smelled of honey and liquorice.”

Soon Cecile moves in and slowly we realise that her relationship with Gus’ mother is more than friendship, as Buti subtly reveals:

“As she rose, she deliberately brushed against Cecile’s arm, slowing down to prolong the contact.”

Later, Gus will discover that it is his father sleeping in the spare room, and, later still, he spots his mother and Cecile at a stream where he has gone with his friend Maddy to cool off:

“Satisfied they were alone, their movements became freer and more relaxed. Cecile was the first to take off her dress, drawing it over her head in a single, fluid motion that seemed to make it magically disappear.”

The novel may seem to explore two disparate themes: one of love outside of the social conventions of the time, the other of the mechanisation of farming which is shown to be still at the mercy of the elements. Both are united, though, by the loss of control felt by Gus’ father, and the characters in general:

“It must have seemed to Dad that a cosmic shift in the natural order had taken place… One world, the lower one, that you hoped to master through work, through daily care of your animals and plants, that you could almost understand because it was almost human, and part of a universe subject to our human will – this world had yielded to another, different kind of nature, lofty distant, often incomprehensible, yet always imposing itself on us.”

Neither the drought nor his wife’s love can be controlled. Similarly, his wife cannot control her passion. The heat comes to represent that passion – oppressive, unspoken – which is expressed when they spend time together by the stream, an Edenic, out of the world moment. This is echoed in a sexual encounter Gus has with Maddy shortly after when together they sneak into the town reservoir. (There are many other examples of this, from Bagatelle’s refusal to move from a glade where he has gone to die to Rudy, a farm labourer with Down’s syndrome’s belief that every woman who visits the farm is the ‘one’).

Year of the Drought is a novel of many vivid scenes (clearing out the dead chickens will be hard to forget) which Buti manages to imbue with a power beyond his words. He takes an ordinary family and places them under extraordinary stresses, the father in particular taking on almost tragic hero proportions. An English language debut that is well worth seeking out.