Posts Tagged ‘WITMonth’

The Bitch

August 10, 2022

Colombian author Pilar Quintana’s first novel to be translated into English (by Lisa Dillman), The Bitch, opens with a dead dog. Damaris takes one of the orphaned puppies – the only bitch in the litter – from this scene of death, our first indication of the merciless world into which the animal has been born. If we were still uncertain, Damaris worries, as she takes the pup home, how her husband Rogelio will react – “He didn’t like dogs and only kept them so they’d bark and protect the property.” She remembers him slicing off the tail of one of their dogs with a machete when a wound became infected. In contrast, Damaris nurtures the puppy, which she calls Chirli, feeding her bread soaked in milk and carrying her around in her bra.

These small details, as with much in the novel, are more significant than they first appear. Damaris, now is her late thirties, has been married since eighteen but unable to have a child. In that time, she and Rogelio have tried various different Indigenous remedies, but nothing has worked. The failure of the most recent attempt has driven a wedge between them:

“One night, on the pretext he was snoring and keeping her awake, Damaris moved to the other room and never came back.”

‘Chirli’, we discover, was the name Damaris had planned to give to her daughter.

If her childless state continues to be a regret for Damaris, it is not her only one. In a matter-of-fact style Quintana reveals the difficulties of Damaris’ childhood, which begin with her conception, her mother falling pregnant to a soldier who quickly abandons her. She, in turn, abandons the child, as she has to work as a live-in maid to earn money, and Damaris is left with a relative, Tio Eliecer. There she befriends the son of a family who have a holiday home nearby, Nicolasito, but he is killed when he is washed out to sea:

“Damaris tried to stop him, explained that it was dangerous, told him that the rocks were slippery and the sea treacherous.”

Still, she blames herself for his death – and is blamed by Tio Eliecer who lashes her every day until the body is found. We also see here the class distinctions which Quintana subtly illustrates, yet leaves unremarked, throughout the novel. Even Nicolasito’s refusal to head Damaris’ warnings hints at a sense of class superiority. After Nicolasito is washed away, Damaris must make her way through the jungle alone to raise the alarm:

“…a jungle that seemed denser and darker than ever. The treetops above her formed a solid canopy, and the roots below snarled together. Her feet sank into the dead leaves carpeting the ground and got buried in the mud…”

This is the first of a number of terrifying jungle journeys which Quintana will describe, the next being when Chirli goes missing and Damaris goes into the jungle to search for her. If anything, the description is even more disturbing – “Things brushed against her, things that were rough, prickly, hairy…” Living on the edge of jungle insinuates a constant threat into Damaris’ life. Not only that, but years later Damaris now finds herself and Rogelio living as caretakers to the house where Nicolasito lived, and where his room has been preserved:

“Senora Elvira had special-ordered his bed and wardrobe from the best carpenter in town and painted it bright colours herself. The curtains and bedding she’d brought from Bogota: a matching set with Jungle Book motifs. They were a little faded now and had a few holes…”

The Jungle Book reference is ironic as no child can survive in the jungle which is a place of death. One reason Damaris and Rogelio become caretakers is that their predecessor is found shot dead in the jungle (suicide? a hunting accident?), his resting place identified by the vultures gathering above.

Damaris’ relationship with Chirli is at the centre of the novel. Like her relationship with Rogelio, it fluctuates, perhaps even more violently. The dog takes to leaving for days at a time (as does Rogelio who works on a boat) and then returning, filthy and often injured. It has pups of its own, but is not a good mother. The story is told on the surface, but the dog reveals the depths of Damaris’ character. Its complexity is such that the ending is both unexpected and inevitable. In the end it is human nature which The Bitch strips naked and displays.

The Twilight Zone

August 5, 2022

Like her earlier novel, Space Invaders, Nona Fernandez’s The Twilight Zone (also translated by Natasha Wimmer) borrows its title from popular culture and uses it as a starting point to examine the years of dictatorship her home country, Chile, suffered between 1973 and 1990. Its starting point is not the television series of the early sixties, but an article in a magazine in the mid-eighties in which a member of the armed forces confesses to his part in the torture and murder of opponents of the regime:

“His face was on the cover… and over the picture was a headline in white letters: I TORTURED PEOPLE… The man gave a full account of his time as an intelligence agent, from his service as a young conscript in the air force to the moment he went to the magazine to tell his story.”

The narrator – we assume Fernandez herself (she was born in 1971) – reads the story as a teenager; she even comments on the man’s likeness to her science teacher. It is she who is transported “into some parallel reality:”

“A disturbing universe that we sensed lay hidden somewhere out there, beyond the bounds of school and home, where everything obeyed a logic governed by captivity and rats.”

Two further encounters follow: firstly, when she is writing a television show which features a character based on the man; and secondly when she is working on a script for a documentary in which he is interviewed. We begin to understand what she means when she says that, in a dream, she “inherited the man I am imagining,” presumably the same dream about which she asks him in a letter that is entirely made up of questions:

“Will we ever escape this dream? Will we ever emerge and give the world the bad news about what we were capable of doing?”

What is impressive is how Fernandez turns this admittedly dramatic confession and the chance encounters which follow into a novel. She does this using the tools of the novelist, taking the incidents described in the confession and reimagining them, while continuing to tell her own story. For example, she links the morning routine in the household of the first victims she describes to that in her own:

“On the 29 March 1976, at 7.30 am, the same time my son and his father leave the house each day, Jose and Maria Teresa left to take their children to school.”

This domestic scene is transformed when Jose is captured on the bus under the pretence he is being arrested for robbery. His family cannot say what happens next, but “the man who tortured people”, as he is frequently referred to even though his name is known, can, that he was likely “handcuffed, blindfolded, and then shot and killed…”

“…they then cut off his fingers at the first joint to make identification more difficult, and they tied stones to his feet with wire and threw him in the river.”

One of the most affecting stories Fernandez tells is of the Flores brothers – all three are arrested, and all three are eventually released. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, one of the brothers, Carol, has agreed to work for the intelligence service as long as his brothers are left alone: “The Flores were freed from danger in return for Carol’s soul.” In this way, Fernandez demonstrates the choices which ordinary people faced, and, once again, humanises the individuals who, as she shows at one point, are often little more than a photograph of remembrance.  Yet, despite this, Fernandez avoids the novel becoming simply a collection of painful and upsetting stories. Those stories are there, but surrounded by other elements – not only Fernandez’s own life, but the life of the man who tortured people, who exists in a twilight zone of culpability and redemption, both haunted by his past and a ghost himself:

“That’s how I imagine the man who tortured people: as one of the characters in those books I read as a girl. A man beset by ghosts, by the smell of death.”

The Twilight Zone is not the only touchstone for understanding – in this section (The Ghost Zone) Fernandez also calls on A Christmas Carol. These references work because they also relate to Fernandez’s life as a child and adolescent growing up during the dictatorship. Rather than being simply accusatory, the novel feels like an attempt to understand the experience of those who were tortured and killed, of their loved ones, of the man who tortured people, and of Chile itself. Something of the teenage girl reading the magazine remains in the narrative.

The novel ends with a timeline of the dictatorship written out as free verse with the repeated refrain, “Family members of the disappeared light candles at the cathedral.” But a coda reminds us that at the centre of this is the relationship between the novelist and her informer, and it is this relationship which raises it above its worthiness as a witness to suffering to something very special indeed.

Never Did the Fire

August 1, 2022

That Chilean writer Diamela Eltit is highly regarded was demonstrated in 2007 when writers and critics were asked to choose the 100 best novels in Spanish in the last 25 years, and three of her books were included. At the same time, only three of her novels had ever been translated into English: two of those selected above (The Fourth World and Custody of the Eyes) and Sacred Cow. Now we can add a fourth with Daniel Hahn’s translation of Jamás el fuego nunca, Never Did the Fire. (If you want to read more about the process of the translation you can do so in Hahn’s Catching Fire). Eltit was part of a group of artists which opposed Pinochet’s dictatorship – Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA) – and the repercussions of that time continue to feature in her work. The political, however, is deeply interwoven with the personal. As Olivia Casa points, out Eltit’s work often makes “visible the relationship between the personal and the political.”

“In Maipú, from 1980, Eltit carried out a series of actions to this end. She cut and burned her arms and legs in a brothel, read excerpts from her then-unfinished novel Lumpérica (E. Luminata) that narrated her actions, and washed the building’s front steps.”

The narrator of Never Did the Fire is an old woman suffering the repercussions of a life of political opposition under dictatorship. In a setting which could have been lifted from Beckett, her existence now is largely proscribed to the bed she shares with the man who also shares her past – her political activism, a child. They are both entangled with and irritated by each other. He insists on wearing his trousers in bed (a throwback to when a sudden escape might be needed?) which scratch her. He weighs on her like the past:

“At one specific point in the night I felt contaminated by our weight. That moment of the night weighed on me and I knew it was you, I knew it was your weight collapsing on top of the night.”

He is sick and frail: “He’s dying, dying, I thought. We thought it together, said it together, he is dying.” But, as this demonstrates, they are also intrinsically part of each other – “I think or we think,” she tells us, “I don’t know anymore.” Eltit does not leave the horror of ageing in the abstract. The woman works as a carer, cleaning the old and infirm, and this job is described in meticulous detail:

“I squeeze and squeeze the sponge I’ve used to clean her crotch, until I’ve made sure that, down the drain, amid a circle of water, the last remains of the shit that were still left around her genitals is slipping away.”

It feels a long way from the life they were fighting for, and perhaps also represents the kind of unpleasantness that we put out of our minds, as Chile, and other countries who have suffered repression, often do with the past.

If the man and the woman remain together it is because they are united not only by habit but by two betrayals, one political, one personal. In the first, she betrays him, siding with other members of the cell (a word which will be used ambiguously throughout) against him: “I was in agreement with the dominant group… that was the day, the hour, the moment when your defeat was written.” However, there is also personal anguish in their past, a dead child: the question “why didn’t we take him to hospital?” is repeated throughout. Given the way Eltit mixes the personal and political, the physical and the abstract, it not implausible to suggest that the child also represents their political aims, the future they hoped for. This is suggested in the way the word ‘cell’ is used throughout – a body is made up of cells and a cell is made up of bodies:

“…that agility you demanded of the cell which, if it was not up to your expectations, we would have to re-make with other bodies that were hungry and energetic.”

Whatever the exact circumstances (and they become less clear towards the end of the novel as we are offered alternative versions of the child’s death), we know that the woman blames an inability to seek medical help due to the secrecy of the cell. Eltit shows us the political and the personal intersecting to tragic effect here but, rather than suggesting one should trump the other, emphasises that they cannot be separated.

Never Did the Fire is not an easy novel – nor is it meant to be. It challenges the reader – and it sometimes feels like part of that challenge is not looking away. It’s ending may even suggest some hope, but, above all else, what it tells us is that we simply carry on. While the experience of reading it may be far from enjoyable, it is also unforgettable; it burns with life and will burn its way into your memory.

Lost Books – Sacred Cow

August 5, 2018

One writer inevitably leads to another, and when Cristina Rivera Garza was asked what authors she might recommend to readers looking to explore Latin American literature by women, her immediate response was: “Luisa Valenzuela and Diamela Eltit continue to be a must.” Valenzula was known to me but Eltit, from Chile, was not, and a few days later I had acquired a copy of Sacred Cow, written in 1991 and translated by Amanda Hopkinson in 1995 for Serpent’s Tail (one of only four, I think, of her books available in English).

Sacred Cow is a brief, intense novel in keeping with Eltit’s declaration that, “I believe I function in a certain dramatic register, though in truth I have a great tendency and vocation for irony.” Largely written in the first person, it tells of the narrator’s relationship with two men, Manuel and Sergio. Though initially she feels little desire – “I wasn’t too bothered about sex, which seemed to me little more than an excessive if gratifying ritual” – an encounter with Manuel’s estranged wife which leads her to confess details of her previous relationship with Sergio, seems to ignite their passion:

“On heat, overheated, nothing could restrain us.”

The relationship (though not the narrator’s longing) ends when Manuel returns to his home in the South; rumours reach her that he has been detained. (Eltit remained in Chile throughout the Pinochet dictatorship, which only ended in 1990). It is then she renews her relationship with Sergio:

“I forced myself to feel continually seduced since I had to cling to something in order to efface the unleashed perversity of those times.”

Desire, which is a constant theme, is seen as an escape. Sergio’s own back story is one of desire for the teenage Francisca, whom he wants from the first moment he sees her. It is desire rather than fulfilment which is his focus as he spends a year without talking to her:

“After a year of observing her, of possessing her in every way he could imagined, he finally seemed to be moving towards the reality of speech.”

Of their present relationship, the narrator says:

“Sergio was seeking in me an image that he’d held in his head since he was more or less a child… the forgotten Francisca.”

This revelation is further complicated by the fact that the narrator may be Francisca. Her first appearance in the novel – presumably in the present – is lying in bed with her face beaten: notably the narrative moves from first to third person for this chapter. The story of her relationship with Sergio is interrupted with sections of direct speech – Francisca and an older relative – and first person asides (in brackets) describing looking after someone who is ill. Could this be what the narrator later refers to as “the time when my grandmother was dying”?

Sacred Cow, then, is a complex novel to interpret. Though largely eschewing politics, we are at one point faced with the idea that the narrator is participating in some kind of protest:

“There was a crowd of women drawing up the basis of a new constitution. Their thighs were tattooed with symbolic devices. My tattoo burned into the flesh of my thigh. At this fiesta I was initiated as a worker, rejecting the slurs and the bribes they offered me to break the forthcoming strike.”

Later, when she says, “there’s something slippery in me which that stops me taking the workers’ side” it suggests her personal desires overwhelm her political convictions. The tattoos demonstrate Eltit’s powerful use of imagery: the two most common here are blood and birds. Images rather than symbols, their use is difficult to pin down, though blood generally relates to desire and femininity, and birds frequently suggests something ominous – though at one point she says, “the image of my blood became a huge flock of birds,” no doubt to keep the reader guessing.

Sacred Cow is certainly not for the casual reader. Containing many powerful moments it is difficult to draw anything certain from it. Its refusal to be obvious, though, is perhaps its most admirable quality, and one which, in times of dictatorship, can be seen as a political act in itself.

Shadows on the Tundra

August 1, 2018

This year I been making a concerted effort to re-balance my reading towards women writers, and, as I read mainly in translation, this means that Women in Translation Month 2018 might not look radically different from any other month in 2018: 65% of the books I have reviewed this year have been written by women, with just over half of those in translation. This can be seen as the culmination of a process which began with my participation in the first Women in Translation month in 2014 where I encountered writers such as Elena Ferrante, Teffi, Clarice Lispector, Silvina Ocampo, Herta Muller and Hella Haasse. Women writers in translation may not always be as visible as male writers, but, over the years, encouraged by WITMonth founder Biblio and the discoveries of other bloggers, I have developed my own personal cannon which (perhaps because there are still so many untranslated women) increases annually.

One of the few negatives of a month of reading women in translation, however, is that the subject matter can be harrowing. Yes, this is partly because I am attracted to depressing books, but I think it also reflects how difficult life for women is across the globe, both historically and in the present day. Dalia Grinkeviciute’s Shadows on the Tundra, the story of the author’s incarceration, along with her mother and brother, in a Soviet labour camp in Siberia, is no exception. Aged fourteen, she is taken from her home in Lithuania and begins the long journey to Siberia. Though unaware of what lies ahead, she realises the significance of their exile:

“I am aware a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous.”

“I wonder how many pairs of eyes,” she speculates, “are taking in their native city for the last time…” By writing largely in the present tense Grinkeviciute not only gives the narrative a sense of immediacy and immaturity, but is able to reflect the changing mood of the prisoners as they are transported, which ranges from despondent to hopeful. There are rumours, for example, that they will be deported to America. When they are on a barge on the Lena:

“Everyone is upbeat. We are fed three times a day and given as much water as we can drink… For the young, it is like a field trip. A school holiday.”

Only occasionally does the narrator look ahead:

“I get a bad feeling, as though I was seeing the shadow of death hovering above some heads. Perhaps it was only a child’s intuition. Yet time would confirm it.”

When they reach their destination life could hardly be bleaker:

“I look around and am chilled to the bone. Far and wide, tundra and more tundra, naked tundra, not a sprig of vegetation, just moss as far as the eye can see.”

First they must build their own shelters, and then begins the never-ending battle against cold and hunger. When winter arrives “although we have a brick shelter we might as well be outside.” She steals firewood and, when she is caught, simply admits it – her youth and candour winning her a reprieve. At times the entrance to their shelter is completely blocked by snow. Hunger also haunts them perpetually:

“At night we all dream of bread…but when you go to eat it – the bread disappears.”

While they starve their overseers live comfortably:

“I thought that in wartime everyone was supposed to bear the burden equally, but these people don’t feel the war at all.”

What makes her story bearable is her will to live. From the beginning she tells herself, “We will live, we will survive. We will fight and we will triumph – hear that?” Much later she continues to hold onto these sentiments:

“I want to live, to live, to be alive, to return to life, damn it.”

As one of the other prisoners tells her, “You’re incredibly determined, practically possessed, in the way you grapple with life.” This, at least, gives the reader something to hold onto in a story in which the suffering of ordinary people torn from their homeland is foremost. The survival of the book itself might also bring us hope: written when Grinkeviciute was in her early twenties, having illegally returned to Lithuania, she buried the manuscript in a glass jar fearing (correctly) arrest. When she was allowed to return six years later (in 1956) she was unable to find the jar, and it was only discovered by accident in 1974. (And now, thanks to Delija Valiukenas and Peirene Press it is available in English).This, like the book itself, demonstrates that the testament of women throughout the world, however painful or uncomfortable, should not, and cannot, be silenced.

Die, My Love

August 30, 2017

I was lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh launch of Charco Press, a new publisher of Latin American fiction which is based in the city. (Charco is apparently Spanish for puddle, so Scotland would seem to be the ideal location). The authors of its two launch publications, Ariana Harwicz (Die, My Love), and Gabriela Cabezon Camara (Slum Virgin), were both in attendance, as was co-founder and translator Carolina Orloff; the enthusiasm of all three (and of hosts, Golden Hare Books) was wonderful to behold, and I began reading Die, My Love (translated by Carolina and Sarah Moses) on the train home.

Die, My Love is a fierce, unsettling novel about motherhood and marriage. Its Argentinian author, Harwicz, spoke of writing the book while living in France with her husband and first child, explaining to some extent the sense of foreignness and isolation of the narrator. Further blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, she confessed that when she began she did not know that she was writing a novel. The novel’s searing honesty is quickly apparent as the narrator considers the need to acquire a cake for her son’s six-month ‘birthday’:

“Whenever I look at him I think of my husband behind me, about to ejaculate on my back, but instead suddenly turning me over and coming inside me. If this hadn’t happened, if I’d closed my legs, if I’d grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already.”

Her husband remains a distant figure in the novel. His love of the night sky might suggest he is looking in the wrong direction, particularly as his wife remains uninterested in the meteorites he watches through his telescope, thinking only that she’d like to be on “any mission to outer space.” She fails to share his love of the outdoors:

“Personally, I don’t give a damn if I’m under the open sky or shut up in a trunk.”

His distance, though, is also a reflection of her own isolation: in the opening pages it is she who keeps herself apart from her husband and son, and throughout the novel she will frequently retreat to the woods. Her husband’s patience magnifies her own inadequacies:

“The most aggressive thing he’d said to me in seven years was ‘Go and get yourself checked out.’ I’d said to him ‘You’re a dead man’ during the first month of our relationship.”

Harwicz captures the constant anxiety which can accompany having a child. In the narrator’s earliest memory after giving birth she is “afraid of the harm she could cause the newborn.” She frequently thinks she hears her child crying only to find him lying silently – this too, of course, causing worry:

“Why does he sleep so much? Why doesn’t he stir?”

The novel’s honesty also extends to the narrator’s sex life, and the waves of desire which come over her. She becomes fixated on a neighbour, at one point writing in his voice (“Now I’m speaking as him”):

“I think about her and heave with desire.”

She haunts his home, where he stays with his wife and daughter, her sexual fantasies (“Such delicious luxury to have a man pressing on my guts”) finally fulfilled, though such is the intensity of the narrative that this is only the likeliest possibility rather than a certainty. Animal imagery describes their coupling:

“In one feline motion, I turn over and climb on top of him.”

It’s not uncommon for the narrator to compare herself to an animal, and real animals also occur again and again the narrative. The couple’s car hitting a stag is one example, a brief instance where the underlying violence of the voice punches through. (The stag survives and will be seen again by the narrator – “The stag used to appear at nightfall and linger between the woods and the garden” – inhabiting the same borderline between domesticity and wildness as she does.) Their dog is injured in the accident, and the narrator’s inability to cope with it whimpering in pain (she asks her husband to kill it) seems to echo her response to her child.

Die, My Love is a powerful exploration of the rage and loneliness which can accompany motherhood. Such feelings may not be universal (though many of her thoughts will have occurred to some in diluted form) but neither is it unique. The novel also questions the direction and purpose of relationships, and our roles within them, the narrator’s faltering marriage set against the marriage of her in-laws. It does all this in wild phrases which bite and cut at the consciousness of the reader: Harwicz spoke of a realist novel where the fantastic element lies in the language. Harwicz also said that writing a novel is a matter of life and death, and that is certainly how this novel feels.

Cleaned Out

August 19, 2017

Annie Ernaux’s Cleaned Out (translated by Carol Sanders) begins with an illegal abortion (first published in 1974, this scene takes place in 1960). Ernaux spares no detail – the story, as with most of her work, is autobiographical:

“I was on the table, all I could see between my legs was her grey hair and the red snake she was brandishing with a pair of forceps. It disappeared. Unbearable pain. I shouted at the old woman who was stuffing in cotton wool to keep it in place.”

The abortion, however, is the novel’s endpoint rather than its subject. Ernaux is instead intent on exploring the journey which has taken her narrator, Denise Lesur, from childhood to this moment:

“First I was the storekeeper’s daughter, always top of the class. Then a great big lump wearing socks on Sundays, the scholarship student. Then screwed up by a back-street abortionist, and that might be the end of it.”

It’s the story of a young woman caught between two cultures – her working class background and the middle class world she has entered via education – but belonging to neither of them:

“I didn’t always hate my parents, the customers, the store… I hate the others too now, those with education, the professors, the respectable people. I’m sick to death of them.”

Her parents own a store and bar in a poor neighbourhood, providing a level of prosperity which sets them above their customers. Denise’s childhood is a happy one – “I was like a fish in water” – the store means she never has to want for anything on its shelves, and the bar provides her with all the adult attention, unsavoury as some of it is, she needs. She is sent to a private school – a claim on entering the middle classes which her parents shrug off with, “not that we’re snobs, but the private school is nearer.” Though uneducated (or perhaps because they are), her parents place their faith in education – her father pronounces ‘school’ in the same tone as ‘church’. Denise is studious, but finds school “strange, indescribable, I was completely disorientated.” School and home seem like two different worlds: “Not even the same language.”

Denise, of course, does not fit in with the other pupils:

“In feel clumsy and awkward in comparison with the private-school girls, who are confident, who know just what to do.”

Her stories from home are “in poor taste.” Her marks, however, continue to be high:

“The others recognised that I got good marks and was at the top of the class. That knowledge made me feel free, warm, protected.”

The better she does at school, however, the more distant she feels from her life at home:

“I’m not like them. I’m different. I have nothing to say to them.”

School and home also create another dichotomy in Denise’s life. Her sordid origins become connected in her mind with sex; school, on the other hand, represents purity. As her sexual desire develops she sees it as something else that singles her out, a view exacerbated by her Catholic upbringing:

“There’s a monster growing between my legs, a flat, red cockroach, unclean. Don’t ever look at it, don’t ever touch it, don’t let anyone see it, the Devil’s down there…”

She sees her sexuality as something to resist, and her inability to resist it a sign of her own inadequacy, her true, inherited nature which she cannot escape through learning.

Cleaned Out is a fierce, physical book. In Ernaux’s hands, Denise’s emotions are often tangible, spreading through her senses. In an afterword, she talks of, “describing a life in all its aspects, including the affective and sensual, the taste of food, the smell of summer Sundays…” It’s a coming of age story, but also a coming to terms, in which Denise must wrestle with who she is before she can decide who she wants to be.

The Back Room

August 13, 2017

Carmen Martin Gaite’s The Back Room is the only one of the five of her novels to have been translated into English still in print, though it is, perhaps, not the ideal starting point. Written in the middle of a writing career which lasted forty years, it features a writer who we take to be the author (there are references, for example, to her first novel The Spa) reflecting on her childhood in the company of a stranger who arrives one night shortly after midnight, and might be anything from a journalist to the devil; perhaps simply a dream.

The novel begins one sleepless night and the narrator’s mind is already very much on her childhood – “the little girl form the provinces who can’t manage to fall asleep is looking at me in the light of the little yellow lamp.” We also sense a restlessness in the untidiness of the rooms and a lack of focus in her writing. At one point she loses her footing over a copy of Todorov’s Introduction to Fantastic Literature:

“When I finished it I wrote in a notebook: ‘I swear I’m going to write a fantastic novel.’ I suppose it was a promise I made to Todorov. That was around the middle of January, five months have gone by since then. Projects often flare up like will-o’-the-wisps in the heat of certain readings, but then one’s enthusiasm flags…”

The ringing of a telephone wakes her (the novel is full of awakenings, making the differentiation of dream and reality difficult). The visitor claims he is expected though the narrator is less certain (“I don’t know what interview he’s talking about but I don’t dare admit this.”) He quickly brings doubt to his existence, commenting on the narrator’s fear of a cockroach she has sighted in the kitchen:

“They’re mysterious….Like all apparitions. Don’t you like mystery stories?”

Later she will find with a print of ‘Luther’s Discussion with the Devil’ which was earlier pinned up in her bedroom in his hand; looking at it then she had felt “it was taking on depth and relief, that I was entering into it.”

Her visitor (“the man in black” she calls him) prompts her to further memories of her youth, though in no particular order, beginning with her departure from Spain on a scholarship to study in Portugal. Her memories take place partly in the images she recalls to her mind, partly in what she tells him. At times, for example when she goes to the kitchen to make him tea, her memories are entirely separate from their conversation. This jumble of memories she associates with the back room:

“I also imagine it as the attic of one’s brain, a sort of secret place full of a vague jumble of all sorts of miscellaneous junk, separated from the cleaner and more orderly anterooms by a curtain that is only occasionally pulled back. The memories that may come to us as something of a surprise live hiding in the back room.”

She compares memory to the childhood game of Red Light where the participants attempt to approach one child who has their back turned, freezing when they turn and say ‘Red Light!’

“…time steals by so furtively that we don’t even notice it, we don’t see it passing. But all of sudden we turn around and find images that have moved behind our backs, frozen photographs that bear no dates, like the figures of the children in the game of Red Light, who could never be caught moving.”

To some extent her recollections focus on her development as a writer: “That child and her mania for sitting reading with her face glued to the balcony!” She talks of the romance novels she loved, and her own childish romances. But her memories are also a record of Franco’s dictatorship, a point she makes by describing two moments when she saw Franco’s daughter, Carmencita (who is of a similar age) – as a child and at Franco’s funeral:

“We’ve grown up and lived in the same years. She was the daughter of an army officer from the provinces. We’ve been the victims of the same manners and mores, we’ve read the same magazines and seen the same movies.”

At one point they are interrupted by a phone call from a woman claiming to be her visitor’s girlfriend. She also claims to have discovered love letters from the narrator (signed with a C) – though the narrator has no memory of them. (Missing letters, and other papers, are another recurrent motif of the novel). In the final chapter, we are given a strong impression that the novel is a dream –the narrator is awoken by her daughter’s kiss – but how much of it? And in what way does that explain the manuscript she finds:

“The place formerly occupied by Todorov’s book is now occupied by a pile of numbered pages, one hundred and eighty-two of them. On the first line is written, in capital letters with a black ballpoint pen: THE BACK ROOM.”

As the man in black reminds us:

“Ambiguity is the key to fantastic literature… Not knowing whether what one has seen is true or false, and never finding out.”

The Back Room is both puzzling and prepossessing, marking Gaite out as an intriguing writer who deserves attention.

Cry, Mother Spain

August 10, 2017

Though Lydie Salvayre writes in French (here translated by Ben Faccini), her parents were among those who fled Spain at the time of the Civil War. The ‘Mother Spain’ of the title therefore is both the country from which her family originates, and a reference to her own mother, Montse, whose story forms the basis of the novel. As Salvayre explains in a preface, however, the novel’s origins lie elsewhere, with the writings of George Bernanos, a Catholic monarchist who initially supported the Nationalist cause only to be disgusted by the atrocities he saw committed in its name. Bernanos’ perspective gives a historical context and relevance to Montse’s story, which in turn allows the reader to experience the impact of these historical forces on the individual.

The novel opens with Montse’s political awakening. When she is taken to be introduced to the Burgos family as a potential maid, don Jaime comments, “She seems quite humble.”

“But that comment, my mother says, throws me into a turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.”

Her brother, Jose, an anarchist, is even more furious:

“Who does the bastard think he is? He’ll regret it, the bare-faced carbon. I’ll teach that bourgeoisie to think twice before opening his mouth again.”

This particularising of the class conflict which was emerging is typical of the novel. Salvarye is at pains to exemplify the various shades of opinion which exist in the village, and how they are also linked to personal relationships. While Jose represents the anarchist viewpoint, don Jaime’s adopted son, Diego, is the resident Communist. The uncertain parentage of his unruly red hair means he is largely distrusted, however, and he is jealous of the way Jose is admired by his peers. Both have difficult relationships with their fathers, don Jaime being the largest landowner in the district, and Jose’s father, though poor, also owning a few acres he wishes to hold onto. Most of the farmers in the village, however, rent their land from don Jaime and are initially entranced with Jose’s proposal for a commune:

“We no longer want to do all the whoring for the landowners: they’re keeping us in poverty and pocketing our money… We can live differently. It’s possible.”

The novel captures the initial joy felt by the villagers at the thought they might be on the verge of a better life:

“The village was in a state of effervescence the next day, at boiling point. Red-and-black scarves hung from windows and balconies, people basked in their newly acquired slogans, babbling away gesticulating, panting, throwing themselves on the few copies of Solidaridad Obrera that had finally reached the village.”

As the days pass, the mood changes, however, and Diego’s more cautious approach begins to win the argument. (One of the areas the novel explores is the conflict between the anarchists and the Communists, making clear that opposition to the Nationalists was not united).

The joy of revolution is also shown when Jose and Montse leave the village to join the Republican army. Salvayre describes it as “a brief interlude of freedom for my mother, a moment of enchantment.” Her mother tells her she had never before seen two people kiss, or heard a foreign language:

“In one evening Montse discovered (her creased, wrinkled face lights up with joy when she describes this) the existence of running water, hot and cold, bath tubs with wrought-iron tiger feet, lavatories with flushing mechanisms and flip-up lids, electricity in every room, refrigerators, clocks, thermometers on walls, telephones made out of ebonite.”

Superficially this may not seem political, but, of course, it is the entrenched poverty of the existing system, now broken in the anarchist held city, that has prevented her from experiencing these things before. Salvayre, as she does throughout, demonstrates how events impact the individual beyond the abstract ideas which create them. The passion for revolution is echoed in Montse’s falling for a French volunteer; the rebellious times reflected in her adolescence.

Cry, Mother Spain is a wonderful novel. It recreates the period of the Civil War in both the particular and the general. It does not stint on detailing the cruelty and violence which accompanied it, but at the same time it reveals the idealism and passion. In the turbulence of its forces we can also see something recognisable in the coming of age of both Jose and Montse. They guide us through the hope and horror in stories, which we know from the start, end very differently.

Lost Books – The Miracle-Worker

August 6, 2017

In recent years, Carmen Boullosa has become one of the most regularly translated of women writers, her third novel from Deep Vellum due to be published this month. For her first appearance in English, however, we must go back to 1994 when Amanda Hopkinson translated her novel of the previous year, The Miracle-Worker. The novel tells the story a healer, Milagrosa, who falls in love with the detective sent to discredit her – part of a plot for the presidency which soon endangers both their lives. That this sounds like a thriller is only one of a number of postmodern tricks the novel uses to entertain the reader – its plot unfolds far from conventionally, and reaches no neat conclusions.

The Miracle-Worker is introduced to the reader as a bundle of papers and an audio-tape found clutched in the hands of a dead man. (Though nothing is certain, we assume this is the body of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez). This makes even their order uncertain, as an editor (also unknown) informs the reader:

“I have ordered them into what appears, to the best of my judgement, to be the most easily comprehensible sequence.”

The novel begins in the words of the miracle-worker, Milagrosa. Her gift, she feels, depends on her isolation:

“The terror of losing the gift I have repels me from even the notion of physical closeness.”

She discusses some of the difficulties of meeting her supplicants’ wishes. When a woman asks her to heal her brain-damaged son, to whom she has dedicated her life, Milgrosa can “foresee her loneliness and abandonment as soon as the boy acquired a normal intelligence.” There is also an amusing story of a man who wants his much younger lover to see him as a younger man (fifty instead of seventy); then his lover comes to beg that he see her as older to bridge the remaining gap (fifty instead of thirty). Of course, he leaves her. Most of the requests, however (a number of which are reproduced in the novel’s next section) only serve to remind us how difficult life is.

From there we move on to a transcript of the tape-recording of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez. He explains that he’s been hired by the Industrial Textile Workers’ Union: “the Union ordered me to pursue the Milagrosa, with a specific mission to destroy her.” The reason is only vaguely suggested later:

“They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa.”

Of course, this may mean much more to a Mexican reader, but I suspect Boullosa has no intention of writing a political thriller. The lack of exposition lends terror to the rising death count as Aurelio and Milagrosa go on the run. Aurelio’s endangerment is established early on when he is recognised as “the shit of a strike-breaker” (again never fully explained) and beaten. At this point he has already fallen for Milagrosa, and when she rescues and heals him their relationship blossoms. Soon she rejects her role as healer, reverting to her own name, E, and planning to escape the country with Aurelio.

Things are further confused when we discover the elderly man who dumped his young lover, Felipe Morales, is now running for President. Aurelio witnessed him returning to Milagrosa to ask that his wife respect and admire him again: “That fool Morales…He took advantage of me.” This, somehow, has given him the confidence needed to win the election. Aurelio begs Milagrosa to use her power to stop him:

“Please destroy Morales… I’m pleading with you. For the sake of our love, for dignity and justice.”

It is perhaps possible to read The Miracle-Worker as a political satire, but Boullosa’s primary intention seems to be to impress a sense of Mexico, in flashes, on our flinching retinas, a madcap mixture of religion, passion, corruption and violence with no obvious resolution. The novel can sometimes feel like a chase scene, with unexpected corners and no clear end point, but there’s a breathlessness to it that’s worth pursuing.