Posts Tagged ‘spanish lit month’

Chilean Poet

July 28, 2022

Given that Alejandro Zambra’s previous novel, Multiple Choice, was exactly that – a novel written in the form of multiple-choice questions – it would be fair to say that readers (most recently instructed Not to Read) can never be sure what to expect next. So perhaps we should not be too surprised that Zambra, who began his writing life a poet and was initially praised for short, poetic novels, has, with Chilean Poet, written his longest and most prosaic novel yet; long enough to, in fact, to make identifying its central character an example of multiple choice.

It begins as the story of Gonzalo, an aspiring poet, who we first meet as an aspiring lover, longing to progress from covert groping under a blanket with his girlfriend, Carla, to actual sex. An opportunity occurs when a road accident empties Carla’s home:

“Counting the thirty seconds the penetration lasted and the three and a half minutes they spent cleaning up the drops of blood and assimilating the insipid experience, the entire process took a mere four minutes.”

This is our first indication that Zambra’s poets are not heroic figures in a novel where male characters in particular will often find themselves more laughed at than lauded. Carla at first refuses to see Gonzalo again and then breaks up with him; it is at this point he discovers his love of verse:

“Gonzalo had no other option than to go all in on poetry: he locked himself in his room and in a mere five days produced forty-two sonnets.”

Though there is a brief reconciliation (a second attempt in a hotel room “Lasted about as long as it would take  a hundred-meter sprinter to run the first fifty meters”) the relationship ends but, as this amusing tale of adolescent love takes only the opening twenty pages, and it is not giving away too much to reveal they meet again number of years later in a gay bar – Gonzalo’s opening gambit is, “I’m not gay!” They rekindle their relationship, and, as Carla now has a child (Vincente), Gonzalo soon becomes part of a ready-made family. Zambra writes about relationships beautifully. He is particularly good on the way arguments escalate, for example when Gonzalo is caught letting Vincente ride in the front seat which Carla has expressly forbidden – he accepts he is in the wrong until she uses the word ‘betrayal’ to which he immediately adopts a passive aggressive tone:

“I’m so sorry for taking care of Vincente every single day.”

This, in turn, leads Carla to comment that at “times like this it’s clear you’re not his real father.” In fact, identifying his relationship with Vincente is something that torments Gonzalo. At one point, when asked, he says they are ‘friends’. Later, he reflects on the fact that stepfather in Spanish is much less positive term than in other languages. Eventually they reach the point where:

“Usually Carla thought that if she died, Gonzalo would go on living with Vincente. Gonzalo also thought that.”

Of course, this is not how things turn out.

Having invested half the novel in Gonzalo and Carla’s relationship, Part III begins with another fast forward through time. Vincente is a young adult and he, too, wishes to be a poet, and he, too, is in love – with an older American woman, Pru, whom he first met vomiting at the roadside. In many ways, Pru, rather than Vincente, is the main character of this section. We learn her back story: her escape from an abusive relationship; her love affair with her room-mate, Jessye; their plan to go to Chile and write an article for a magazine; Jessye backing out at the last moment – and, having bought the tickets, sending Pru to entirely the wrong part of Chile:

“If I had bought them, I wouldn’t be a dumb gringa lost at the ass-end of the world.”

Unfortunately, Pru is a less interesting character than either Gonzalo or Carla (who is now very much in the background), and her decision to research Chilean poets for her article leads us into literary satire, and, I suspect more than one dig at Bolano (whether at his expense or at the expense of his American readership is less clear). This is as entertaining as the earlier part of the novel but less engaging. Luckily, Zambra is not finished with Gonzalo, and, in the final part, the novel will return to his relationship with Vincente.

Chilean Poet is a warm-hearted, hopeful novel which showcases Zambra’s skill at writing relationships with both heart and humour. It is particularly good on the stepfather / stepson relationship between Gonzalo and Vincente, much more common in life than literature, which it portrays with great humanity. All Zambra’s characters are flawed, but no-one (not even Vincente’s real father, Leon) is entirely written off by the author. In the end, Zambra shows us poetry transcending literature to express love.

Lost Books – Two Crimes

July 23, 2022

Sadly, having read The Lightning of August and The Dead Girls, Two Crimes is the last of Mexican author Jorge Ibarguengoitia’s novels available in English (translated by Asa Zatz in 1984, five years after it was originally published). Another three novels remain untranslated as well as numerous short stories. The pity of this is that Ibarguengoitia is one of Latin America’s most entertaining writers (Juan Pablo Villalobos would be a good example of a modern writer with a similar sensibility) – and Two Crimes is probably his most entertaining book.

The novel begins straight-forwardly enough with a party thrown by Marcos and his wife, the Chamuca (which seems to be Portuguese for samosa leaving me to imagine a lewder interpretation…) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. This, however, is the traditional moment of happiness before their lives fall apart, a collapse which originates in the seemingly innocuous arrival of an uninvited guest, Evodio, who asks to stay the night. Although they know Evodio is a “dedicated activist” they have little idea of the danger this will put them in until they receive a phone call at work the next day to tell them that police are searching their apartment:

“And so that portion of my life came to a close.”

They go straight to the bus station and separate: the Chamuca to her cousins and Marcos to his uncle, Ramon, to borrow money so they can “go somewhere to live until this blows over.” As Marcos is narrating the novel, we follow him to his uncle’s – where he is refused entry by his cousin, Amalia. Unwittingly, Marcos finds himself at the centre of battle for his uncle’s inheritance, but he is able to gain admittance the next day when he returns with his uncle’s friend, Don Pepe. In fact, Marcos’ plan to get money from his uncle has nothing to do with any potential inheritance – instead he tells Ramon he has a business opportunity, an abandoned mine where cryolite can be extracted. He intends to make the money from the ‘costs and profitability study’ he will undertake which, as he tells his uncle:

“…you’ll have to pay me…even if the study should show that it is not an advisable investment.”

The uncle readily agrees, and, to stir things up, tells the cousins that he asked Marcos to come. So worried do they become that they offer to buy his share of the inheritance (without being sure he even has one) and, when that doesn’t work, sign an agreement that they will split the inheritance equally, whatever they get.

To complicate things further, Marcos becomes involved with Amalia’s daughter, Lucero, when he finds her in his room and she gives him “the most perfect kiss, technically speaking, that I had ever had in my life.” He soon doubts whether her apparent attraction can be trusted:

“A little later, when I was putting on my shirt, I noticed that the sixty-one pesos and the copy of the contract that were in the pocket had changed places.”

Not only does this not stop him pursuing her, but when he fails at the first attempt, he turns to Amalia instead:

“…it was an irresistible impulse. I was inside Amalia’s room before I realised it. What a different reception that was!”

The con, however, seems to be working, until the unexpected arrival of Marcos’ wife, and the death of Ramon soon after. Ibarguengoitia’s handling of the plot is masterful, but his stroke of genius to hand the narrative over at this point to a new narrator, Don Pepe. This gives us a different perspective on the first half of the novel – we realise that, for all his enthusiasm, Ramon did not trust Marcos, assuming that he would disappear with the thousand pesos he had given him and the Land Rover he borrowed:

“Doesn’t that story Marcos told us about the beryllium mine sound like hokum to you?”

Don Pepe then drives the narrative forward as he hunts of Marcos after Ramon’s death. The change in perspective works brilliantly, refreshing the narrative when it seems to have reached one conclusion, until we reach another. Marcos is charged with ‘two crimes’ – the original crime of ‘terrorism’ which forces him to go on the run, and his uncle’s murder – but, of course, although two crimes are indeed committed in the novel, these are quite different, and the last one occurs unexpectedly in the final pages. Two Crimes is a thoroughly entertaining novel from a master story-teller, with both its tension and humour working as well today as they did forty years ago.

Battles in the Desert

July 14, 2022

Although Jose Emilio Pacheco was perhaps primarily a poet, Battles in the Desert is the work for which he is likely to be remembered. As Fernanda Melchor points out in her afterword to this revised translation by Katherine Silver, “for decades Battles in the Desert has been one of the most widely read novels in Mexico.” What we remember is also central to the story itself, which begins:

“I remember – I don’t remember: what year was that?”

Pacheco goes on to set the scene in a Mexico which no longer exists; “the first post-war cars were rolling through the streets”; “it was the year of polio”; pictures of President Miguel Alimán are ubiquitous (“Public adulation, incessant private abuse.”) The disappearance of this world is already evident as Mexico ‘modernises’, becoming Americanised in its language and diet – “Coca-Cola was burying our aguas frescas.” (This impacts on the narrator, Carlos, more directly as his father’s soap factory suffers from the competition of American brands). Even in the playground the wider world is visible:

“When we played, we divided ourselves into two camps: Arabs and Jews.”

The “battles in the desert” are the battles which take place there, “a reddish yard of brick and volcanic rock,” but also suggest the general violence of Mexico (his parents’ “childhood, adolescence and youth had been spent against a constant backdrop of battles and executions”) and the world beyond. Pacheco also gives us a child’s eye view of the inequalities which exist. A visit to one classmate, Harry, sees the parents discuss Carlos in English and Harry, the next day, advise him to learn how to use his cutlery; at the other extreme he finds “a neighbourhood built out of scrap lumber” and his fellow student, Rosales, sleeping on the floor as his mother’s new boyfriend has kicked him out of the only bedroom.

This detailed scene setting, in what is a short novel, might seem out of place as the story itself is not one of political awakening, but unrequited love. However, in recreating the time and place, Pacheco is emphasising the importance of memory which combines a number of strands to create an impression. He also no doubt creates, among many readers, a certain amount of nostalgia which mimics the feeling of unrequited love, and suggests that Carlos’ longing is, in part, for a simpler past – simpler, that is, from his child’s perspective. There is also a moral simplicity to his life, fostered by his father. His friendship with Jim, whose mother he will fall in love with, begins when he defends him from bullying, but even here his father will remind him not to use ‘indio’ as an insult:

“My father said that in Mexico we are all Indians, even if don’t want to know it or admit it. If the Indians weren’t, poor nobody would use that word as an insult.”

According to Jim, his father is an important man whose picture appears in the papers. This puzzles Carlos – why does Jim not go to a better school? live in a better neighbourhood? – until he is told that Jim’s mother, Mariana, is the man’s mistress, and, in fact, he may not be the father anyway. All agree, however, that she is “very young and very beautiful’” as Carlos discovers for himself when he visits Jim. Carlos identifies the visit as a turning point in his life – for example, hearing a bolero immediately afterwards, he understands the longing in the words. He makes a conscious decision to preserve the memory:

“I’m going to hold onto the moment of this memory because everything that now exists will never be the same again.”

Of course, he also understands that, at his age, “the only thing anybody can do is fall in love secretly, silently… Fall in love knowing that all is lost and that there is no hope.” Carlos accepts from the beginning that his love for Mariana cannot be returned, but at the same time he insists his feelings are genuine. It is this painful tension which gives the novel its poignancy. When he eventually decides he must tell her how he feels, skipping school to do, so she treats him kindly, again focusing on memory:

“Think of this as something amusing, Carlos, something you’ll be able to remember with a smile when you grow up, not with hard feelings.”

The reaction of the adults around him when they discover this visit are less understanding.

Appropriately, the novel ends with an older Carlos remembering, and a final scene which preserves the memory for him but ensures it remains untouched by the present. Battles in the Desert is a perfectly formed novella of impossible love that will touch most readers’ hearts.

Even the Darkest Night

July 11, 2022

Javier Cercas quickly leaves the reader in no doubt that his latest novel, Even the Darkest Night (originally Terra Alta – literally ‘high land’ – a title that was temporarily attached to its UK publication) is a crime novel. “Two dead at the Adell country house,” is our third sentence, preceded only by the briefest of introductions to our central character, Melchor. Within a page however, we know he is married with a daughter, has only lived in Terra Alta for four years, and has a love of Les Miserables – the novel not the musical. And, in reference to the murders, according to his superior, Blai:

“What a shitstorm this is going to be.”

As befits a writer of Cercas’ standing, however, he knows when to slow the pace, and the murder scene itself is described in detail. The Adells, husband and wife, owners of the town’s largest business, have not simply been killed but extensively tortured beforehand:

“Two bloody masses of red and violet flesh face each other on a sofa and armchair soaked in a lumpy liquid – a mixture of blood, entrails, cartilage and skin – which has spattered the walls, the floor, and even as far as the fireplace.”

In every other way the murders (there are three as the live-in maid has also been killed) seem professional – the security system has been switched off in advance, and the only trace of the killers is a tyre print, but the make (Continental) is too common for this to be useful. This raises the suspicion that they were tortured in order extract information, but what that might be no-one can guess. The murders themselves are unusual in a town were, when he arrived, Melchor was told, “nothing ever happens.”

The novel, however, is more than the story of the crime; it is also Melchor’s story, and that is where Cercas has created an interesting and unusual hero. In the second chapter we go back to Melchor’s birth:

“His mother’s name was Rosario and she was a prostitute.”

Unsurprisingly, Melchor’s life does not go smoothly. At fourteen he is expelled from school, and by fifteen he is in front of a Juvenile Court. Cercas teases us with the opportunities Melchor has to turn over a new leaf – after all we know he is now a policeman – for example, when the judge decides to give him a second chance, or his mother tells him, “if you’re going to carry on living the way you were living before, I don’t want you in this house.” On each occasion, however, he goes deeper into the world of crime instead. Eventually he ends up in prison and it is there, after the shock of his mother’s violent death, that he begins to educate himself. Via a French prisoner, he encounters Les Miserables, identifying with Jean Valjean, but coming to admire Javert:

“But most of all he thought of Javert, of Javert’s hallucinatory rectitude, of Javert’s integrity and his scorn for evil, of Javert’s sense of justice, and Javert would never allow his mother’s murderer to go unpunished.”

This is the type of policeman Melchor will become, one who is relentless in his pursuit of justice, a quality which does not always sit easily with the practicalities of policing. We see this first in his determination to solve his mother’s murder, in particular his search for the prostitute who was with her when she met her final clients. This, of course, he does secretly, outside of his new role as a police officer. We also learn that he routinely beats up anyone he learns abuses women: although he is now on the other side of the law, he still retains a dark side. This is seen in the incident that leads to his posting to Terra Alta where he shoots four terrorists dead. He is regarded as a hero, but it is thought best he lie low for a while and so, for a second time, he must deny his past. To counter- balance this, Cercas gives him a happy family life, with a wife and young daughter.

The novel proceeds with a chapter set in the present followed by one telling the story of Melchor’s past – his arrival in Terra Alta, how he met his wife. Just as he did with the novel’s dramatic opening, Cercas surprises us again at the beginning of it’s second part when the case is closed unsolved. Of course, we know by now that Melchor will have difficulty accepting this. Cercas also returns to the subject that made his name, telling us of the quiet town:

“He did know that eighty years earlier, towards the end of the Civil War, it had been the site of the bloodiest battle in the history of Spain.”

The suggestion is that such violence can occur anywhere, and can have repercussions.

In the end, the solution to the mystery is satisfying, although it does rely on an unsolicited confession delivered personally to Melchor. It is the character’s backstory and the thematic resonance of Les Miserables (both, admittedly, bringing a certain amount of implausibility in their wake) that lift the novel beyond the ordinary thriller. I suspect it will not be the last we see of Terra Alta.

Goodbye, Ramona

July 1, 2022

Goodbye, Ramona was Montserrat Roig’s first novel, originally published in 1972, and now translated into English by Megan Berkobian and Maria Cristina Hall (following the success of Tiago Miller’s translation of The Song of Youth which was short-listed for the Republic of Consciousness Prize). It tells the story of three generations of Catalan women, grandmother, mother and daughter, all called Ramona, at three important moments in Catalan history. It opens and closes with a scene in which the mother, Ramona Ventura, searches for her husband, Joan, after a bombing raid in Barcelona during the civil war. This is not only a pivotal moment in Catalan’s history, but in her own, as she fears Joan is dead, a death that one suspects would have dramatically changed her future – a change which her daughter, with whom she is pregnant at the time, senses may have been positive. She describes her mother as “crushed by her husband’s very presence”:

“He frightened her and she didn’t make any effort to hide it, not even from her children.”

Later the novel will go on to reveal the back story to Ventura’s marriage, which perhaps begins with her mother, Ramona Jover’s, declaration that “I’ll never marry you off.” In fact, Ventura soon falls in love, but it is with a man called Ignasi:

“When she saw him two evenings later… Mundeta came to understand all that talk about beating hearts that she’d read about in novels, that a heart could race as if intending to burst, shattering into a million little pieces.”

On the day she is searching for Joan, Ventura looks back on this time as an exception in her life – “but everyone has a summer and a fall.” The difficulty for the three women in finding and holding onto happiness is a recurrent theme in the novel, emphasised by the fact that their stories are told concurrently, in fragments, moving from one to the other. Her own mother, Jover, whose story takes place at the turn of the century, finds herself in a conventional marriage with a man she likes but does not love:

“I feel none of the ivresse [intoxication] you read about in novels.”

Whereas her daughter finds love before she is married, she does so after, when she falls in love with a student, Victor:

“They say to love is to die. I must simply die of love then.”

Interestingly, in both cases, these love affairs are kept from Ramona Claret, who represents the youngest generation. Instead, her mother frequently talks about “an entire day spent searching for your father,” and whenever her grandmother talks about her husband, Francisco, “she did so like a woman in love, and Mundeta envied her for it.” Roig is charging these women with a dishonesty that perpetuates the difficulties women have in finding, and accepting, happiness. Ironically, Ramona Claret sees herself as rebelling against the previous generations in her own relationship with Jordi. She, too, has romantic ideas about love – “She’d spent her whole life searching for her one true love…”- and she longs to:

“…be back by his side, and for them both to be thinking that nothing else mattered but their own little world, just the two of them.”

Unfortunately, she is a student at the time of political unrest – at one point the universities are closed – and Jordi is heavily involved in the movement. This could perhaps be a warning sign for her if she knew the history of her family, as both her mother and grandmother’s ‘true loves’ were also politically active:

“Mundeta noticed that they’d set off from two distinct, irreconcilable points: she found herself in a universe in decline, unimaginative, corrupted for which the only plausible ending would be, at best, the triumph of individual happiness. It was very different in Jordi’s case: he belonged to family for which the word ‘struggle’ possessed, as was tradition, an optimistic and ascending meaning.”

To some extent, this dichotomy is central to the novel, which provides us with a version of Catalan history that acknowledges the political history but is focused on the emotional impact. It also demonstrates both changes which take place in women’s lives over almost a hundred years, and the factors which remain the same. Fittingly, it’s conclusions are nuanced rather than feminist, with Jordi telling Ramona Claret that, “we’re nothing but tiny particles, countless, inexistant nearly invisible particles. We’re not the centre of the world,” and Ramona Ventura realising amid the ruins:

“The truth is I’ve been moulded out of details and miniscule events which will never add up to much of anything at all.”

Goodbye, Ramona is a thoughtful, engaging kaleidoscope of women’s lives in the 20th century, and another example of Montserrat Roig’s skill as an author which is, thankfully, now being revealed to us.

The Lightning of August

July 31, 2021

Latin America not only has a history of dictators, but an entire genre of dictator novels, from Miguel Angel Asturia’s The President to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. In The Lightning of August, Jorge Ibarguengoitia offers us a different viewpoint, that of General Jose ‘Lupe’ Arroyo, whose attempts to gain power have a tendency towards catastrophe, none of which, in his telling, are his own fault. The novel holds the heroes of the Mexican revolution up to the light and finds them wanting: rather than heroism what we see is self-interest, back-stabbing and military incompetence. In making Lupe the narrator of his own story, zealously defending his own actions, Ibarguengoitia mines a rich vein of ironic humour.

As the novel opens it is clear that Lupe has some score-settling to do, targeting, in particular, the memoirs of a fellow general:

“I want to make it perfectly clear that I was not born in a dirt-floor hut, as Fatty Artajo claims, and my mother was not a prostitute, as some have hinted; nor is it true that I never entered a school room.”

Such asides occur throughout the novel and, such is Lupe’s propensity for presenting himself in an unfailingly favourable light, they often have the effect of seeming more believable than his own version of his life story. This, and his not unrelated inability to back down, are his defining characteristics. We see the latter in effect early in the novel, alongside the bad luck that will dog him throughout. Lupe is appointed Private Secretary to the newly elected President, Marcos Gonzalez – but Gonzalez manages to die while Lupe is in transit to his new posting, and before officially taking office. When Lupe does arrive, Gonzalez’s widow tells him her husband’s final words were, “I want Lupe to have my gold watch,” but the watch is now missing. Lupe immediately blames the only other visitor to Gonzalez’s death bed, Eulalio Perez, whom he promptly pushes into an empty grave at the funeral. The next day, however, Lupe and his comrades, plotting to seize power, are outmanoeuvred and Perez is named Acting President. Though his fellow Generals beg him, Lupe refuses to consider apologising, even when he returns to his hotel room to find a note from Gonzalez’s widow to say she has found the watch:

“I decided that even if Perez hadn’t stolen the watch in question, the punishment was well deserved anyway because he’d been a dishonest man all his life.”

The real power, however, lies with Vidal Sanchez. When Lupe complains that Perez is incapable of organising an election, Sanchez retorts, “Where did you get the idea anyone gives a damn about a free election?” The novel goes on to recount the lead-up to the election. Sanchez forbids the military from belonging to any political party, but Lupe and his friends think they have outwitted him:

“While it would appear the party’s sole assets were two remarkable orators… it would actually boast some twenty thousand fully armed and equipped troops.”

However, Sanchez promptly resigns his post so he can stand for election.

The approaching election is more about military manoeuvring than campaigning for votes. Though often bordering on farcical, the novel also highlights an atmosphere of fear, for example when the generals are meeting and find their telephone lines cut:

“People I’ve told this story to invariably ask why we were so frightened. They don’t realise that anyone who gets involved in politics has to be prepared for the worst.”

The generals work together but have little respect for each other – one is even known as the Jinx and, when, in perhaps the novel’s most farcical episode, attempts to roll a train carriage full of dynamite towards the enemy repeatedly fail, Lupe has an idea:

“And then it occurred to me that the best idea might be to let it go with the Jinx on board. Maybe he’d take his bad luck with him.”

Lupe is similarly scathing when it comes to their presidential candidate, Juan Valdivia:

“The fact that Juan Valdivia was incompetent had been fully demonstrated. What I can’t understand is not that the troops realised he was a bungler, but that we hadn’t discovered it before we made him Commander in Chief of the East Army of the Restoration Forces.”

The Lightning of August is history as farce, demonstrating that the fate of a country often relies on the whims and flaws of those in and with power, and that political rhetoric is frequently used to excuse personal ambition. That Lupe himself reveals this in the story he tells is a masterstroke, his apparent openness uncovering his own delusions.

A Perfect Cemetery

July 27, 2021

There is so much to admire about Charco Press, who have opened up a new world of Latin American literature to an English-speaking audience over the last few years, that perhaps not enough is made of the fact that they, beyond the risk of publishing previously unheard-of authors, have more than once done so with a commercially precarious collection of short stories. This has brought us Margarita Garcia Robayo’s Fish Soup, Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up, and now, Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, translated by International Booker Prize winner, Jennifer Croft. The collection grabs the reader’s attention from the opening sentence of the first story, ‘The Hares’:

“The king of the hares finished his coffee, put out the furs and set his cup down on a rock that was still hot.”

The juxtaposition of the strange, dream-like ‘king of the hares’ with the ordinary everyday act of drinking coffee is a feature of Falco’s writing throughout. The story begins like some ancient tale, with an altar of bleached bones and the hares circled around the king, “ears pricked, the slits in their noses probing the air.” When the king ventures into town he is spotted and chased, only escaping via the river. But a visit from a young woman, Cristina, suggests a more a more contemporary backstory from the moment she calls him Oscar. Falco provides enough detail to convince – for example, the names which feature in Cristina and Oscar’s conversation – without ever explaining, leaving the story suspended between the fantasy world of its opening and the ordinary world of its end.

The fantastic and the ordinary also battle it out in the title story as architect Victor Bagiardelli is hired to design a cemetery for the town of Colonel Isabeta. He is immediately determined to create the perfect cemetery:

“In his mind’s eye he could already see the new cemetery. The site could not have been better – he would never encounter its equal.”

Bargiardelli sees himself as an artist – “as though commanding an orchestra he began to conduct the movement of the bulldozers” – and refuses to compromise his vision despite the mayor’s concerns over the budget. Bargiardelli worries about the entrance gate, which the blacksmith will not show him until it is finished, and finding an oak tree big enough for his centre-piece, whereas in the mayor’s opinion “it is insane to pay that much for a plant.” Single-minded as he is, Bargiardelli must navigate the living as well as the dead: the mayor’s 104-year-old father whose deteriorating relationship with his son colours his view of the architect; and the mayor’s secretary, Mis Mahoney, whose advances he ignores to focus on his project. Whereas ‘The Hares’ feels as if a novel may lie behind it, ‘The Perfect Cemetery’ in lesser hands would have been stretched to novel length.

The same is true of ‘Forest Life’ which begins with a father trying to persuade the local undertaker to marry his daughter, Mabel:

“She knows how to sew, and she can make a good dinner, and she can clean…”

When this is unsuccessful, he tries again in a restaurant – “I’m giving her away” – but to no avail. What seems cruel proves to be a sign of their close relationship: their house is about to be taken from them as the forest around it is cut down and her father can see no other way to safeguard their future. Eventually she marries a Japanese man, Sakoiti, who pays for her father to go into a retirement home. He is polite and kind, even when it comes to sex:

“Are you comfortable? Are you relaxed? You can concentrate on how it feels, I’m going to give you pleasure…”

However, her father seems unable to leave their old life behind, and Mabel struggles to embrace her new one. A culture clash of a different kind takes place in ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ when the teenage Silvi, whose mother administers the last rites to those in need, loses her faith. At the same time, she falls for one of a pair of young Mormon men going from house to house:

“She couldn’t take her eyes off Steve’s hands, Steve’s fingernails, Steve’s knees bent beneath the fabric of his trousers, his firm muscles, the taut grey seam.”

Her mother fears the Mormon’s have ’brain-washed’ her but in fact they are made uneasy by Silvi’s repeated attempts to convince Steve she loves him. What is in some ways a simple coming-of-age story becomes a spiritual battle ground, not least because Silvi’s growth will be spiritual if not religious.

As with the other stories in A Perfect Cemetery, ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ demonstrates Falco’s skill with unusual relationships. All the stories contain characters who are devoted to another, whether that devotion is reciprocated or not. This, Falco seems to suggest, is where the complexity and wonder of the world lies. This is another excellent collection from Charco, and one can only hope that more of Falco’s work will follow.

Taratuta / Still Life with Pipe

July 25, 2021

The Latin American Boom is most closely associated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar, but if there were a fifth member of that illustrious, though not necessarily united, grouping, it would be Chilean Jose Donoso, who also wrote a personal history of the movement. And yet Donoso’s work is now entirely out of print in English, and any reader who decided to take an interest in him would find they had acquired an expensive hobby. The two novellas Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe are among his later work, originally published (in one volume) in 1990, and translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1993. Both are, in different ways, about artistic creation.

Taratuta explores a theme of central concern to the writers of the Boom period, the relationship between history and fiction, though Donoso takes what might be termed a post-modern approach, as is common in his later work. Not only does he feature as the narrator of the story, but, in it, he grapples noy only with an attempt to turn a minor historical character, Taratuta, into fiction, but to verify that character in fact. He first encounters Taratuta in a biography of Lenin – he is the lover of a wealthy young woman who must marry another (as she is still a minor) so that the fortune she has inherited can be pledged to the Bolshevik cause. Even his name, however, is uncertain:

“By what authority does Walter state that Lodzinski was the person’s surname and not Taratuta or Moskovsky as others assert, or Kammerer, which was the name he adopted when he finally retired to San Remo?”

“What is the truth?” he asks himself, while at the same time sensing “the basis for a tremendous serial novel.” Ironically it is not the difficulty in getting to the truth that initially stops the narrator going any further, but the fact that Taratuta seems too perfect for fiction:

“…he belonged more to literature than to life, adorned as he was with novelistic attributes so that neither his deceptive revolutionary fervour nor his debateable loyalty to the Party succeeded in bringing him back into the world of real people for me: he stubbornly remained a character, not a person.”

When he writes an article about Taratuta, however, he receives a letter from a young man in Spain with the same name – “Did he dare think that somewhere in the world he had relatives with that name?” – but a reply is returned unanswered. Of course, that is not the end of the story, as coincidence will ensure that they meet later when the narrator is in Spain, with the ensuing relationship influencing the young man more than Donoso’s story.

If Taratuta feels, at times, by its very nature, a story still in the process of being written, poking fun at the life of a writer, Still Life with Pipe is a more focused satire of the visual arts. Its narrator, Marcos Ruiz Gallardo, sees himself as “a person of greater culture”, head of the Association for the Defense of the National Artistic Heritage – which, in the story’s opening sentence, we learn has just been dissolved in some acrimony. The real story begins when he plans a clandestine night in a hotel with his fiancée, Hildita. The hotel room itself is not a success – Hildita, he discovers, is aroused only by their previously secretive and hurried love-making (“she liked in it in the dark, with clothes on… and trousers only halfway open in case somebody came in…”) but in the town they come across the ‘Larco Museum’, filled with paintings by the (previously unknown to them) artist, Larco. Gallardo is not impressed:

“Everything seemed atrociously ugly to me, with dirty grays and browns and decomposed shapes that I had to put back together again, all far removed from the precepts of beauty that our association prized.”

The caretaker, who says he travelled with Larco everywhere, tells them stories of the painter in Paris and offers to sell them Still Life with Pipe but Gallardo regards the paintings as “devoid of merit.” Only later does he begin to worry:

“…what if that painting turned out to be a work of art, a painting worthy of a museum, the work of a genius that I wasn’t capable of appreciating because of my ignorance…”

Gallardo returns, going on to be offered the painting again, but when the caretaker says he seems to like it he cannot help but comment that “It’s poor in colour.” On a further visit the caretaker offers to give him the painting but he refuses claiming, now that he has involved the Association in ‘saving’ Larco’s work, that “it belongs to the national artistic heritage.” (Gallardo’s desire to own the painting but inability to take ownership suggests the ambiguous relationship with art the story is highlighting).

The target of Still Life with Pipe may seem an obvious one, but Donoso executes it with flair (the inclusion of Gallardo’s relationship with Hildita is a particularly amusing touch) and still manages to surprise us as the story heads towards its conclusion. Although these two novellas are not regarded as among Donoso’s major work, they demonstrate a writer of great skill and humour who deserves to be rediscovered.

Forty Lost Years

July 20, 2021

Rosa Maria Arquimbau was a Catalan writer whose career was disrupted by the Spanish Civil War and the years of dictatorship which followed. Born in 1909, she began publishing short stores as a teenager, and worked as a journalist during the early 1930s while also writing novels and plays. Politically active, she was driven into exile after the Republican defeat and publication became increasingly difficult, particularly with the banning of the Catalan language. Forty Lost Years is one of two novels she published in the 1970s as restrictions eased. The novel opens with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931 and covers the forty years of the title to the time of publication.

The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen when the novel opens, slightly younger than the author. Though an obvious comparison for the novel is Merce Rodereda’s In Diamond Square, which has also been translated by Peter Bush, Laura reminded me much more of the protagonists of another writer who wrote about the experiences of young women struggling to survive in the thirties, Irmgard Keun. If anything, Laura is tougher than Keun’s narrators, as is quickly evident:

“…I never cried, not when I was a kid, not even when I got a slap for doing something naughty. I never ever cried.”

Like them, she has a lust for life, and, though she sees herself as a “skinny kid”, wears bright red lipstick out of her family’s sight, and dreams of buying high heels. Above all, she longs for freedom:

“I wanted to grow up once and for all and be a woman. To be able to do whatever I wanted. And not to have to ask permission to do everything. To be free.”

Unlike her friend, Herminia, however, her ambition is not to marry and have children, but to set up her own fashion house. Where Kuen’s characters can be cynical regarding men, they still face the danger of falling in love; Laura’s approach is practical rather than romantic: “I think trial marriages should be allowed;” she tells Herminia, “besides, why can’t women have the same freedom as men?” When she attracts the attention of a married man, Tomas, (it is now 1934 – the years passing can often be measured by the political events in the background) she is again practical (“Letting him love me, I reckoned, wouldn’t be so hard”) and allows him to sleep with her:

“After the first few, quite unpleasant moments, I decided it was overrated, and not worth the fuss.”

However, she continues the affair, allowing Tomas to pay for a flat for her so she can move out and start her dress-making business. In her view, “Morality was exclusively followed by the poor because they had no choice.”

When the civil war begins, conditions in Barcelona deteriorate and food becomes scarce. Laura is helped by a ‘patrol gang lad’ who brings her potatoes and flour but when he asks to marry her, she tells him, “Let’s keep things simple, kid.” Eventually she leaves Spain, as so many did, for France, with Herminia and her sister, Engracia. (Plans to emigrate further to Mexico are hampered by officialdom halfway and, for a time, she is stranded in Morocco). In France she once again enters into a practical arrangement with a man:

“I got on with Francesc. I mean we got on in a special way. He seemed to need my affection, and I needed his flat.”

It is not that Laura uses the men in her life – her relationships do not feel cynically one-sided – but she is ruled by her head rather than her heart, seeing them as contracts where both parties benefit. It is Engracia who becomes cynical – after he first husband dies, she marries a wealthy man twenty years older. Laura values her freedom too much, telling Tomas on her return to Barcelona, when he asks if she has a boyfriend:

“I don’t and have not wish to have one, provided I can work and earn my own living.”

Even when she does fall in love with a young journalist, who does not feel the same, her will power is such that she carries on regardless of how she is feeling. “It took all my strength,” she tells us, “to get over being ditched.” By this point she is a successful fashion designer and businesswoman, but we sense that the ‘forty lost years’ are not only those of Spain’s suffering, but of her own lack of emotional fulfilment.

Forty Lost Years may only be 140 pages long, but it has the feel of an epic, covering not only the turbulent history of Catalonia over that time, but the astonishing journey of its central character from little more than a child to a successful, independent woman. Laura’s determination to survive, and remain free, is inspiring, but also touches on the personal sacrifices that she must make. There have been fifty lost years as we have awaited for this wonderful novel to be translated into English.

August, October

July 17, 2021

Spanish author Andres Barba’s breakthrough with English-speaking readers came in 2017 with Such Small Hands, but Lisa Dillman had already translated two earlier novels into English for Hispabooks, Rain Over Madrid and August, October. In August, October we see the same concern with the innocence and cruelty of childhood though in a more conventional coming-of-age story, despite being written two years later. Tomas is fourteen and holidaying with his parents and younger sister, Anita, by the sea, as they do every year. This year, however, Tomas is no longer a child, but, as Barbas makes clear, not yet an adult:

“His face had grown sharper, his lips had stopped being so fleshy and gotten thinner…his cheekbones protruded, too, as did his chin, which, together with his round, childlike eyes, gave his face a frightened-boy look.”

Barbas perfectly captures the confused emotions of adolescence, for example his desire to call his Aunt Eli a ‘sick cow’ – an urge that is “too new and compelling to go unheeded.”

“He wanted to be risky, to jeopardise everything.”

This impulse can be seen when he stays under water even as he knows he is running out of air, losing consciousness when he finally makes it to dry land. It also plays a part in the encounter which will change his summer, with a group of local, working-class boys:

“He knew he had to strike first; it didn’t matter what happened after that, he had to strike first.”

A brief scuffle with one of the boys follows but, just as quickly, they invite him to go swimming with them at the docks. Tomas becomes part of the group, though at the same time he is aware that they are different from him:

“They couldn’t have been more then fourteen, yet they were older than him, as old as fossil fish, as survival, as torture or neglect.”

Spending every day with the boys, his relationship with his family changes, he becomes “sullen, presumptuous, independent” and his parents and sister fade in importance – “they were sort of distant irritating figures.” He is most intrigued by the way the boys talk about sex, in a “clinical, neutral way” –

“They didn’t brag, but nor did they skip over embarrassing, even sordid, details.”

However, an incident with Frani, one of the girls the boys hang around with, leaves him feeling humiliated.

At the same time as Tomas is having deal with the reality of sex rather than desire as an abstraction (at the beginning he fantasises about “an indistinct amalgam of imaginary bodies”), he is also having to come to terms with death, which proves just as difficult, when he is told that his Aunt Eli is terminally ill:

“Because if sick-Aunt-Eli was still a decontextualised concept – something almost abstract, distended by incredulity despite the fact he’d watched her deteriorate that summer – then deathbed-Aunt-Eli was a flat-out fiction, like a room with no joists, one that was impossible to enter.”

Tomas’ two worlds collide when he is out with Anita and spots Frani and the girls with another girl he doesn’t know:

“… she looked slightly older, or bigger boned, but her movements were more childlike and uncoordinated. It took him nearly ten minutes to realise she was retarded.”

Frani sends the new girl, Marita, with a message and we see how uncomfortable Tomas is with the cruel humour of the girls, particularly in the company of his sister. Tomas spends time away from the boys, taking his turn sitting with his aunt in hospital as she dies. When he returns, he sees them differently, “subtler, shrewder, more sombre.” It is a warning of what is to come. On the final night of the holiday, Tomas decides, “I’m going to fuck tonight” but the gang can’t find the girls – only Marita. In what follows Tomas finds himself far away from the person he was at the beginning of the novel.

Tomas’ August ends with a guilt that haunts him when he returns home. “I’m not a good person,” he tells his sister, “I’ve done very bad things.” Sex itself disgusts him, as when a girl in his class develops feelings for him:

“It wasn’t specifically Lourdes’ desire he found so unpleasant but desire in and of itself, any desire for bodies on top of one another.”

Finally, in October, his shame prompts him into action, but is there anything he can do which will alter the way he feels? August, October is not as original as Barbas other work – there are echoes, for example, of Alberto Moravia’s Agostino – but what raises it above the average coming-of age story is the deftness with which Barbas portrays the moods of adolescence, the shape-shifting not only of Tomas’ identity, but of how he sees others. As with all his books, it warns us of humanity’s latent cruelty which can so easily consume us and which we must constantly guard against, though it is not without hope of forgiveness.