Tag: Peter Owen

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). 

Inventing Love – José Ovejero

The book I’m talking about today is part of Peter Owen Publishers’ ‘World Series’, which is published in association with Istros Books. Twice a year, they publ ish a set of three titles from the same country or region; Spain is the country of choice this spring. The publishers have kindly sent me a set of the books, so I’ll be looking at all three in the next few weeks.

Inventing Love is the second of José Ovejero’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is Samuel, a single man drifting through life at forty. He’s someone who has trouble with the idea of love:

I’ve always avoided the word ‘love’. It’s a noun that’s been devalued, a coin so overused that it’s been rubbed smooth, so that you could hold it between your fingers without feeling the relief design, a coin that I wouldn’t dare use to pay for something in case I was accused of being a fraudster…Does anyone really use it? Do couples really gaze into each other’s eyes and say ‘I love you’?

(Translation by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles)

One night, Samuel receives a phone call telling him that his lover, Clara, has been killed in a car crash. The thing is, Samuel has never known anyone called Clara. Seizing the chance to add a little colour to his life – and curious as to who this Clara might have been – he goes along to the funeral.

None of Clara’s family or friends knows what ‘her’ Samuel looks like, so it’s easy enough for ‘our’ Samuel to step into the role. After the funeral, he is approached by a woman who turns out to be Clara’s sister, Carina. She’s heard a lot about Samuel, and is curious about this man who led her sister to have an affair. Carina gives Samuel her card; over time, they get talking – about Clara most of all.

At first, it’s Samuel who gets to learn about Clara, allowing him to build his mental picture of this young woman he never knew. But Carina wants to understand the side of her sister that only Clara’s lover would have known… so Samuel has an opportunity to imagine part of Clara’s character for himself, and indeed to shape the image of Clara in the minds of those who did know her.

I don’t think the events of Inventing Love are meant to be taken literally – there are too many fortuitous coincidences for that. Instead, I think of Ovejero’s novel as a space to explore what it means to have a mental picture of someone else, by stretching the concept to such an extreme. 

One issue emerging from the book is how well we can actually know others. Samuel is clear on his view:

We share our lives with strangers. We can live with someone for decades and not know how she really feels when she says ‘I love you’ or replies to a question with the words ‘I’m not angry.’…We live with fantasies we create for ourselves in order to explain to the other person and to create a relationship that reassures us and gives us what we want.

He’s right in a strict sense, in that we are all individuals without direct access to each other’s minds. But then again, it’s not as if Samuel has made much of an effort in the long-term relationships department, so how sure can he be that it’s impossible to know another person?

Rather ironically, there is someone else whom Samuel thinks he knows, and that’s Clara. After some digging around online, he manages to find her Facebook profile, but he doesn’t want to go any further: “I don’t want to enter the false intimacy of her wall because I already know who Clara is, and I don’t want reality to spoil her.”

So there you go: Samuel can gather and imagine all the detail about Clara that he may; his image of, and feelings towards, her could be larger-than-life – but the Clara in his mind will never be ‘real’. Taking a cue from the novel’s title, perhaps the key question facing Samuel is whether love is something he can invent for himself, or whether it has to be found. 

Elsewhere 

Read an excerpt from Inventing Love at European Literature Network. 

At the time of writing, I can’t find many English-language reviews of the book online. Michael Orthofer has written it up at The Complete Review; he also links to Larry Nolen’s review of the Spanish original at the OF Blog, as well as a number of reviews in Spanish. 

Book details 

Inventing Love (2013) by José Ovejero, tr. Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 219 pages, paperback (review copy). 

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