Esteban Echeverría, The Slaughteryard (1871/2010)
Sarah Salway, Something Beginning With (2004)
I’m a sucker for an eclectic list, and that’s exactly what is provided by The Friday Project’s new ‘Library of Lost Books’, a series that aims to bring back into print some titles that have fallen by the wayside for whatever reason. They’re available as handsome little print-on-demand volumes, as well as ebooks. The Library is being launched with four titles, all very different; here, I’ll be looking at two of them.
Esteban Echeverría’s short story ‘El matadero’ (originally published in 1871, twenty years after its author’s death, and here translated as The Slaughteryard by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe) is, says di Giovanni’s introduction, one of the ‘cornerstones of Argentine literature’. I must admit here and now that I know very little about the literature and history of Argentina (and of Latin America in general), so I’m coming to The Slaughteryard very much as a general reader.
Fortunately for me, di Giovanni has supplied a substantial introduction and glossary which do an excellent job of providing context (and there’s a lot of context to provide). The story itself is set during Lent of 1839, and tells of a group of Federalists who get to work on a bull in one of the slaughteryards of Buenos Aires, before a turning on a young man of the opposing Unitarian faction. Echeverría’s prose is dripping with irony (on the arrival of a herd of bullocks at the slaughteryard, at a time of year when eating meat was prohibited: ‘How odd that some stomachs should be privileged and some bound by inviolable laws, and that the Church should hold the key to both!’, p. 9); on a narrative level, in his portrait of the city, he builds very well the tension which is so violently released at the end; and, on a more figurative level, Echeverría’s use of butchery as a metaphor for the treatment of political opponents is worked through the whole text. The result is a powerful piece of work.
The volume is rounded out with additional material from di Giovanni, including the original Spanish text of ‘El matadero’, several accounts by other hands of the Buenos Aires slaughteryards, and some (translated) verses from the time. I must say that the presentation of The Slaughteryard in this volume is an excellent example of how to make an old text accessible to contemporary general readers whilst still allowing them to discover that text for themselves.
From a 140-year-old text to one which first appeared only six years ago. Sarah Salway’s debut novel, Something Beginning With (aka The ABCs of Love) is the story of Verity Bell, a secretary in an industrial publishing company, who falls in love with a married man just as her best friend Sally’s own affair enters turbulent waters.
The most immediately striking thing about Something Beginning With is its structure: the novel is arranged like an encyclopedia, with alphabetical entries (which have headings from ‘Baked Beans’ to ‘Railway Stations’ and ‘True Romance’) and cross-references. What this does is make the narrative highly fragmented, so that passages from the fictional present jostle with recollections from Verity’s past and her inner wonderings. From these pieces, we build up a portrait of a young woman who is pretty insecure with herself, and not always a sympathetic character. From an early scene in which the eleven-year-old Verity destroys an ant colony with boiling water, Salway drops in these details that complicate and colour our mental image of Verity.
Perhaps Verity’s greatest wish in life is ‘to matter’ (p. 154), not to be one of those people who goes through life never being noticed by anyone. But she doesn’t make life easy for herself: emotionally, she can push people away; and, materially, she has the financial means to live much more comfortably than she does. The way Salway portrays Verity, and especially with that alphabetical structure, one starts to wonder just how much is not being said and what might be happening in between the passages of the text. On the strength of this, I’ll be looking out for more of Sarah Salway’s work – and, of course, for more titles in the Library of Lost Books.