TagMacLehose Press

What I’ve been reading lately: a Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month special

First up, a novel from Colombia. The Children by Carolina Sanín (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. MacLehose Press) is the tale of Laura, who creates a slippery fiction of her life as a form of protection, for example by giving a different answer whenever someone asks what her dog is called. One night, six-year-old Fidel turns up outside her house, a boy with no apparent history. She takes him in for the night, then to child welfare services the next day – but, before long, she finds herself wanting to know what has happened to him. This is a strange and elusive story, where reality may be reconfigured even as we look at it.

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (tr. Jethro Soutar, pub. Dedalus) is the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It begins with teenage Ndani becoming a housekeeper for a white family, then circles around her life and others’, including a village chief with ambitions to stand up to the local Portuguese administrator, and the black schoolteacher whom Ndani falls in love with. Silá’s principal characters each step into white society in various ways; the author examines the implications for them of doing so, and how colonial attitudes could be challenged and perpetuated at the same time. The prose is a joy to read.

Umami by Laia Jufresa (tr. Sophie Hughes, pub. Oneworld) is set in a Mexico City mews of five houses, each named after one of the basic tastes. It begins in 2004, three years after her sister drowned, even though she could swim. Five narrative strands unfold in turn, each from a different viewpoint, told in a different voice, and set a year before the previous one. That structure sets up a rhythm which keeps the pages turning. Gradually, the secrets of the mews’s residents are revealed, with an ever-growing sense of being drawn into the implacable past.

Who Among Us? was the first novel (originally published in 1953) by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, but it’s the third to appear in English translation (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. Penguin Modern Classics). Miguel, Alicia and Lucas have known each other since school. Miguel and Alicia married each other, but Miguel has come to realise that Alicia prefers Lucas. So much so, in fact, that Miguel persuades Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires, where she can meet Lucas again. The tale of this love triangle is narrated by each character in turn, and in a different form: a journal written by Miguel, a letter from Alicia to him, a short story by Lucas (with footnotes outlining where he has adapted reality). The characters’ different perceptions emerge as the book progresses, and maybe there’s even an objective truth in there… or maybe not.

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). 

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). 

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