Tagbook review

The Castle of Whispers – Carole Martinez

It’s time for some historical fiction, the second novel by French writer Carole Martinez. In the late 12th century, Esclarmonde is the beautiful daughter of a lord; she faces marriage to the philandering Lothaire, scion of Montfaucon, but she knows that this will lead to an unacceptable loss of autonomy:

I would be nothing but a modest container whom successive pregnancies would finally carry away. And even if Lothaire died before me, my widowhood would not protect me, but would abandon me again to the highest bidder as a token of some alliance or other. 

(translation by Howard Curtis) 

There’s only one thing that Esclarmonde can think to do: at the wedding ceremony, she cuts off her ear and announces that she will dedicate her life to Christ as an anchoress. Her family’s seat, the Castle of Whispers, has been added to piecemeal over the generations; now her father adds the chapel in which Esclarmonde will be sealed for the rest of her days. She will be considered dead to the world, even receiving the rite of extreme unction.  

However, the night before her confinement begins, Esclarmonde is raped. In the following months, she falls pregnant and gives birth to a boy whom she names Ezléar, “God’s help”. She decides to keep the child, whose birth comes to be seen as miraculous (no one asks Esclarmonde the question that would reveal otherwise). Add to this that no one has been claimed by death since Esclarmonde entered her cell, and the Damsel of the Whispers’ reputation only grows. 

But although Esclarmonde’s godliness increases in the eyes of others, her own feelings are moving in a different direction:

Gradually, without my even noticing, my attention moved away from the hagioscope to my son and all the people he attracted. God occupied me less than his creatures from now, and I never grew tired of watching them, listening to them, trying to understand what motivated their little brains. I no longer dreaded their judgment, or even that of God. I had not lied, I had merely kept silent about a truth that nobody wanted to hear anyway, and my silence had offered a blank space to be embroidered, an emptiness that everyone had seized on with delight. 

Esclarmonde’s self-questioning over her faith is a recurring theme of The Castle of Whispers. Another is motherhood, and what Elzéar represents you Esclarmonde – whether she’ll be happy to surrender him to the outside world before he grows too large to fit through the window to her cell. A further theme is power: in a world ruled by men, Esclarmonde gains a certain amount of power through her status as an anchor essay. Later on in the novel, she convinces her father to join Frederick Barbarossa’s forces on the Third Crusade; the lord’s young wife Douce, Esclarmonde’s stepmother, rules at home in his stead. The book becomes an exploration of the shifting spaces of male and female power. 

I’m struck by how much The Castle of Whispers encompasses when its protagonist spends most of time confined to a small space. More than that, it’s thoroughly engrossing. After this, I’ll certainly be going back to look at Martinez’s first novel, The Threads of the Heart, and looking out for future books, too. 

Elsewhere 

Stu has reviewed this book over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

The Castle of Whispers (2011) by Carole Martinez, tr. Howard Curtis (2014), Europa Editions, 194 pages, hardback (review copy). 

You Will Grow into Them – Malcolm Devlin: a Minor Literature[s] review

Today I’m delighted to make my debut at Minor Literature[s], a site that I’ve long admired. If you’ve never come across Minor Lit[s] before, it publishes fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and more. The ‘minor’ in the site’s name originally referred to writing in a second language, after Kafka; but it has broadened out to encompass different ways in which literature can be considered ‘minor’ (though not lesser!) in the context of contemporary publishing – all while maintaining its own distinctive aesthetic. 

The book that I’m reviewing is You Will Grow into Them, the debut story collection by Malcolm Devlin, published by Unsung Stories. Devlin’s name was new to me when I accepted the review copy; but I saw that he’d had stories published in Interzone and Black Static, and the book came with plaudits from trusted names like Nina Allan, so that was enough for me.

I found in Devlin a writer whose work demands my attention. The stories in this collection are centred on change in its various forms, and carry a real sense of how destabilising it can be. But I don’t want to say too much on this blog when there’s a review for you to read right here

Book details 

You Will Grow into Them (2017) by Malcolm Devlin, Unsung Stories, 344 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Russian Riveter 

Last week, the European Literature Network published the second edition of its regular magazine The Riveter. This one is devoted to Russian literature, and has fiction and poetry in translation, as well as reviews – including my review of Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse (tr. Boris Dralyuk). 

The Russian Riveter is available to download free as a 48-page PDF from here. Do take a look. 

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane

August is Women in Translation Month, and that’s going to be my main focus on the blog this month. But Spanish Lit Month has also been extended to August (and expanded to cover Portuguese lit) – so I thought I’d start the month off with a book that falls under both headings. 

Lina Meruane is a Chilean writer and academic living and working in New York. Seeing Red is her fourth novel, but the first to be translated into English. It’s also semi-autobiographical: Meruane’s protagonist has the same name as her; and the book revolves around a medical condition that the author herself lived with. 

It begins at a house party. Lina is on her own in the bedroom when suddenly blood fills her eye: juvenile diabetes had meant that her retinal veins were fragile, and now one has burst. Immediately, Lina starts wondering about the future: is this going to lead to “the dark passage where only anonymous, besieged cries could be heard,” or is there a way out? Lina won’t have any answers until she sees her doctor in a few days, by which time there’s enough blood in her second eye to leave her effectively blind when she moves. The doctor suggests that it may be possible to restore Lina’s sight with an operation – an option she leaps at – but not for another month at least. Much to her consternation, Lina has no choice but to wait. 

Naturally, her sudden sight loss affects Lina’s life in many ways. A flavour of some is given in this passage, where Lina has travelled back to Chile on vacation and is met by her father at the airport:

My father comes to the rescue and pulls me out of my introspection. It’s his bony tourniquet hand that falls onto my shoulder. His debilitated skeleton, his long femur I hold onto. He leans over to kiss my forehead and I extend my fingers to run them over his face, trying to trace his face into my palm. I touch him like the professional blind woman I’m becoming. My father is alive, I think, he’s alive in there, inside his body. Then his voice, the word daughter, winds its way through the crush of passengers waiting for suitcases, and in my ear drum his relieved words echo: I had to insist before they’d let me come in and look for you. 
(translation by Megan McDowell) 

Here we have a clamour of sensory information, as well as a laborious process of working it all out, something that’s increasingly familiar to Lina (that wry “professional blind woman” comment). I’ve quoted at some length here because that’s the nature of the book: each chapter is presented as a single long paragraph. This has the effect of bringing the reader down to Lina’s pace, having to work through situations slowly. It also heightens the sense that there’s no escape from Lina’s circumstances, no short cut to recovery – especially in the sections concerning Lina’s treatment, when it’s unclear whether the operation will work, and she has to take extreme care to avoid causing damage while her eyes heal. 
Megan McDowell’s translation is superb, so much rhythm, sound and colour. Here, for example, is Lina in bed with her partner Ignacio:

I started by putting my tongue in a corner of his eyelid, slowly, and as my mouth covered his eyes I felt a savage desire to suck them, hard, to take possession of them on my palate as if they were little eggs or enormous and excited roe, hard, but Ignacio, half-asleep or now half-awake, refused to open them, he refused to give himself to that newly discovered desire, and instead of giving me what I wanted he pushed me back onto the bed and put his tongue in my ear and between my lips although he didn’t dare lick my sick eyes when I asked him to… 

That sentence goes on still further, evoking the slow unwinding of Lina’s desire. There are strong feelings throughout Seeing Red, as Lina’s relationships with her loved ones come under strain, and she fixated on the possibility of a cure for her blindness. Strong feelings on the page turn into an intense experience for the reader; a fine English-language debut for Meruane.

Book details 

Seeing Red (2012) by Lina Meruane, tr. Megan McDowell (2016), Deep Vellum Publishing, 162 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

The UK edition of Seeing Red is published by Atlantic Books

Such Small Hands – Andrés Barba

When I talk about my new-found love of short, sharp novels, I’m talking about books like Signs Preceding the End of the World and Mildew and The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse and Fever Dream (those are just some of the Spanish-language ones) – books that are dense enough to blossom into their own reality, and short enough that they reach a peak of intensity. 

Now here’s another one. Andrés Barba is a Spanish writer who was named among Granta’s Best Young Spanish-language Novelists back in 2010. Such Small Hands is not his first novel to be translated into English (a number of others have been published by Madrid-based Hispabooks), but it is his first from a UK-based publisher (namely, Portobello Books). It is a novel of childhood, secrets and identity – and it’s very creepy indeed (the cover image above captures perfectly the mood of the book).  But it begins with the building-blocks: words. 

Marina is seven when she’s in a car crash with her parents. Her memories of the event are abstract: sounds, speed, a sensation of thirst. She has learned to say, “My father died instantly, my mother is in the hospital, but not necessarily with a real understanding of what those words mean:

Lips pronounce them without stopping. Quick, dry words. They come in thousands of different, unpredictable ways, sometimes unbidden. Suddenly they just fall, as if onto a field. Marina’s learned to say them without sadness, like a name recited for strangers, like my name is Marina and I’m seven years old. 
(translation by Lisa Dillman) 

Marina has not yet formed for herself the language to describe what happened to her, so she ends up learning phrases by rote. There’s a gap between what she says, what she understands, and what she has experienced. It doesn’t stop there: Marina is told she will be sent to an orphanage, but has no way to conceive of what this might be. In the face of everything, Marina turns to the doll given to her by her psychologist. She gives the doll her own name, invests it with personality; it’s just about the only thing that feels real to Marina at this time. 

When Marina has arrived at the orphanage, Barba’s narration switches to a disconcerting chorus, representing all the other girls. Until now, they have viewed themselves as being all the same – part of the same whole, even. Seeing Marina’s scar from her injuries introduces a difference, and sets off a cascade of realisation among the girls:

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her. 

Following this, the chapters’ viewpoint alternates between Marina and the girls, each adding (or perhaps peeling back) another layer of the complex game of growing up together. The other girls are by turns fascinated and repelled by Marina, and they treat her accordingly. Marina herself realises that she is different, and tries in various ways to take ownership of that. Underlying these events is the ever-shifting logic of childhood, something captured in the fluid nature of Lisa Dillman’s translation. There’s an extraordinary sequence which weaves together an interview between Marina and the orphanage psychologist about the car accident, and an instance where Marina uses a stick to skewer a caterpillar in the playground, as the other girls gather around. This passage dissolves the boundaries of time and reality: disorienting for the reader, perfectly intuitive to Marina. 

One night, Marina proposes a game to the other girls: they will take turns to dress up as a doll, in clothes and make-up that Marina has obtained; the doll will then remain quiet while the girls play with her. The girls’ chorus describes what this is like:

You are passed from one set of hands to the next, from one bed to the next. You’re never alone again. Safe inside the doll, you love harder, feel deeper, exist boundlessly, no moderation. And yet you disregard the sound of girls kissing your cheek. Nothing matters now. 

The doll game allows each girl to experience individuality to a greater degree than she has before – albeit paradoxically by suppressing any thoughts or personality she might have of her own. It’s a deeply private experience that can only be articulated generically, and in that sense perhaps analogous to Maria’s experience of the car crash. 

Marina herself cannot understand why the girls continue to bully her during the day when they’ll happily submit to her game at night. It’s another example of that fluid logic underpinning events… but let’s leave that there. The experience of reading Such Small Hands becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the book’s pieces fall into place. This is a novel that will continue to haunt me for some time; and, of course, I’ll be reading more of Barba’s work in the future. 

Elsewhere 

Book details 

Such Small Hands (2008) by Andrés Barba, tr. Lisa Dillman (2017), 102 pages, Portobello Books, hardback (review copy).

The UK edition of Such Small Hands is published on 3 August. The US edition, published by Transit Books, is already available. 

No-one Loves a Policeman – Guillermo Orsi

​I picked this book up in a charity shop, based primarily on the same trust in MacLehose Press that led me to read Nevada Days. It was the first of Argentinian journalist Guillermo Orsi’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is one Pablo Martelli, who receives an urgent call from his friend Edmundo Cárcano one night in December 2001. Martelli travels through the night to Cárcano’s retreat in the seaside village of Mediamundo. When he arrives, he finds that his friend has been shot. 

Soon, Martelli meets Lorena, the beautiful young blonde woman with whom Cárcano had fallen in love; then she is apparently abducted, and Martelli’s car taken. Pablo travels to Bahía Blanca for Cárcano’s funeral, where Lorena suddenly reappears. After a night out alone in Bahía Blanca, Martelli is beaten up, and wakes in the police station, where an inspector slaps him around for good measure. Then Martelli returns to his hotel, where he finds Lorena’s dead body in the bed. Pablo learns that the manner of Lorena’s murder resembles that of several other killings – it appears someone is trying to frame him. Martelli heads back to Buenos Aires at the first opportunity; it won’t surprise you to learn that, even after all this, his troubles are only just beginning. 

Martelli himself is an ex-policeman, dismissed from an elite division known as the ‘National Shame’; these days, he sells bathroom appliances. His main allies are the inspector and officer from Bahía Blanca, whom he likens to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; and the forensic doctor whom Martelli constantly describes as “roly-poly”. They’re not stereotypical heroic types; but this is not a tale with space for heroes. 

Commenting on his country’s police force, Martelli says: “it is not Sherlock Holmes we need in Argentina, it is the will to investigate.” This sets the tone of how the plot unfolds: not the solving of an elaborate puzzle, but more a journey through a world that constantly resists Martelli’s attempts to ‘solve’ it – the plot happens to him as much (if not more) as he drives it. When a key piece of information is revealed, or there’s some other important event, Orsi will often begin a new scene and fill in what has happened in retrospect; this reinforces for the reader the sense of having to push against the novel (the world) for answers. 

Corruption is rampant in No-one Loves a Policeman, along with a general sense of enervation: a dead body may never be reported, let alone investigated; and at one point a raid on a shanty town is staged just so the police are seen to be doing something. Over the course of the novel, Martelli comes to realise just where his career path has led him:

Death does not make ethical distinctions. It claws at everyone in the same way. It is a tiger living inside us, just waiting to escape and fulfil its destiny. […] Patrolling the streets of a city like Buenos Aires is to live side by side with the tiger, to let it loose in return for getting paid, to think the beast was really someone else when it mauled and then watched the dying groans impassively, refusing the hand held out for us at the last. To be a policeman is to shut your eyes, stuff your hands into your pockets, and let people die. 
(translation by Nick Caistor) 

No-one Loves a Policeman is set at a specific moment in Argentina’s recent past: a time of economic crisis and popular riots, which resulted in the resignation of president Fernando de la Rúa. This is more than background, as Orsi ties the events of his novel firmly into history, ultimately heightening the sense of circumstances that are too great for individuals fully to grasp or change. No-one Loves a Policeman is grim yet absorbing, its narrator facing the inevitable with wry wit because that’s just about all he has left. 

Book details 

No-one Loves a Policeman (2007) by Guillermo Orsi, tr. Nick Caistor (2010), MacLehose Press, 284 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan

​Today I’m looking at an oldie (first published 1915) that I haven’t read before (or seen the film, etc – I know, I know…). Thanks to Alma Books for providing a copy of their smart new paperback edition, and thereby the impetus to read it. 

You probably know the outline, but anyway: finding England too dull, Richard Hannay is on the verge of going back to South Africa when he is approached by an American named Scudder. In Hannay’s London flat, Scudder tells a seemingly outlandish tale of spies and planned assassination – outlandish, that is, until Hannay finds Scudder dead the following morning, and himself in the frame for murder. 

I found it best to approach The Thirty-Nine Steps as a pure adventure story – and I had such a fantastic time of it. There are so many lucky coincidences that I essentially had to get rid of my disbelief; but that really wasn’t hard when the book offered so much enjoyment in return. The distance between me and the language of the book became the gateway to a world where these coincidences could happen. 

I think of The Thirty-Nine Steps as falling roughly into two halves. In the first half, Hannay goes on the run, trying to stay ahead of both the police and those who really killed Scudder. Hannay decides to head to Scotland, where he was born; there are some splendid depictions of landscape and action sequences. Here is an example of the latter, where Hannay is forced to drive off the road, into a hedge:

My car slithered through the hedge like butter, and then gave a sickening plunge forward. I saw what was coming, leapt on the seat and would have jumped out. But a branch of hawthorn got me in the chest, lifted me up and held me, while a ton or two of expensive metal slipped below me, bucked and pitched, and then dropped with an almighty smash fifty feet to the bed of the stream. 

In the second ‘half’ (as I think of it), Hannay has found allies and been able to set the record straight; now he tries to foil the plot that he’s uncovered. Maybe this stretch of the novel doesn’t have quite the same level of brisk excitement as the first, but it’s still nicely tense all the same. What a pleasure it’s been to ‘discover’ The Thirty-Nine Steps after all this time. 

Book details 

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan, Alma Classics, 154 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Our Dead World – Liliana Colanzi

​It’s time for my first Latin American choice of this Spanish Lit Month: a collection of short stories by the young Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi, published by Dalkey Archive in a smart translation by Jessica Sequeira. These stories inhabit a place where the line between the real and the supernatural stretches thin; they’re animated by the existential tension that this implies. 

In ‘Meterorite’, ranch owner Ruddy has trouble sleeping, a side-effect of his weight loss pills. He has plenty to occupy his mind, too – not least paying off the mother of the peasant boy he took on, who was then kicked in the head by a cow that Ruddy had shot. The boy’s mother said he could “speak with higher beings”; in the days before his injury, the boy had declared that “a fire would appear in the sky to take him away”. Superstitious nonsense, thinks Ruddy – yet, on the night of this story, he believes that he sees the kitchen door move by itself; and there is the meteoroid, burning up in the sky after travelling here for thousands of years. Ruddy is so worked up that it hardly matters to him whether there’s some supernatural agency at work – nor does it matter to the story, which builds up like a storm, then breaks with dread and fury. 

Colanzi’s stories tiptoe back and forth across the line between real and supernatural, merrily smudging it at times. ‘Alfredito’ revolves around the death of the narrator’s schoolfriend. The whole concept of Alfredito being dead feels profoundly wrong to her:

And now I had to get used to the monstrous idea of Alfredito’s dead body, prepared to occupy its place in the cemetery, where it would begin its slow journey to putrefaction. Alfredito, I realized, was no longer the boy running in the countryside with arms outstretched, but was now something else. Would his parents be afraid of his body? Would they be able to touch it, to kiss it? 

“The dead never leave,” says the narrator’s nana; and, throughout the story, Alfredito’s death is never presented as completely final, because the narrator won’t countenance it. We are introduced to a whole cast of friends and family, enough for a novel, in the space of a few pages. This narrative density gives the tale a heightened energy that carries the reader along, and might even allow an impossible door to open… 

In ‘Cannibal’, a couple arrive in Paris to the news that a notorious cannibal is also present in the city, somewhere. The pair are here for an illicit liaison; but first one of them, Vanessa, has some drugs to take to a party. The entire story is told from the viewpoint of Vanessa’s lover, who stays in the hotel, thoughts churning around in his mind. His fears over what might happen to Vanessa fold back into his anxieties about their relationship, and he becomes effectively a cannibal of his own thoughts. This story won the Aura Estrada Prize in 2015, and it’s not hard to see why. 

The title story of Our Dead World seems to me to tie the collection together. Its protagonist, Mirka, has taken a lifetime contract with the Martian Lottery, working on the colony for the next round of inhabitants. She has left behind her partner Tommy, but their old life won’t let go of her so easily. Neither will Earth itself: she keeps hallucinating the presence of deer and other animals on Mars. In this story, you have the mingling of real and supernatural; prose woven into a dense tapestry (dialogue between Mirka and Tommy is embedded within the Mars-set text); and a concern with human emotions (the title ‘Our Dead World’ could refer as easily to Mirka’s relationship with Tommy as to Earth or Mars).

I’ve enjoyed reading Colanzi’s stories in this collection, and I hope there will be more to come in English translation. 

Elsewhere 

Read further reviews of Our Dead World at Winstonsdad’s BlogSF in Translation; and Bookmunch

Book details 

Our Dead World (2016) by Liliana Colanzi, tr. Jessica Sequeira (2017), Dalkey Archive Press, 114 pages, paperback (review copy).

Nevada Days – Bernardo Atxaga

Sometimes, choosing to read a book is a matter of trust. Maybe a particular book doesn’t sound as though it would appeal; but if the recommendation comes from a trusted source, or the book is by a favourite author, that might be enough to persuade one to give the book a try. 

In the case of Nevada Days, I was trusting the publisher. Bernardo Atxaga was a new writer to me; this book is a fictionalised memoir covering the nine months he spent as writer-in-residence of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno. On the face of it, this probably isn’t the kind of book I would choose to introduce myself to a writer’s work – but I trust MacLehose Press to publish interesting books, and it worked before with Per Olov Enquist’s The Wandering Pine, so why not?

Anyway, I took a chance; and I’m glad I did.

Atxaga arrives in Reno on 18 August 2007, with his wife Ángela (who will be conducting research there) and their daughters Sara and Izaskun. They move into a small house used by the university to lodge visiting writers. We are soon introduced to a core cast of vivid secondary characters, including Mary Lore Bidart, director of the Center for Basque Studies; Bob Earle, the exuberant retired academic who becomes the Atxagas’ new neighbour; and Dennis, the university IT officer with a fascination for insects. 

Along with his work at the university, Atxaga makes a number of trips into the desert and further afield. All adds up to make Nevada Days an engrossing travelogue. Here is Atxaga reflecting on the mountains in the Nevada desert, in one of the letters to his friend L. that appear throughout the text:

Looking at those mountains – far, far, far away, so far away that the most distant ones looked like mere maquettes – I was keenly aware of the world’s utter indifference to us. This wasn’t just an idea either, but something more physical, more emotional, which troubled me and made me feel like crying. I understood then that the mountains were in a different place entirely. They weren’t distant from me in the way a bird in Sicily is distant from a tree in Nevada, but, as I said, in a different place entirely.

(translation by Margaret Jull Costa) 

I chose this extract because it highlights something I was constantly reminded of while reading Nevada Days: namely, that Atxaga’s account is a shaped version of reality. In this passage, he’s working through the process of finding the right words to capture his experience. 

But Nevada Days is also organised in a way that lends it certain themes. One that stands out to me is moral ambivalence, introduced when Atxaga’s daughters feel sorry for King Kong when he is shot at the end of the film; and again for a drug trafficker whom they see being arrested:

What connection was there between justice and compassion? How far should society go to protect itself? What should the city do with King Kong? 

Atxaga peppers his account of Nevada with memories and stories of the Basque Country; these tend to illustrate examples of where the line between right and wrong might be blurred. For instance, he tells of the famed Basque boxer Paulino Uzcudun, presenting him as an ambivalent figure, celebrated as a fighter but also later known as a strong supporter of Franco. Atxaga also recounts how he himself was out dancing and meeting girls as a teenager at the same time as his autistic cousin José Francisco was struggling in his residential school, where one day he swallowed some pieces of metal that killed him. The author asks if his younger self should be blamed for being indifferent to his cousin, when he was essentially following urges that young people have. No answer is forthcoming. 

After Atxaga’s main account of Reno is finished, a couple of further sections serve to tie up the book thematically and cast it in a new light. The author includes phone calls home to his elderly mother in the main text; and, though these are often amusing, it’s still clear enough that something serious is going on. A closing chapter recounts her funeral: it’s structured in the same way as the main text – present-day narration mixed with stories and memories – but intercut much more rapidly. This chapter suggests that an extraordinary event such as a death in the family takes us to its own separate place, and only gradually do we return to our everyday lives. The pace and choppiness of the chapter create that sense of experiencing a heightened reality. But mirroring the structure of the main text suggests that the period represented by the book may have been a “separate place” in reality for Atxaga and his family. 

Closing Nevada Days is a series of document extracts that close off two narrative strands from the main text: a string of sexual assaults and a murder on campus; and the disappearance of the adventurer Steve Fossett. Both of these have previously been left open like plot strands in a novel – and they’ve had the same narrative tension – but their sudden, matter-of-fact closure reinforces that reality doesn’t have the arrangement of fiction after all. In a way, we’re also back to the theme of moral ambivalence, asking whether it’s right to gain narrative pleasure from such real events. But then, that’s what fiction naturally enables, isn’t it? But then again… 

Considering that I was unsure of giving Nevada Days a whirl in the first place, the reading of it (and, indeed, the writing of this review) has given me so much to think about, I feel very happy to have taken the chance. I must also mention the design:this book is published as part of the new ‘MacLehose Press Editions’ series, in a handsome trade paperback (large, but not too large) with flaps. I’m glad to have Nevada Days a worthy addition to my library; and, actually, I think it will be a good starting point for exploring more of Bernardo Atxaga’s work. 
T 

Stu has also reviewed Nevada Days over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

Nevada Days (2013) by Bernardo Atxaga, tr. Margaret Jull Costa (2017), MacLehose Press, 342 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Nona’s Room – Cristina Fernández Cubas

Once again, July is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. A little later than planned, I’m joining in. 

Today I’m looking at another title from the Peter Owen/Istros Spanish Spring trio (the last I reviewed was Inventing Love). The author biography tells me that Cristina Fernández Cubas is one of Spain’s most highly regarded short-story writers — and that Nona’s Room is her first book to be translated into English. After reading these six stories, I can see why Cubas has such a high reputation; and I’m keen to read more of her work. 

The opening title story sets the tone of the collection. When the narrator’s sister Nona was born, her mother told her that Nona was special, and not to forget that “special is a lovely word.” Well, maybe that was how it happened. Whatever, the narrator knows that she has felt sidelined since Nona came along:

Because my life was very different before Nona came into the world. I don’t remember it very well, but I do know it was different. I’ve got loads of reasons to think that it was better, too. Much better. But once Nona was born things changed for ever, and that must be why I got used to thinking that my mother said those words the day she came into the world. That’s the day when I started a new life as well. My life with Nona. 

(translation by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts)

This kind of uncertainty, and a slippery hold on reality, permeates all of Cubas’s stories. In this particular example, the narrator has started to lose her sense of having a life in and for herself when her parents focus all their attention on special Nona at her special school, Nona with her array of imaginary friends. It’s when the narrator sees something inexplicable happen to her sister that she becomes determined to find out the truth, and discover what secrets lie behind the door of Nona’s room… 

Yes, I am tiptoeing around something that I don’t want to reveal. But I don’t want to give the impression that this story is ‘all about the twist’: ‘Nona’s Room’ writhes and shifts all the way through, with a constant sense that something else is set to emerge. 

That same sense comes right to the fore early on in ‘Interior with Figure’, when the narrator describes the Cecioni painting of that name and says that the girl depicted “reminds me of a character in a short story I wrote recently whom I called Nona.”
The narrator of ‘Interior with Figure’ admits to being a writer but stops short of revealing her name. Still, that mention of Nona tempts us to perceive this story as being closer to reality than some of the others. Our narrator goes on to recount seeing a school party at the gallery she is visiting, and hearing one girl who has a particularly dark interpretation of Cecioni’s Interior with Figure. The girl speculates that the figure in the painting is hiding from her parents, because she knows they want to kill her for what she has seen. 

It strikes the narrator that the girl’s comments on the painting may actually be a coded cry for help. She wonders what she should do: go to the police? But what would she tell them? ‘Interior with Figure’ is a story about interpretation: a series of subjectivities which crystallise into a whole all unto itself. That’s my interpretation, anyway… 

‘The End of Barbro’ sees a woman drive a wedge between the man she marries and his three daughters. What makes this story particularly striking is that it’s narrated by the three sisters collectively:

We hardly spoke a word and didn’t dare look each other in the eye, but with a few drinks inside us we sorted through our thoughts and memories as if they were scenes from a film fast-forwarding at a frenetic pace and featuring only two protagonists: Barbro and our father. And when we remember her appearing on the doorstep barely a week earlier it seemed as if years and years had gone by. They weren’t the same, and neither were we. 

The effect of this narration is quite eerie, because we lose sight of the sisters’ individual lives and personalities (perhaps reflecting how they feel squeezed out by Barbro), which makes it harder to imagine them as characters. In turn, that makes the story’s sense of reality unstable… and there we’re back to the normal state of affairs in Nona’s Room

Elsewhere
 

Stu has reviewed Nona’s Room here; I like his comparison to Roald Dahl’s stories. You can also read an extract from the title story here at the European Literature Network. 

Book details 

Nona’s Room (2015) by Cristina Fernández Cubas, tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 160 pages, paperback (review copy). 

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