Pedro Mairal ‘The Uruguayenne’


Just that morning, I’d looked at your earrings in the bathroom, large silver hoops, expensive, thrown down there…and I remembered that saying from the Caribbean: she shakes her hoops with anyone. Who shook your hoops Catalina? Your earrings from Ricciardi bouncing around in your sexual endeavours, your rings from avenue Quintana ringing in deceit, chiming like a crystal chandelier in an earthquake.***


Lucas Pereyra, an archetypal loser, weighed down by money problems, owing a book to his editor, not meeting many people or so it would seem outside of his participation in literary festivals can save himself, his self esteem and his marriage in this book read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month. But then there is Guerra the Uruguayenne he met at a festival months ago, with whom he has stayed in touch with WhatsApp and whose name he has called out in his dreams.

The Argentine Peso is not exactly a stable currency, and the taxes! Pereyra arranges to be paid in a bank in Montevideo and leaves early one morning to take the boat across the Rio De la Plata, and will meet up with Guerra. But wasn’t his own wife not above suspicion, as his thoughts are given in the opening quote.

But a loser is a loser, Lucas picks up the money in cash which he hides in a secret money belt. And he is careful, watches all around himself as he strolls in the pleasant sun filled avenues of Montevideo, reminiscing of the time he had wanted Guerra, where they had nearly had sex together on and around the beach but we’re always interrupted, a loser. He has a few drinks and relaxes a little and as he meets up with Guerra and then drinks a lot more and smokes weed his defences weaken:


You have to watch out with Uruguay, especially if you turn up thinking that it’s like a province in Argentina but better, kinda like there’s no corruption or péronisme, you can smoke weed in the street, it’s the little country where everyone is nice and likeable and all that shit. If you don’t watch out Uruguay will fuck you from behind!***


He should have read the previous quote before going. A short easy read, a well worthwhile change of horizons.

First Published in Spanish as “La Uruguaya” in 2018 by Libros del Asteroida
Translated into French by Delphine Valentin and published as “L’Uruguayenne” in 2018 by Buchet-Chastel
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Ce matin justement, j’avais regardé tes boucles d’oreilles dans la salle de bains, de grandes anneaux en argent, coûteuses, jetées là…et je m’étais rappelé cette expression des Caraïbes: Elle fait trembler ses créoles avec n’importe qui. Qui faisait trembler tes créoles, Catalina? Tes boucles de chez Ricciardi se balançant dans la cavalcade sexuelle, tes boucles de l’avenue Quintana tintant dans la tromperie, cliquetant comme le cristal d’un lustre en pleine secousse sismique.

Faut faire gaffe avec L’Uruguay, surtout si tu débarques persuadé que c’est comme une province argentine mais en mieux, genre il n’y a pas de corruption ni de péronisme, on peut fumer de l’herbe dans la rue, c’est le petit pays où tout le monde est gentil et aimable et toutes ces conneries. Tu lâches prise et l’Uruguay te baise par derrière.

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Fernando Aramburu ‘Homeland’


Txato shared his grave with his maternal grandparents and an aunt, at the edge of an alley on a gentle slope, in a row of similar graves. On the gravestone there were the Christian names and names of the dead, his date of birth, and that of the day they killed him but not his nickname, Txato. In the days leading up to the burial, family members in Azpeita, had advised Bittori not to have any allusions, emblems or signs, which would identify Txato as a victim of ETA, carved on the headstone. That way she would avoid problems. She protested;—Come on, they’ve already killed him once. They’re surely not going to start again. Not that Bittori had thought of having a comment on the death of her husband carved on the headstone; but it only needed for someone to try to dissuade her from doing something for her to dig her heels in. Xabier agreed with the family and the only things carved on the grave were the names and the dates. In Saragossa, Nerea had the cheek to suggest that they falsify the second date. Astonishment. What do you mean?—I thought we could put a date either before or after the attack. Xabier shrugged his shoulders. Bittori said it was out of the question.***


This story, read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, begins as three men wearing ski masks and white cloaks, Klu Klux style announce to the world that ETA are finally giving up the armed struggle. Fernando Aramburu, then takes us in a wide sweeping story of the tragedy of these years, centred on the story of two families in a small Basque village, impressing on us that here, as with any other terrorist organisation, the very people that they are fighting for must become their victims for them to fuel the fight. We first discover Bittori, an old woman living in San Sébastien but making clandestine trips back to the village to see her house, and of her husband Txato, dead these many year, killed by ETA and of her children, Xabier and Nerea both scared of ETA, Nerea to the point of not attending her father’s funeral so that her friends and professors in her new life in Saragossa would not link her to the assassination. The opening quote tells us something of the time of Txato’s murder.

We also follow the story of Miren and her husband Joxean, the families, like the wives are close friends until the “armed struggle” begins when events take them along different paths, the wives both stubborn for their own reasons:


Before Txato’s tragedy she was a believer, but not anymore. She had been, however, devout in her youth. She had even nearly become a nun. Her and that friend from their village that it’s better not to remember. Both of them had changed their minds at the last minute when they had already one foot in the door of the noviciate. Now , she takes all those stories of resurrection of the dead, of eternal life, of the creator and the Holy Ghost for nonsense.***


Txato, who has built up a transport business in this poor, high unemployment area, receives anonymous letters to pay the “revolutionary tax” in order to fuel ETA, which of course he pays, but as he pays, the demands increase until he can no longer pay. Aramburu then tells us something of the randomness of the terrorists as the local bar owner fuels hatred of Txato in the community by organising graffiti against him including targets next to his name and with his previous friends then out of fear staying away from him. This is in itself not enough to get him killed, but then as the ETA organisation sends autonomous cells into the country side, avoiding contact with the locals so as not to be betrayed. These cells then, in this case at least read street graffiti to identify potential targets.

In parallel, José Mari, Miren’s oldest son, passes from delinquent to full blown ETA soldier and is seen in the village the night before Txato’s assassination. As the story begins he has been in prison, far from his family and the Basque Country, in Andalusia for many years. This long and engaging story then follows the slow breakdown of resistance as Bittori, before her death, wants to know the true story of what happened that day, hear of Joxe Mari’s role and wants him to ask her for forgiveness and the roles of the different family members in this process. The difficulty of the task is placed before us at the start, as on hearing of the ETA announcement Miren says:


They’ve given up the struggle, in exchange for what? Have they forgotten the liberation of Euskal Herria? And the prisoners rotting in prison? Cowards. We must finish what we’ve started.***


An excellent study of grass roots terror.

First Published in spanish as “Patria” in 2016 by Tusquets Editores
Translated into French by Claude Bleton and published as “Patria” in 2018 by Actes Sud.
Translated into English in by Alfred MacAdam and published as “Homeland” in 2019 by Picador.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le Txato partage sa tombe avec ses grands-parents maternels et une tante, au bord d’une allée en pente douce, dans l’alignement de sépultures similaires. Sur la pierre tombale figurent le prénom et les noms du défunt, sa date de naissance et celle du jour où on l’a tué. Mais pas son surnom. Dans les jours précédant l’inhumation, des membres de la famille, à Azpeitia, avaient conseillé à Bittori de s’abstenir de graver sur la pierre des allusions, emblèmes ou signes qui identifient le Txato comme une victime de l’ETA. De cette façon, elle s’épargnerait des problèmes. Elle protesta :—Dites donc, on l’a déjà tué une fois. Ils ne vont quand même pas recommencer. Non que Bittori ait envisagé qu’on grave un commentaire sur le décès de son mari ; mais il suffit qu’on cherche à la dissuader de faire une chose pour qu’elle s’y accroche. Xabier donna raison à la famille. Et ne furent inscrits que les noms et les dates. À Saragosse, Nerea au téléphone avait proposé, quel culot, de falsifier la seconde date. Étonnement. Comment cela ?—Je me suis dit qu’on pourrait mettre sur la tombe une date antérieure ou postérieure à l’attentat. Xabier haussa les épaules. Bittori dit pas question.

Avant la tragédie du Txato, elle croyait, mais plus maintenant. Et pourtant, elle était dévote dans sa jeunesse. Elle avait même failli prendre le voile. Elle et cette amie du village qu’il vaut mieux ne pas se rappeler. Toutes deux renoncèrent à leur projet au dernier moment, alors qu’elles avaient déjà un pied dans le noviciat. Maintenant, elle prend toutes ces histoires de résurrection des morts, de vie éternelle, de Créateur et de Saint-Esprit pour des sornettes.

Ils renoncent à la lutte en échange de quoi ? Ont-ils oublié la libération d’Euskal Herria ? Et les prisonniers qui croupissent en prison ? Lâches. Il faut finir ce qu’on a commencé.

Nona Fernandez ‘The Twilight Zone’


In January 2010, the museum of Memory and Human rights of Chile was inaugurated. The four presidents of the Concertation were present, a coalition of parties in charge of what political analysts called the Chilean Transition, the period when the official line was reconciliation and justice where possible….,Democracy was preserved with the same General Pinochet as commander in chief of the army and then as senator in the parliament. The recent past was as a consequence not up for debate. When I had to explain to my son the Transiton period during our first visit to the museum of Memory that’s what I told him in a simple and concise fashion, so that at ten years old he could understand. When I told him that the person responsible for everything he had just seen was now one of the people running the country he looked at me in disbelief and then burst out laughing as if it were a joke. At his age my son was already aware of the lousy jokes of Chilean history.***


In 1984 a member of the Chilean military walked in off of the street into the offices of the newspaper Cauce and told them he wanted to confess. The man Nona Fernandez names but then throughout the book refers to as “the man that had tortured”. In this book read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, Nona Fernandez tells an intimate story of the Chilean dictatorship likening it at times to episodes of the television show ‘The Twilight Zone” she had seen as a child,as if there was a parallel dimension coexisting with normal life. She also speaks of life since the dictatorship and Chile’s inability to come to terms with its past as illustrated in the long opening quote.

The story really begins as Nona Fernandez, all these years later discovers the cassette recordings of the interviews between the journalist and “the man that had tortured” and imagines the journalist listening to stories about the disappearances of many of the people she knew personally and how difficult this must have been, as the man from the dark side unfolded his stories. And as she sinks further into what seems to be an unbelievable world, she even recognises from the interviews a story from her youth, where the interview relates a story she has crossed paths with but throws light onto what had happened:


One day whilst we were having lunch, my mother told my grandmother and I that she had just witnessed a strange event. At midday in the middle of Nataniel street, a few blocks from us, a man had thrown himself under the wheels of a bus. It wasn’t an accident, the man had been walking along the pavement when, suddenly, he threw himself in full consciousness of what he was doing. The bus stopped dead. The passers by froze, without understanding what was happening, not speaking, not moving, as if the man who could stop time in the Twilight Zone had programmed his magic watch to freeze time.***


She learns from the interviews that the man, Carlos Contreras Maluje, a communist, had been captured the previous day and tortured all night, he had told his torturers that he had a meeting with another communist in Nataniel street and could lead them to him in order to stop the torture, and as he advanced along the street with secret service men around him he had tried to take his life.

“The man who tortured” knew that his breaking ranks and going public would make him the public enemy number one of a state within the state that had no scruples, we learn of his exfiltration and of all these years later where he is still in hiding.
The story told by Nona Fernandez is in the form of a letter that she is sending to Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, soldier 1st class, “The man who tortured”.

First Published in spanish as “La dimensión desconocida” in 2017 by Random House
Translated into French by Anne Plantagenet and published as “La Quatrième Dimension” in 2018 by Sock
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

En janvier 2010, le musée de la Mémoire et des Droits de l’homme du Chili a été inauguré. À la cérémonie ont assisté les quatre présidents de la Concertation, coalition de partis en charge de ce que les analystes politiques appellent la Transition chilienne, cette période pendant laquelle le discours officiel a été la réconciliation et la justice dans la mesure du possible. Au cours de ces années, on a atténué le souvenir de la violence récente pour mettre en place une politique de consensus susceptible de maintenir l’harmonie. La démocratie était préservée par les militaires, avec le même général Pinochet comme commandant en chef de l’armée, puis sénateur au Congrès. Le passé immédiat n’était donc pas un sujet de débat. Lorsque j’ai dû expliquer à mon fils le processus de la Transition, lors de notre première visite au musée de la Mémoire, c’est ce que je lui ai dit, de manière simple et concise, afin qu’il puisse comprendre du haut de ses dix ans. Quand je lui ai raconté que le responsable de tout ce qu’il venait de voir dans le musée était un des hommes qui gouvernaient le pays, il m’a regardée avec stupeur puis a éclaté de rire comme si je plaisantais. À son âge, mon fils avait déjà conscience des mauvaises blagues de l’histoire chilienne.

Un jour, alors que nous déjeunions, ma mère nous a raconté, à ma grand-mère et à moi, qu’elle venait d’assister à une scène très étrange. À midi, en pleine rue Nataniel, à quelques blocs de chez nous, un homme s’était jeté sous les roues d’un bus. Ce n’était pas un accident, l’homme marchait sur le trottoir quand, soudain, il s’était jeté volontairement, tout à fait conscient de ce qu’il faisait. Le bus avait stoppé net. Les passants s’étaient figés, sans comprendre ce qui se passait, sans parler, sans bouger, comme si l’homme qui arrêtait le temps dans La Quatrième Dimension avait programmé des minutes de paralysie grâce à sa montre magique.

Eugenia Almeida ‘The Exchange’


“Apparently she was waiting for one of your customers”
“That’s what I was told, and that she pointed her gun at someone. Is that true?”
“You didn’t see it?”
“No.”img_1714
There is a point in time when you can hear the first fracturing sound of an avalanche. Except that the slide can follow in the next second, or years later.
“What was the name of the man who left the bar?”
“How should I know?”
“He wasn’t a regular?”
“No.”
“Could you describe him?”
“I don’t look at my customers in order to make artists’ impressions of them. And are you sure he left the bar?”
“Absolutely. And so are you.”


The book, read for “Spanish and Portuguese lit Months” begins with a clear suicide. A woman in  Plaza Herral aims a gun at a stranger, after a brief exchange which no one hears, the stranger walks away and the woman shoots herself in the chest and dies. This has all the hallmarks of a suicide and of the police only one of them looks at this in any detail and as he tries to understand what has happened, he quickly understands that nobody has seen anything! as illustrated above by the questions asked to the bar owner on the square who knows nothing but who involuntarily confirms that the man who had the brief exchange with the woman had come out of his bar.

This book is a general study of Power and corruption, applied here, in particular, in Argentina. The police are quickly ordered to stop investigating  and to close the case as a suicide. Following a visit by the minister, see the following quote. But a reporter Guyot, who is friends with the detective in charge at the station, Jury, continues to investigate and is fed information by the police team unhappy at having been ordered to stop.


“As it happens, the blond haired image consultant suggested to the minister to make a list of the sensitive cases.”
“There going to fire people?”
“Here? No way! If they had to get rid of all of the dirty cops….and you know which of our cases they chose?”
“The girl?”
“yes….”
“It seems that when Fierro wanted to to know a bit more, The story of the bloke came out. But whe he was told the name of the bar he said no, not that case, for a suicide it’s not woth the bother.”
“The misister’s would’t be a regular?”
“Either way he knows something.”


The journalist Guyot had lost his wife years earlier when she had been shot to death in her home during a burglary when nothing had been taken, where he had come to know the detective Jury. As Guyot delves into the case, unravelling the story from next to nothing, people around him who may know things begin at first to have accidents and then are clearly killed. Almeida gives a credible description of the men with the power behind the scenes who did not completely dissapear with the dictatorship and who are still pulling the strings, she also draws a picture of the ambitious ex policemen looking to survive and who are happy to carry out executions that are never asked for but only hinted at. But incidentally if people aroung Guyot are eliminated as he advances, including policemen, why don’t they just eliminate Guyot? And why did the girl kill herself.

A highly efficient police investigation novel, peeling back the layers of Argentina’s present to show the ongoing links with the past.

First Published in spanish as “La tensíon del umbral” in 2015 by Edhasa
Translated into French by Francois Gaudry and published as “L’Échange” in 2016 by Métailié
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

“Apparement elle attendait un de vos clients.”
“C’est ce qu’on m’a dit, et qu’elle avait braqué son arme sur quelqu’un. C’est vrai?”
“Vous ne l’avez pas vue?”
“Non.”
Il y a un moment ou on peut entendre le premier craquement d’une avalanche. Sauf quel’écroulement peut survenir dans la seconde, où des années après.
“Comment s’appelle l’homme qui est sorti du bar?”
“Comment voulez-vous que je sache?”
“Ce n’est pas un habitué?”
“Non”
“Vous pouvez le décrire?”
“Je ne regarde pas des clients pour faire des portraits-robots. Et puis vous etes bien sûr qu’il est sorti du bar?”
“Absolument. Et vous aussi

“Il se trouve que le blondinet, conseiller en image, a proposé au ministre de faie une liste des dossiers sensible.”
“Ils vont viter des gens?”
“Ici? Non! S’ils devaient jeter tous ceux qui ont les mains sales…….Et tu sais quelle affaire ils ont choisie parmi les nôtres?”
“La fille.”
“oui….”
“Il parait que lorsque Fierro a voulu savoir un peu plus, l’histoire du type est sortie. Mais quand on lui a appris le nom du bar, il a dit que non, pas cette affaire, que pour un suicide, ça ne valait pas la peine.”
“Le ministre serait un habitué?”
“En tous cas il sait quelque chose.”

Santiago Roncagliolo ‘Red April’


“Associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar left the hospital feeling out of sorts, he was pale. Terrorists he thought, only they were capable of something like this, they had come back. FFD11E72-802C-444D-9EE5-ABE96113828EHe did not know how to sound the alarm or even if he should…..The prosecutor thought that perhaps, after all, the deceased was a case for the military courts, he did not want to interfere in the anti-terrorist struggle, the military had organised it, they knew it best.


This story read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, is set back in the year 2000 when victory in the twenty year war against the Maoist inspired Sendero Luminoso has been declared by the then President of Peru, Fujimori. Roncagliolo has chosen to treat this period by way of a crime thriller centred in the town of Ayacucho, a town which had been at the centre of the guérilla warfare which over the twenty year period up to 2000 saw about 70000 deaths or disappearances of which about half were attributable to Sendero and a third to to government security forces.

So it is against this background that associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar arrives from Lima to work in Ayacucho where he finds himself confronted with the discovery of a badly burnt and mutilated body, so badly burnt that despite the official line that the rebellion is over, he hesitates to attribute the murder to terrorists as illustrated in the opening quote. As the Holy Week festivities approach and the bodies mount up Félix Chacaltana Saldívar discovers troubling secrets about the past twenty years concerning the terrorists and the exactions of the security forces and he retreats behind his written reports to the military command, it is clear he has doubts about the past, when Commander Carrión questions him:


“You think we’re a gang of killers isn’t that right Chacaltana?” The commander’s question came after a long silence when they were already on the highway back to Ayacucho, between the mountains and the river. He was driving the vehicle himself, they were alone.
“I do not know what you are referring to commander.”
“Don’t act like a prick Chacaltana I know how to read between the lines of reports and I know how to read faces too. Do you think you’re the only one here who knows how to read?”
The prosecutor felt obliged to explain himself. “We waged a just war commander.” He said it like that using the first person, “that is undeniable but sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy and when that happens I begin to ask myself what exactly it is that we fought against.”


As Chacaltana investigates he finds disturbing links between the security forces and the church as well as links to religion in the actual murders and then in an attempt to understand the motives he visits one of the jailed terrorists, Comrade Alonso who leaves him little doubt that the Sendero Luminoso would not use religious signs and tells him the following story:


“What do you think will happen after death?“
Comrade Alonso gave a nostalgic smile, “it will be like the Indian servants dream, do you know it? It’s a story by Arguedas, do you read?”
“I like Chocano”
Now the terrorist laughed sarcastically there was something like cultural petulance in his attitude, he did not consider the prosecutor to be an intellectual, “I prefer Arguedas, they don’t let us read here, but I always think about that story it’s about an Indian, the lowest of the slaves on a plantation, a servant of the servants one day the Indian tells the master that he has had a dream, in his dream they both died and went to heaven, there god ordered the angels to cover the Indian with manure until all his skin was hidden by shit, but he ordered the rich man to be completely bathed in honey the master is happy to hear the Indians dream he thinks that it’s reasonable he thinks that it’s exactly what god will do, he urges him to go on and asks and then what happens the Indian replies the when he saw the two men covered in shit and honey respectively he says now lick the others body until it is completely clean.”


As Chacaltana realises that the main link between the murdered people is that he had interviewed them all he begins to look closely around himself amid a certain despair at the events for which Commander Carrión has the following fatalistic explanation for events in Ayacucho:


“Our work of two decades has just gone all to hell, we can’t even guarantee our own security we’ll never stop them, they’ll keep coming back. But it is our job.”
“To fight the sea?”
“After all I’ve been reading during the days that I’ve been inside, Ayacucho is a strange place, the Wari culture was here, and then the Chacana who never let themselves be conquered by the Incas, and then the indigenous rebellions because Ayacucho was the midway point between Cusco the Inca capital and Lima, the capital of the Spaniards and indépendance in Quinua, and Sendero, this place is doomed to be bathed in blood and fire forever.”


As the investigation advances, the assistant district prosecutor who begins as a quiet decent man hiding behind written procedural reports permitting him to avoid responsibility and strangely close to his dead mother whom he addresses as a living person, metamorphoses into a persistant investigator ready to ruffle feathers. The pressure he endures pushes him towards behaviour which after a few weeks leaves the reader wondering what the difference between Chacaltana and the other guilty protagonist of the twenty year dirty war would have been had he have been there over that period.

A recommended read.

First Published in Spanish as “Abril Rojo” in 2006 by Alfaguara.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “Red April” by Atlantic Books in 2010
Translated into French by Gabriel Laculli and published as “Avril Rouge” by Editions Le Seuil in 2009

Pablo Martín Sánchez ‘The Crucial Moment’


“Sure, I lived four years in Santiago. But I never worked for Allende. I went for a symposium at the University of Chili, I was taken in by his project and I stayed on. 7DBC8600-4510-495A-960E-593CB0CC4EBCThen along came the mother-fucking military and everything went haywire. Though, the truth is it was Allende’s fault. As one of my friends says: if you’re only half a revolutionary you might as well dig your own grave.”***


The story, read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, takes place in Barcelona in 1975, just before the first democratic elections after the Franco period and incidentally the day of the author’s birth, in six time periods, midnight, dawn, morning, midday, afternoon and evening of a single day, slowly building up to the Crucial Moment.

In Parallel, at the beginning of each section, Sanchez tells the story of a baby being born that day.

The story has six narrators at each time period, seemingly unrelated but on a collision course for the evening, there is Gerardo Fernández Zoilo, a university teacher having spent time in Chili, illustrated in the opening quote, and Carlotta Felip Bigorra, a student investigating stolen babies and who sleeps with her teacher Gerardo at midnight.

There are José María and María Dolores Ros de Olano Y Figueroa, he a wealthy and corrupted business man formed by the Franco years and she a photo of his dead mother, observing from the living room wall:


“A light comes on in the building opposite, where the young widow lives. Then again, these days, she could just be single. Or worse still, divorced! These civil marriages are a real crime: When you want to get married, you get married as God wished and good luck. But I’m sure she’s a widow, we widows recognise each other at once, even after the mourning period.”***


Finally There are Clara Molina Santos, a bullied school girl and the greyhound Solitario VI, at the end of his useful career, we are introduced to him in the kennels at night with the drunken keeper, Atilano, who beats the dogs and one of the new greyhounds, Mogambo, who begins to howl:


“Stop howling boy, stop howling. Atilano lowers his head, half shuts his eyes and rocks back and forth, from toe to heal, again and again and again. Finally he clears his throat and advances down the central corridor….far from calming down, the howls become louder and break into barking, the voices of the other new dogs quickly add to the mayhem….Atilano seizes his cane and begins to bang on the bars of the cages, and occasionally lets slip between the bars, judging by the yelps. Other greyhounds in the stable join in in protest. Me, I sit back and howl at the nearest light….Atilano turns back….I pretend to be sleeping.”
“I heard you Solitario, Carry on like that and you’ll wind up in Casablanca.”***

As the day goes on each one of the narrators, with the exception of Maria Dolores, the photograph, makes a decision that leads to the final showdown, Maria Dolores had made her decision many years before, when trapped on the fifth floor of a burning apartment with her baby son.
An intriguing read.

First Published in Spanish as “Tuyo Es El Mañana” in 2016 by Editorial Acantilado.
Translated into French by Jean-Marie Saint-Lu and published as “L’instant Décisif” by Editions La Contre Allée in 2017
*** my translation

Antonio Muñoz Molina ‘A Manuscript Of Ashes’


With his belt in his pocket and his shoelaces in his hand because they had been confiscated when they took him to the cell, perhaps to keep him from dismally hanging himself and were returned only a few minutes before he was released.63DD3B56-686A-49F4-9612-5B17C1FC5D03 But they said the other one had committed suicide, that he took advantage of a moment’s carelessness on the part of the guards who were interrogating him to throw himself down into the courtyard and die in handcuffs.


This beautifully written temporally disjointed novel by Muñoz Molina, read for “Spanish and Portuguese lit Months” is set in three main time periods, in the last of these periods, 1969, the young student Minaya, after a brief imprisonment by Franquist police, is released although the man he was arrested with dies, as illustrated in the opening quote. With no money and knowing that once the police have had their hands on him it is only time before they return, Minaya, on the pretext of studying the revolutionary poet Jacinto Solana, goes to lay low in his uncle’s house, and the description as he arrives, of Mágina is an example of Muñoz Molina’s prose:


Mágina on winter afternoons becomes a Castilian city of closed shutters and gloomy shops, with polished wood counters and faded manekins in the display windows, a city of cheerless doorways and plazas that are too large and empty, where the statues endure winter alone and the churches seem like tall ships run aground, it’s light was of a different sort, Golden, cold, it’s blue stretching from the ramparts of the city wall in an undulating descent of orchards and curved irrigation ditches and small white houses amongt the pomegranate trees extending in the south to the endless olive groves and blue or violet fertile lowlands of the Guadalquivir and that landscape was the one he would recognise later in the manuscripts of Jacinta Solana.


Mineya soon discovers that his uncle’s house is frozen in time, frozen in the civil war, in 1937, a war leading to the police state in which he now lives. He is welcomed by his uncle Manuel who is rather pleased that anyone should remember his friend and revolutionary poet in the light of Franco’s thirty year dictatorship. Whilst researching Solana in Manuel’s house he discovers the love triangle linking Solana, Manuel and the beautiful Marianna who Solana had first known as a model for the artist Orlando before she met and was to marry Manuel. Solana was torn between his friendship for Manuel and his desire for Marianna:


Mariana came over and before I saw her I knew she was coming because I recognised her step and the way her presence made the air tremble, to bring me coffee and a lit cigarette and she remained crouching at my side facing the city and the wind from the river that lifted the hair on her forehead as if she had come to an appointment that only for the two of us was not invisible when she gave me the cup she placed a hand on my shoulder and her hair covered one side of her face, exactly like Orlando’s sketch not a face but the pure shape of a desire and that night, back at the house when he gave me the drawing he was offering me the sign of a temptation too undeniable for my cowardice.


In a parallel to the story of Solana and Marianna and the events which were to take place in the house, Mineya and the maid Ines are drawn together as Ines helps Mineya to discover Solana’s lost manuscript in the house (Franco’s troops destroyed writings, books and the very proof of existence of their enemies), going as far sleeping together in the matrimonial bed, unused for the past thirty years, as Mineya thus discovers the secret to the house frozen in time, the death by gunshot of Marianna at the house on her wedding night, thought to be by a stray bullet from outside. Who actually killed Marianna? This then becomes the question Mineya seeks to resolve, Marianna was a complex person, a revolutionary, about to marry into a landowning family fast losing their riches, as Doña Elvira, Manuel’s mother relates to Mineya, first talking of Manuel her son:


He went voluntarily into that army of the hungry who had taken half our land to divide it among themselves and he almost lost his life fighting against those who were really his people and as if that was not enough he married that woman who was already used goods, you understand me? And even wanted to go to France with her but I’m sure you’re not entirely like them, like my husband and my son and that madman your father or like your great grandfather Don Apolonio who infected them all with his deceptions and madness but not with his ability to make money, all of them liars , all of them reckless or useless or both things at the same time like my husband, may god have mercy on his soul, but if he had taken a few more years to die he would have left us in poverty with that mania he developed to collect first thoroughbred horses and then women and cars.


 

The second time period in the story concerns the release of Solana from a military jail in 1947 and his coming back to Manuel’s house, a parallel with Mineya’s own story, Solana’s frantic writing and his death at the hands of the Franquist police.

Living in the house for thirty years, apart from Manuel and his mother, is Utrera, a one time sculpter, who lived their with no income and it is not clear if it is Manuel or Elvira that has invited him to stay, but Muñoz-Molina’s description of him is a precise portrait that encapsulates his ability to sketch a person:


He spoke very quickly, leaning his body forward to be closer to Mineya with a smile greedy for responses that he didn’t wait for and as he sipped his soup the air whistled through his false teeth which at times, when he adjusted them, emitted a sound like bones knocking together. He had large blunt hands that seemed to belong to another man and on his left ring finger he wore a green stone as extravagant as his smile, a testimony, just like his smile, of the time when he reached and lost his brief glory. He smiled and spoke as if sustained by the same spring about to break that kept his figure of an anachronistic galant standing. And only his eyes and his hands did not participate in the will of the whisp of his gesticulations for he could not hide the fever in his eyes sharpened every morning and every night in the mirror of old age and failure , or the ruin of his useless hand that in another time had sculpted the marble and granite of official statues and modelled clay and now lay still and dull in an immobility driven by arthritis.


Does Mineya solve the shooting of Marianna? How have the manuscripts been saved?Who is actually writing the story in 1967 and are we sure Solana wrote the manuscript?.
You will have understood by now that I very much enjoyed this story and her way it was told, the time periods mixed up and the many parallels leaving me guessing at times as Tom which story is the subject.

First Published in spanish as  “Beatus Ille” in 1986 by Seix Barral.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “A Manuscript of Ashes” by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008
Translated into French by Jean-Marie Saint-Lu and published as “Beatus Ille” in 1993 by Actes Sud