Posts Tagged ‘spanish lit month’

Lost Books – The Devil’s Trill

July 27, 2020

In his obituary for Daniel Moyano in 1992, Andrew Graham-Yooll (who had interviewed Moyano for his book After the Despots) described him as “one of the lesser known of the best of Latin American writers”. He goes on to tell how Moyano won the magazine Primera Plana’s annual literary prize in 1967 for his novel El Oscuro, judged by no less than Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar. That novel, like most of Moyano’s work, has still not been translated into English. In fact, all we have is his 1974 novel, The Devil’s Trill, translated by Giovanni Pontiero in 1988. The novel is a playful satire which uses music to explore the role of art.

The novel begins with the founding of the city of Todos los santos de la Nueva Rioja in 1591, in the wrong place due to a clerical error:

“The city’s location in the middle of the desert would make it both hard to reach and hard to leave. The people would find no work there, food would be scarce and the more ferocious among them would take up arms against the central government.”

The challenges of survival are borne out in the experiences of Triclinio’s family: first their cow dies, then their goat, and finally the father turns to bee-keeping to survive, a strategy hampered by the scarcity of flowers. The story of Pagnini in a magazine convinces him that Triclinio’s salvation lies in learning to play the violin:

“This secret desire absorbed the old man’s thoughts of making it possible for Triclinio to study something before the bees, which were becoming ever more translucent, should finally turn into air and vanish forever.”

Fortuitously there is a violin teacher in the city, but Triclinio’s talent does him little good as a “decree specified that La Rioja was to concentrate on folk music, thus reserving for cosmopolitan Buenos Aires all other types of music.” And so, Triclinio heads for the capital with his violin, surprised to find that he is no longer alone, as the landlord of his boarding-house tells him:

“Here everyone is a violinist, all these boarding-houses cater for violinists, as do some of the hotels… In Buenos Aires everyone pays the violin but not to earn a living as you seem to think… Here people earn their living in the meat trade and only play the violin to combat what you might call a sort of spleen…”

In this way Monyano explores the purpose of art in a light-hearted, almost absurdist manner. Later a character will tell him that both the inhabitants of La Rioja and Buenos Aires have it wrong as:

“Come what may, we need beauty in order to exist, for beauty is the human dimension of reality.”

Triclinio remains an innocent: his desire is only to play his violin He is not a man of ideas, as Monyano explicitly states – his head is too full of noises:

“For some time now he had wanted to know about the world and himself, without the terrifying abstractions of rhythms and notes, but on the rare occasion when he succeeded, he could not clarify his thoughts for instead of sounds, words throbbed through his head, phrases which he had heard or which had occurred to him or which were inspired by statues and monuments; resounding words that embellished history and served no real purpose.”

This allows Monyano to approach politics with Triclinio’s wide-eyed innocence, revealing then absurdity behind Argentina’s often cruel and chaotic history. A letter to the president gains Triclinio an invitation to the presidential palace when there is (naturally) a coup. He leaves via the gallery of deposed presidents:

“Tricliano caught a glimpse of an artist concealed behind a pile of books who was furtively committing to canvas the physical traits of the reigning president.”

He becomes involved in a protest when he is distracted by the legs of a choir of factory girls and finds himself water-cannoned out of the city and into the exile of Violinville, a violin shaped shanty town on the outskirts. There he begins a relationship with the daughter of a powerful man, though she tells him:

“I shall only be able to love you when the country gains some stability and that strikes me as being extremely unlikely, if not impossible.”

What is most striking about Monyano is his gentle humour which frequently veers towards the ridiculous but is never simply silly. He’s not adverse to poking fun at his forebears, at one point describing Triclinio walking “with his violin and the bees which often followed him from home all the way to the Conservatoire as in a story buy Garcia Marquez.” If anything, his own imagination is more outlandish, as when the city of La Rioja is “covered with a huge circus tent with the mountains of Velasco and Famatina as supports. Anyone who wanted to know what was happening in the province had to pay an entrance fee.” The novel also includes an Australian opera featuring a kangaroo and a platypus. And yet it is quite clear throughout that Monyano is using this to comment on life in Argentina, particularly for artists. The Devil’s Trill is a short, endearing novel that deserves to be more widely read. Unfortunately for us, Monyano’s imagination is only restrained by a lack of translation.

Beauty Salon

July 21, 2020

When Mario Bellatin’s 1994 novel Beauty Salon was reprinted in 2015 he had a very pubic falling out with his Spanish publisher: “Published without authorization and against the explicit will of its author.” This was not so much because he had disowned the novel, but because he had wanted it republished in a new form, rewritten to take account of “everything that happened during the twenty years past since the first publication of the book; a reflection on its current validity, but also an account of what happened with my life, with the elements that were part of it when the book was written.” (You can read more about this here.) For Bellatin, no work is ever finished, and transformation is constant, as can be seen in the English-language edition of Jacob the Mutant (mutation being another form of transformation) where the original text (which purports to be about a lost Joseph Roth novel) is accompanied by a longer text, ‘Could There Have Been a Reason for Writing Jacob the Mutant?’, and a further addition from the translator Jacob Steinberg. In the meantime we have the 2009 translation of Beauty Salon by Kurt Hollander which, at sixty-three pages, can barely lay claim to being a novella.

Beauty Salon, too, is about transformation – the title itself suggesting as much. Yet the transformation that occurs within its walls is no longer that of beautifying, but quite the reverse, “now that the salon has become the Terminal, where people who have nowhere to die end their days.” Those in the salon – that narrator and salon owner refers to them as ‘guests’ – are suffering from a nameless disease from which no-one recovers. There is a general terror of the disease as can be seen from the reaction of those who live near the salon:

“The neighbours tried to burn down the beauty salon, claiming that the place was a breeding ground for infection and that the plague had spread to their homes.”

The narrator, too, has changed in his new role of tending to the dying. He describes his life before as ‘dissipated’:

“I couldn’t wait for the days we hit the streets dressed as women.”

He tells how he and the other salon staff would head into town and, once there, change into women’s clothing in parks and gardens (“The whole transformation must be carried out there, hidden from sight”) and pick up men. Now, however, “I no longer have the energy to go out at night and cruise for men”:

“When the beauty salon changed I also felt an inner transformation.”

Much of Beauty Salon is taken up with the narrator’s introduction of tropical fish to the salon. He talks at length of the difficulties of keeping them alive, alternately tending them dearly and neglecting them (“Without any feelings of remorse I gradually stopped feeding them and hoped they would eat each other”). This, first of all, introduces the idea of nature as something cruel and merciless; when one fish gives birth another female fish tries to eat the babies. It also echoes the narrator’s treatment of the dying. One guest in particular he develops a closer relationship with:

“I guess I felt something special towards him, for I stopped looking after the other guests and throughout his time of suffering I only cared for him.”

Yet later, “From one minute to the next I completely lost interest in him.” When he dies he comments, “By that time the boy’s body was just another body I had to discard,” the word ‘discard’ linking him to the dead fish he removes from the tanks. Strangely, rather than make the narrator seem cruel this gives the impression he is suited to his task.

Beauty Salon is a very powerful and moving story, its more surreal elements only enhancing the tragedy at its centre. Though there is no direct link, it is difficult not to associate the nameless disease with AIDS (1994 was the year that AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans aged 22 -44) adding a layer of bitter reality to the tale, especially when the narrator too succumbs to the disease. It proves that, beyond his textual trickery, Bellatin has an emotional core. Unfortunately the English translation of Beauty Salon has fallen out of print and we can only hope it meets with the reissue it deserves, even if this may well be in an entirely different version.

A Silent Fury

July 17, 2020

Yuri Herrera’s latest book, A Silent Fury, (translated once again by Lisa Dillman) is, as the sub-title tells us, about the El Bordo Mine Fire in which eighty-seven miners lost their lives. That this happened over a hundred years ago (on 10th March 1920) might make us wonder why Herrera, whose novels have exposed and explored the crises of contemporary Mexico, should now look back in time to recount an event of which records are incomplete and unreliable:

“Traces of this history are few: the Pachuca 1920-66 case file, a handful of news stories, and a metal plaque that talks about something else.”

And yet, that is the point: Herrera is less interested in the disaster itself than in the aftermath, both the immediate aftermath in which the mine was sealed to starve the fire of oxygen while at the same time preventing any survivors (and there were survivors) from escaping, and the inadequate investigation which followed into the events of that day.

It is uncertain when the fire started but it was six o’clock in the morning that the alarm was raised and by seven the cages were being sent down to allow the men to get out. By midday however, the superintendent for the company, an American, J F Berry, was certain all the survivors had escaped, the number of dead was ten, and the fire was out – while at the same time announcing that they would seal the El Bordo shaft to ensure that “the fire was completely extinguished.” In fact, it’s possible that the shaft was sealed as early as twenty past seven – twenty minutes after the rescue attempts had begun. There’s no way of knowing now how many of those left in the mine were alive when the shaft was sealed, but it’s certain that some of them were as seven were still alive when it was opened six days later.

The cover-up begins with the investigation which is limits itself into how the fire started, not how eighty-seven men died. The judge:

“…did not instruct him [the public prosecutor] to determine whether the administrators had been criminally negligent in ordering the shafts sealed while there were people still alive inside, as, indeed, there were.”

Those investigating the fire did not go into the mine until it had been cleaned (and, in some areas, miners had begun working again) and, unsurprisingly, found everything in working order. It was now not possible to discover how the fire had started, but it was conveniently suggested that it had been caused by a worker:

“What’s certain is that the inspector fulfilled his directive: he looked at some things, neglected to look at others, and unreservedly exculpated the mine owners and administrators.” 

Herrera cannot tell the story entirely in the words of those involved, as, for example, Svetlana Alexievich does, as these words for the most part do not exist, hence the ‘silent fury’ of the title. This phrase occurs in the narrative itself with reference to the seven survivors:

“They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

Their unrecorded words represents a wider omission, not only of the investigation, but of history itself. It’s said that history is written by the winners, but above all history is written by those who can write, and, for much of it, that limits us to a small but powerful class who are particularly ruthless at protecting their own interests. This not unique to Mexico, or to the 1920s, but continues to this day, as we can see, for example, in what happened at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989 where ninety-six football fans lost their lives. Those responsible, and their allies, used a similar tactic of blaming the supporters and any prosecution was quickly ruled out. It’s not the most recent example, either, as the Grenfell fire demonstrates. As Herrera tells us:

“Silence is not he absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

It could be argued that this is not the job of the novelist, and, in the UK, when fiction writers turn to non-fiction it is often of a personal kind. Yet what Herrera is doing here is reclaiming the story for those who were previously voiceless, and who better to do that than a novelist.

The Cowboy Bible

July 25, 2017

A certain wildness is to be expected when a book cover looks like a biker’s jacket, but even that might not prepare the reader for Carlos Velazquez’s The Cowboy Bible, a collection of short stories which will not sit sweetly in their in their cages but instead roam freely across the fictional town of PopSTock, their characters and phrases turning up untidily on their neighbour’s lawns. Nominally divided into three sections – fiction, non-fiction, and neither fiction nor non-fiction – even these barriers seem designed to display the content’s contempt for anything that might define it. Into this mix Velazquez throws everything we might expect of Mexico: wrestlers, narcos, corridos, and burritos, not to mention the devil, blended into a surreal cocktail that is unlikely to be to everyone’s taste.

The title story, about wrestling – “I was born in a corner. In a wrestling ring,” its narrator declares – seems obvious enough. Except it soon becomes clear that when the word wrestling is used it simply means something different:

“That’s when I discovered my wrestling style, what would later be called Neo Vulgar Retro Kitsch. The kind of experimentation that had me playing Ministry with Rocio Banquells and Los Angeles Negros…”

‘Wrestling’ is somehow DJ-ing, and Velazquez runs the language of both genres together throughout:

“There’ll be two or three takedowns with no time limits to win the national welterweight championship.”

The narrator loses the competition, however:

“My opponent wiped the floor with me… His collection of European vinyl was his advantage.”

‘The Cowboy Bible’ is amusing but it is not the strongest story in the collection. The Bible itself makes its first appearance, a good luck charm that seems almost incidental to the story. Though abandoned by the narrator at the end, it is not abandoned by Velazquez, and will reappear throughout the collection in various guises, its ability to transform suggesting that its pages contain the multifarious soul of Mexico.

Velazquez has been compared to Bukowski and Burroughs, two writers I know little about, but I do see something of the early Irvine Welsh. ‘Cooler Burritos’ is one story which invites the comparison, the tale of a drinking contest where gangsters attempt to rig the betting. Here, the Cowboy Bible is a character:

“Everybody knew The Cowboy Bible was unbeatable in any duel that involved swigging the special brew…”

The criminals enlist the help of his neglected wife who resents the being left to single-handedly sweat over her burgeoning burrito business while he perfects his drinking. In a similar vein, ‘Like ‘Em Fat’ recounts the efforts of its narrator to sleep with a fat girl:

“I was particularly fascinated by the myths about men who slept with fat girls: Fat girls were said to rekindle their faith in love. The overweight woman was attributed prowess and sexual expertise that are not to be found in the rest of her gender.”

He is no longer able to sleep with his own wife because, against his wishes, she went to a dance and “ran into the devil”:

“The place started to smell of smoke and all hell broke loose. My wife turned up burned to crisp in the Red Cross emergency room.”

(That particular story is told later in ‘The Post-Norteno Condition’). ‘Like ‘Em Fat’s no-holds-barred narrator makes for an amusingly ribald tale with a frantic, Tarantinoesque conclusion. ‘Notes for a New Theory for Mastering Hair’ also demonstrates a care-free attitude to offence:

“The Cowgirl Bible had huge tits, a greasy face and a mess of hair. From pre-adolescence she had suffered flare-ups of rebellious hair. She learned early that letting loose those tresses was only possible for gals who could afford certain products. From the time she was just twelve or thirteen years old, as she entered the bloom of puberty, she focused blindly on the wild vertical porcupine that had begun to grow between her legs.”

The story goes to describe her career as a pubic beautician, conflating it with that of a rock star (indeed the ‘origin story’ is part of that process). Her razors bear the names of famous guitar makes, her hero is Jaimito Hendrics, and she even names her favourite blade Lucille (famously the name of B. B. King’s guitar). It could be argue that Velazquez is poking fun at so many things – body image, fame, branding – he’s simply waving his stick in the air, but that doesn’t prevent the story from being enormous fun.

Dizzying and disconcerting, The Cowboy Bible may be an uneven collection, but where the stories work they burn like a dance with the devil.

Lost Books – Farewells & A Grave with No Name

July 21, 2017

As the titles suggest – Farewells (1954) and A Grave with No Name (1959) – death is ever-present in this volume of two long stories by Juan Carlos Onetti translated by Peter Bush in 1992. In the first a young basketball player retreats to a remote village to die of tuberculosis; in the second a woman is buried as her goat looks on. But mortality is not Onetti’s main concern – above all, these tales are about the impenetrable darkness of other lives, with narrators who strain their eyes to understand the movements in the shadows but see only so much.

The narrator of Farewells is the local shopkeeper who looks at the hands of new arrivals and decides whether they will live or die. In the case of the basketball player, death is not inevitable, but he believes he won’t be cured:

“…he wasn’t going to be cured because he wasn’t bothered about being cured; the nurse and I had known a lot of people like that.”

The basketball player refuses to stay in the sanatorium, living in a hotel instead, sitting in the lobby two or three hours a day, “pretending he believed he had turned incredulousness into an habitual and unambiguous ally, that a studied drama of withdrawal was enough to keep him attached to all that existed before the date of a diagnosis.” The narrator notices that in the letters he receives there are two particular types of envelope which matter to him, and assumes these are from women. One day one of the women appears and moves into the hotel with him. According to the nurse:

“The fellow needed that woman. You can see he can’t stand living apart from her. He’s another man now…”

However, a few weeks later, after she has left, another, younger, woman arrives, and this time he moves with her into a house he has rented nearby, the Portuguese sisters’ chalet. It is immediately assumed the new woman is his mistress:

“And frankly he’s not doing right by her; he’s not very gentlemanly, he shouldn’t have taken her to the hotel where everybody saw him living with the other woman.”

Of course, the story’s conclusion reveals that their suppositions have not been entirely accurate, but this twist is almost incidental. Onetti’s primary concern is the basketball player as observed from outside, not only by the narrator but by the nurse, the maid at the hotel, and the two women. Much of the story is told as the narrator sees it, but he also imagines a number of scenes, interpreting events as a writer would. Onetti gives the impression he distrusts his own craft, placing distance between himself and his characters to suggest we can only know so much for certain.

The same process occurs in A Grave with No Name, the narrator being only tangentially attached to the story, though pursuing the ‘truth’ with greater intent. The story opens with Jorge Malabia, the son of a rich family, organising the burial of a poor woman. Even more bizarrely he follows the funeral carriage with a goat:

“Lame, slavering down its beard, one leg in a splint, the goat had reached the cemetery gate; it was rubbing its nose against the short grass in the ditch but not managing to eat. The Malabias’ lad kept his arms crossed, didn’t let go of the rope, put up with the pulling…”

The narrator determines to discover who the woman is and why Malabia is burying her. The story is told in conversations with Malabia and other characters, but also in chapters composed by the narrator – as he says ate one point, “I started guessing things and wrote them down.” The woman, Rita, is a family servant whom Malabia comes across in more difficult times. But Onetti makes us question whether the woman he buried was Rita or not. Malabia tells him:

“It wasn’t Rita… She was a relative, a cousin… Another woman and practically another story.”

Onetti seems to be teasing us with the unattainable nature of truth, placing even this fact just beyond our reach. The narrator’s final comments sum up Onetti’s approach:

“And this is more or less all I had left after the holidays. Nothing really; hopeless confusion, a narrative without a possible conclusion, full of doubtful meanings, belied by the very elements that I had to give it shape. I had personal knowledge only of the last chapter, the hot afternoon in the cemetery. I didn’t know the significance of what I’d seen, I was repelled by finding out and being sure.”

Having read No Man’s Land last year, it is clear Onetti is a difficult but rewarding writer; it is such a pity he is now entirely out of print.


July 16, 2017

Hernan Rosino’s novella Glaxo (translated by Samuel Rutter) begins with the railway line to the small Argentinian town where it is set being dismantled:

“One day the trains stop coming. Then a work team arrives. Six or seven men get out of a truck. They begin pulling up the tracks.”

Or rather, these are the opening lines; the beginning perhaps lies fifteen years before on those very same rail tracks:

“Things began to change one morning in ‘58, October of ’58. The ten o’clock train came in slowly, as usual, the engine spat out thick black smoke that blocked out the view of the silos at the mills. A few minutes later, from this very train, Ramon Folcada, stepped off onto the platform, a group of policemen waiting warmly for him and his wife, La Negra Miranda, who was barely twenty-eight years old and had unforgettable legs.”

This scene appears later, as retold by Miguelito Barrios in 1966. The novella runs not along the straight tracks of time, but moving backwards and forwards with gaps in between like tunnels: four chapters, four stations. 1973, 1984, 1966, 1959; and each time a different voice.

The first chapter presents a picture of decay and sickness. Vardemann, the narrator and town barber, observes his father, “bent over in the corner, distant and old, worn down like a bone that has been picked over.” Miguelito Barrios, a contemporary of Vardemann, returns from hospital, “holding himself up on their unfinished wall, walking with difficulty, pallid and thin.” At first it seems this is the story of industrial poisoning (a la Fever Dream) with the Glaxo factory looming over the town, and the frequently mentioned blackened metal drums burning all night, but in the final pages Vardemann visits Barrios who begs forgiveness for an unspecified offence, and we suspect that the poisoning may, in fact, be moral.

In 1984 Bicho Souza, another of “the boys from the neighbourhood”, tells of meeting La Negra Miranda, who disappeared from town many years before:

“…one morning she couldn’t stand it anymore: that night Folcada beat her, and while he beat her he told her what he had done in the clearing, he told her what Miguelito had told him, and so that very same night, she wrote a terrible letter to Migueltio Barrios, and pushed it under his door, she pushed it under before leaving…”

Souza also introduces the Western Last Train from Gun Hill, which they all watched together as kids, into the narrative. Friendly shoot-outs as children will be echoed in the tensions which develop later, particularly in Barrios’ description of Vardemann stepping off a train at the beginning of the third section in 1966. In the final chapter – told from Folcada’s point of view, opening with his abrasive, “Someone’s fucking La Negra” – the Western genre is to the fore, but, in the violence, revenge and double-crossing, it looks increasingly unlikely that the good guys will win.

At under a hundred pages, Glaxo is designed to be read in one sitting, and this allows it to work brilliantly as a mystery – the mystery being as much about the nature of the crime as the perpetrator(s). It’s also an admirable technical feat – four distinct voices across four decades. The fractured narrative, however, is not simply there for our post-modern pleasure: it places the emphasis on the effects as much as the causes of evil and leaves us with injustice rather than healing.

The Children

July 6, 2017

Laura lives in fear. She regularly gives money to the woman outside the supermarket to watch her car. (“But Laura was not sure whether the woman really did watch the cars. She knew that when she had finished her shopping, she gave her some coins as if to pay her, and that her car had never gone missing.”) When strangers ask the name of her dog, she always gives a different answer. (“By doing this she thought she was protecting him: that it was less likely someone would snatch him from outside the supermarket entrance or anywhere else.”) When the supermarket woman is replaced by someone younger, and she cannot think of a false name for her dog, she simply doesn’t enter the supermarket:

“For the next two days, she did not buy any food, and she did not eat.”

That her life changes with the arrival of the child is not immediately obvious, but then little is in Columbian author Carolina Sanin’s The Children (translated by Nick Caistor).

Laura first meets the child, six and a half year old Fidel, one night when she hears him crying and finds him outside her window looking up:

“The boy had a shaven head and big eyes. There was so much black emptiness in his gaze that it seemed as through his face had interrupted the night and the night had begun again in his look.”

She takes him up to her apartment and, of course, attempts to inform the appropriate authorities, openly to be told she must contact the National Family Welfare Institute which will not open until Monday (it’s Saturday night) as “it’s closed at the weekend for stock-taking”. (We see here an early use of italics to highlight the jarring jargon of bureaucracy). She takes Fidel to the Institute as instructed, but when she later enquires as to his welfare she can find no trace of him. Only months later does she relocate him and begin to invite him into her life.

This uneventful summary, however, hides many levels of disconcerting strangeness. Partly this is down to the reshaping of narratives which takes place within the novel. Laura herself is guilty of this, telling the Institute that she found Fidel outside the supermarket. His name, too, is her creation – adapted from Elvis Fider Loreto Membrives; later she will create a birthday for him. She thinks, “she could pretend that others have asked her to take care of the boy.” (She aklso rearranges other stories, for example, one night she tells him a version of Great Expectations set in Bogota). This is already part of her character before Fidel’s appearance: she works as cleaner though she has no need of the money, taking the bus to work rather than driving so her employers believe she is poor. While cleaning, she builds a house in her mind:

“Between the dining room and the bedrooms she planted a garden with a curving stream that carried along with it ordinary stones and precious stones.”

When she hires someone to discover where Fidel is, this creates another version of the story:

“Apparently Elvis, a child like so many others, presumably in a state of great distress, wrote to Laura searching for protection, aid and warmth because he recalled having seen her take part in the children’s television show ‘Treasure Haunt and concluded she felt empathy towards little ones.”

(Or perhaps versions of the story, the italics suggesting that this has already been patched together from two voices). When Fidel is with her he, too, exists between two narratives – at night dreaming of a beauty parlour:

“On the fourth night, Fidel said he was in the beauty parlour, but they were still calling him to go there. He said that the parlour – although he did not say the parlour but Parlour like a proper noun – that in Parlour there was a place further inside…”

He asks Laura “if this was a dream or reality.”

Laura is certainly searching for something with Fidel – frequent references to Moby Dick tell us so – but she is also reluctant to commit to this quest, as her difficulty reading the novel attests to. She appears slightly detached from reality, and talks of having created an island:

“In it, neither dead nor alive, just about to say farewell, were all those who had loved her and were no longer with her, those who had departed, those she herself had loved and left behind.”

This makes commitment to Fidel difficult:

“What would happen if after two days she did not know what to do with the child? And if she wanted to keep him after three months had passed and she was not permitted to? Anyway, death would arrive soon enough to separate them forever.”

The novel speaks of a gap in understanding between adult and child. The novel’s own strangeness perhaps reflects the strangeness of childhood through adult eyes. Certainly, expect nothing to be resolved, either for Laura or the reader. The acceptance of that, though, is not unlike the acceptance of a child into your life.

The Blue Hour

July 4, 2017

Alonso Cueto is a Peruvian writer who, on the evidence of The Blue Hour, remains strangely unavailable in English. The novel had already won the Premio Herralde (for the best original novel in the Spanish Language) in 2006, and its translation by Frank Wynne went on be shortlisted for the 2013 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize; despite this, The Blue Hour stubbornly retains its position as Cueto’s only novel to have been translated.

This is surprising because it is both accessible and readable, with the page turning power of a thriller, and an opening gambit that has been used by many a Hollywood movie. It may, in its subject matter, be facing up to Peru’s past – in particular the conflict between the government and the Shining Path in Ayacucho during the 1980s – but an extensive knowledge of, or even interest in, Latin American history is not necessary for thorough involvement in the narrative. It begins with that time-honoured trope of the man who has it all until he discovers something unexpected about who he really is… Adrian Ormache is a wealthy lawyer with a beautiful wife, a beautiful house, and two beautiful daughters:

“I remember back then a friend telling me that every time he saw me I looked happier.”

Brought up largely by his mother – who divorces when he is a child – he gives his father little thought:

“And so for many years I lived with the certainty that my father had been in Ayacucho in the early eighties waging war against the communist terrorists of Sendero Luminoso, that he had done something to defend our country and that, for this, we owed him our respect.”

Only after his mother’s death, with his father already dead, does he discover more about that time from his brother:

“Shit, I don’t know, you probably know all this stuff already, but the old man sometimes had to kill terrorists. But he didn’t just kill them right off. The men, well, he’d have them worked over…to make them talk. And the women, well, you know, sometimes he’d fuck the women and sometimes he’d let the rest of the troops fuck them before he put a bullet in their heads.”

One of the women, his brother tells him, escaped, and suddenly his father’s last words to him – “There’s a girl, a woman I knew a long time ago…I don’t know, maybe you can find her” – begin to make sense. With only her name, Miriam, as a starting point, Ormache begins to hunt for the woman. This is where the novel exercise its grip: both in the search, and in the effect this begins to have on Ormache and his relationship with his family.

This attempt to find the hidden side of his father’s life also brings him into contact with a side of his own country which has been hidden from him. It takes him, for example, into the less desirable districts of Lima:

“We passed houses of cement block and iron bars, a beauty salon and in the window a hairdresser setting a woman’s hair in rollers, a pack of drowsy dogs, children squatting in the dirt playing marbles.”

Eventually, he visits Ayacucho, missing a family holiday in the Caribbean to do so. A woman he meets there tells him:

“The people round here aren’t like people elsewhere… Nobody here believes that life is a normal state. Here, they know that life is a shadow.”

She points to a boy washing dishes:

“He might only be a few feet from you, but right now the distance between you is greater than the distance between the earth and the sun.”

This lack of understanding applies not only to the people who live there but to his father:

“Not that I could understand them, I would never really know them. Nor could I understand the soldiers, not my father, not Guayo or Chacho.”

The novel, of course, also raises questions of how far we are responsible for the sins of our fathers’. This is not foremost in Ormache’s mind – he has always felt distant from his father – but a friend insists, “We’re all responsible for our parents’ sins, and our children’s too.” It might feel easy to dismiss this sentiment as irrational, but, as the novel demonstrates, the children of those sinned against must carry that burden.

I raced through The Blue Hour, finding it hard to put down at times, though this meant that the relatively unshowy ending was initially disappointing, if realistic, seeming somehow to underline a bleaker message while attempting to leave the reader smiling. If you’re looking for a riveting summer read, though, you could do a lot worse.

Field of Honour

July 2, 2017

Perhaps we should get Max Aub’s astonishing biography out of the way first: born to a German father and a French Jewish mother who immigrated to Spain at the beginning of World War One, he took Spanish citizenship at the age of eighteen. As a socialist he supported the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War to the point he was regarded as an enemy of the state by Franco, who denounced him as a German Jew to the Vichy government in France in 1940. He was imprisoned in France and then Algeria, but managed to escape to Mexico where he remained for the rest of his life. He wrote prolifically – novels, plays, screenplays – but is largely untranslated into English. Field of Honour, translated by Gerald Martin, is only the second of his novels to appear – sixty-six years after its original publication.

Field of Honour is only the first part of a six volume series (The Magic Labyrinth) which tells the story of the Spanish Civil War – which means, of course, that the conflict is only just beginning by its end. It was published by Verso in 2009, and there’s no sign of the second volume being available any time soon. (This raises the question of whether it can be fairly judged as a stand-alone novel, though it seems that the main character, Rafael Serrador, is not followed throughout the sequence). Aub’s purpose in Field of Honour is to set the scene leading up to the outbreak of the civil war – a time of competing ideologies. However, he cleverly seeks to establish Serrador’s character before immersing him into the political maelstrom that is 1930s Barcelona.

In fact, the novel begins in picaresque fashion with a strong focus on sexual adventure. Apprenticed to a jeweller, “life is flat and Rafael is only troubled or surprised when, from time to time, his willy stands on end.” He loses his innocence at the hands (or rather the thighs) of the widow Marieta:

“’Haven’t you done it before?’
And as he just slightly shook his head, the brazen hussy started to twist and turn like some wild bobbin, to the great shock of the beginner who didn’t know which saint to commend himself to.”

Unfortunately he is beaten up by the widow’s jealous boyfriend, and then expelled by the jeweller as a trouble maker. At the age of sixteen he heads to Barcelona, finding work in a hardware store. Again he is the victim of circumstances as a newspaper he’s given ridiculing his boss is found in his pocket and he loses his job. It is this casual treatment of labour which feeds the anger which leads him into politics, though this means little more than being is a willing listener to the incessant debating between the various factions in the city.

These arguments take up much of Part Two, certainly a test for anyone not interested in the minutia of political debate at the time, though Aub livens it up with punchy dialogue and entertaining descriptions of those involved:

“Gonzalez Cantos was a dirty looking character who had spent a lot of time abroad, spoke good French and was very close to Durrutti… He always wore short-sleeved shirts and scruffy trousers that kept falling down, whereupon he’d hoist them up with a violent tug from left to right, then scratch himself around the crotch and sniff in noisily, wiping his hand across his prominent nostrils.”

This section probably explains why it has taken so long for Field of Honour to be translated, though Aub’s determination to paint a true picture of events impressed me. In particular, Serrador is far from a hero. Instead he is a confused young man – at one point making lists under the heading ‘What am I?’ – who joins the (right-wing) Falangists, and only ends up defending the Republic at the last moment. In one particularly dark scene, he kills a suspected informer entirely of his own volition.

The novel really comes to life in Part Three, when the military coup takes place. Aub dramatizes it through a series of short conversations (much like Shakespeare). It’s an extensive cast of characters (luckily the novel is equipped with a list at the end) but it gives a realistic impression of the constantly changing situation as we move from the view at the top to ground level and back again. The final conflict, securing Barcelona, takes place at the docks, where bales of paper are used to defend the Republican fighters from the machine guns of the remaining Falangist forces.

The novel ends with Barcelona in the hands of the Republic but the fate of the rest of Spain largely unknown. Aub began the novel in Serrador’s childhood, describing the tradition of the fire bull in which a bull with burning horns (they are coated in tar and set alight) is released into the streets. Serrador remembers this as the novel ends:

“A world over-flowing, beside itself, without direction. Leaning against a drainpipe, Rafael Serrador thinks about water, wild water, savagely charging, swift, insistent, irresistible: like a fire bull, a rainbow of fire, above the triumphant city.”

The novel has ended but the war has only begun. How wonderful it would be the see the rest of Aub’s The Magic Labyrinth translated.


July 21, 2016


Umami, if (like me) you didn’t know, is a flavour:

“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s Umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”

So explains Alfonso, an anthropologist who has spent his life studying diet, and owner of Belldrop Mews, the setting of Laia Jufresa’s novel, which he has divided into houses each named after one of the five flavours. That the novel bears the name of a difficult to identify taste seems appropriate as what we experience with umami on the palate, it achieves tonally. Written with a deceptive lightness, and some humour, it is, at heart, about grief and loss.

Alfonso is among those who lose someone close to them (his wife, Noelia) but the death which resonates through the novel most powerfully is that of a child, Luz. Her sister, Ana, makes a comparison between Alfonso’s grief and her mother’s:

“He carries his grief better than my mom. He doesn’t act like a ghost, or go totally nuts over songs. At least not in front of me he doesn’t.”

Alonso also makes the comparison:

“…in the same year my wife died, aged fifty-five, so did the five-year-old daughter of my tenants. Noelia’s death seemed almost reasonable compared to Luz’s, which was so incomprehensible, so unfair. But death is never fair, nor is fifty-five old.”

We know what both Ana and Alfonso think as this is a novel of many voices scattered across time. The novel itself doesn’t quite “tell it backwards” as the quote from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Last Post suggests, but each of four sections do, beginning in 2004 and retreating towards 2000, the year before the deaths took place. This has the effect of focusing on the grieving process before exploring the causes; the novel is concerned with the living rather than the dead. (Jufresa has said that the five year time period leads us towards the end of grief, and that the structure reflects the waves of grief as those who have lost someone return to the same memories again and again).

Other characters in the novel have also suffered losses, for example Ana’s best friend, Pina. Her mother left her without warning and she has heard nothing from her since. In Marina’s case (the occupier of ‘Bitter’), the separation is voluntary:

“It was the first time she’d left her parents’ home, where she’d lived all nineteen years of her life… She didn’t want her family to know where she was, not yet, so she mustered all her charm and said she found the house names to be very original…”

Marina, however, struggles to escape her past: in and out of therapy, and hospitalised at one point as the result of an eating disorder. An artists who is unable to paint, she instead names the colours she finds around her:

“…a hard, futuristic light appears, as pristine as the pills she takes. This one, she decides, is called whozac.”

As the novel opens in 2004 Ana is intent on creating her own garden: “A proper, traditional milpa, with corn and beans and squash.” The project suggests a renewal of life, but one which is connected to the past. The novel’s structure prevents this becoming the predictable culmination of an obvious story arc, emphasising that the grief will never entirely disappear, but demonstrating why the novel does not appear gloomy or depressing despite its subject matter. This optimistic tone is also created by the wonderful chorus of voices which Jufresa has created – not only unique to each of the five characters which narrate, but also changing according to the year. (This is, of course, particularly true of Ana who develops from a child to a young adult in this time). In this she is ably supported by translator Sophie Hughes.

Umami is an extremely accomplished first novel which tackles it subject in a way that is neither sentimental nor despondent. In it we enter a community in troubled times, and leave feeling, perhaps more hopeful, but certainly more human.