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

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Juan José Saer ‘The Witness’


In this already strange situation, the cabin boy faces other adversities. In the absence of women the ambiguity of his juvenile form,05579E62-011E-457F-85DE-B3C45B6AA0CF a product of his incomplete virility, eventually becomes more appreciable. That which the sailors, in other situations good family men, consider repugnant, seems to them, in the course of the sea crossing, as being more and more natural.***


The action of Saer’s novel, read in French,  takes place at the very beginning of the 16th century as a Spanish ship, whilst searching the coast of the Americas for a route through to the Indies, and during a seemingly safe survey of the mouth of a river in smaller boats in what appears to be an uninhabited land, is attacked by a group of Indians. All of the survey party except the cabin boy are killed by the Indians who then run off into the jungle at a sustained pace for a full day, carrying the dead sailors and the cabin boy before reaching their village where the dead are cut up, roasted and eaten, followed by several days of drinking to excess (several people die) and then orgies, all of this witnessed by the cabin boy. He then repeatedly, once a year over the time of his stay, re-lives similar events, as hunting parties return with dead captives and a witness before once again repeating the canabalistic events. These witnesses seem to accept and understand what is happening to them and are soon after sent back into the jungle in canoes full of food. He is kept 10 years by the Indians, he has nowhere to go back to, and then one day without warning he is sent of in a canoe and soon after comes across Spanish ships, where it soon becomes clear that he has forgotten his mother tongue:


To calm them I began to tell them my story but as the story advanced, I could see the sense of wonderment growing on their faces until, after a moment, I realised that I was speaking in the Indians language. I tried then to speak in my mother tongue, realising then that I had forgotten it.***


Years later towards the end of his life, the now aged witness writes about these events and his later life in an attempt to analyse and understand what had happened to him. This story follows the outline of others, such as The Legend of Tarzan and the double shock of being brought up in another world and then rediscovering ones own “civilised” world and seeing it through new eyes

Were the orgies of the Indians, described in some detail, any worse than his experiences as a cabin boy? Was the sense of belonging to a community such as the Indians not better than his treatment as an orphan in Europe? The narrator then joins a travelling theatre group to tell his story to packed audiences throughout Spain, but he realises that the people did not want to know what really happened, they wanted confirmation of their own ideas and prejudices.

On to the crux of the matter, why he was left alive and what was the role of the witnesses? This is the point that pushes him to write and maybe towards the end pushes us to continue. This was not an easy read, there is a certain amount of repetition and to be fair I was reading Antonio Muñoz Molina in parallel and how can you compete with the beauty of his writing (and excellent translation).

 

First Published in Spanish as  “El Entenado” in 1983 by Folios Ediciones.
Translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa as “The Witness” and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
Translated into French by Laure Bataillon as “L’Ancêtre” and published by Flammarion in 1987
*** My translation

Rosa Montero ‘Flesh’


—She straightened up. Round breasts, heavy, slightly drooping, it makes sense, but still pretty. A body shaped by gym sessions. Completely natural. 60 years old. For sixty she wasn’t bad at all. IMG_1293But, of course, from today on she was in her bloody sixties.she reached out a hand and turned the light on, one of the fluorescent lights above her wardrobe, shining down on her whole body, acceptably smooth until now under indirect light, seemed suddenly to slump as if subjected to the forces of 3D gravity…She inspected herself slowly in the mirror without pity. The body is a terrible thing she said to herself out loud, so as to get moving again.***


Soledad is single professional woman coming to terms with her age at sixty, at once strong but insecure, determined but fragile and reaffirming a hunger for life.

In this book which can be translated into English as ‘Flesh’, Montero paints us a complex picture of a woman of sixty who is still maturing, jealous since her married boyfriend left her for his pregnant wife, jealous to the point of hiring a gigolo for an evening at the opera to try to show him she was better without him, to make him jealous, only for her acquaintances to think she was with her son.

She has her life under some sort of control up to this point, but when leaving the the Opera, her Spanish speaking Russian gigolo intercedes in a violent robbery and things get out of hand from here, their relationship becomes deeper than the clear one of a gigolo and his client. As their relationship evolves, the central question becomes one of danger, is Soledad in physical danger from the young Russian man or, as she suspects he is not being honest with her and she begins following him, is he more in danger from the fiery Soledad? This is juxtaposed with the stories of the Cursed Writers which she is considering for the exposition she is preparing for the National Library. As Soledad’s hunger for life and experiences is confirmed, The ever present question of the onwards march of time persists:


—Soledad felt once again an onset of panic, the unending sadness to think that she may never again fall in love, that she may never again lean up against a man’s body, that she may never again feel a man inside her, that her body may never feel the heat of passion for another. The last time you make love, the last time you climb a mountain, the last time you run in the Retiro park. Time ticks on unstoppable, towards the final destruction like a bomb.***


First published in Spanish as ‘La Carne’ by Alfaguara in 2016
Translated into French by Myriam Chirousse as “La Chair” and published by Éditions Métailié in 2017
*** My translation

Juana Salabert ‘The Golden Rule’


—The infamous Golden Rule inserted by force in our largely unimplemented constitutions, IMG_1267with which the Troika and their obedient local vizirs probably wipe their noses every day..***


Juana Salabert’s police mystery, read for Spanish lit month, is an angry story set in Madrid in 2012 at the height of the public indignation surrounding the arrogant treatment of the southern European countries during the debt crisis, with austerity imposed through external pressure on these countries and the entailing social misery, and is one of the meanings of the title as illustrated in the opening quote.
Inspector Allarde is inspecting the second “Cash for Gold” killing, jewelers that in these depressed times are making money from buying gold and family jewels have been targeted by a killer who signs his crimes with a clear message:


—To the loan shark. To the thief of carats and of lives. Vengeance is acted and will be again.***


A third killing takes place which at first seems to be one of the series but Allarde is not sure. This is a story of cupidity, greed and blackmail and as always the question is just how low will people stoop for money and how much is enough, leading to another possible meaning for the title:


—The only Golden Rule that works for money, for truly huge sums, for a fortune accumulated and overflowing and which is fructifying far from its owners eyes, is that it never seems enough.***


Salabert’s Madrid is a desperate and hurting place lived in by people just getting by and is an ideal background for a book about greed. I did at times think that the subject and the hero were the people of Madrid and not the detectives in the story, but only for fleeting moments, as the story itself is well constructed. This may well be the Author’s intent.

First Published in Spanish as “La Regla del oro” in 2015 by Alianza.
Translated into French by Myriam Chirousse as “La règle de l’or” and published by Métailié in 2017
*** My translation

Pablo Casacuberto ‘Scipion’


—That’s all I needed! I’d already been frozen out of my father’s Will, seen a gangster hijack my inheritance and demand that, in lieu of a ransom, IMG_1266I write the Eclogue of a rapist.***


In this book read for Spanish lit month, Pablo Casacuberto slowly introduces us into the tortured world of Anibal Brener, son of a recently deceased but famous historian, the professor Brener, as the story begins Anibal is visiting his dead father’s house, his own childhood home, with an estate agent and we are slowly lead to understand the incongruity of the situation, it has taken two years for Anibal to obtain permission from his own sister living in Brussels to gain access for a one hour visit to the empty home. We learn that Anibal’s sister has inherited everything, including the house and that Anibal’s visit is to pick up what little has been left him:


—In the closet of the adjoining room, the library, I leave three boxes containing certain objects that I consider useful for Anibal’s development.


Anibal is forty years old!
Which is the important ingredient in studies and transmission of history? This is the central point of the difficult relationship between Anibal and his father, Anibal’s historical studies and in a way his life can not get beyond the overwhelming importance of detail whereas his father’s work has been dedicated to ensuring that through a certain amount of romanticising people are drawn to and are interested in history.
The best example of this is the title of a proposed historical study by Anibal:


—Design and distribution of services in the public baths according to social strata in classical Rome***


An idea on which his erstwhile fiancé worked before handing to the Proffesor Brener:


—A closed envelope..containing, as the final blow, the nineteen pages of “Gone with the Water” which he referred to, after having read the text, as “an interesting version of an idea my son ruined by submerging it with boring details and useless information


As early in the book we learn that the proffesor had written a secret will for Anibal, We follow him, firstly in a quest for his inheritance, illustrated by the opening quote and especially in a search for himself.
Why did Casacuberto entitle his book Scipion? Because it was Scipion that defeated Hannibal in 202BC and that after a climax in the book Anibal is literally submerged as the Scipion within him emerges and leads him on a course to confront the true hidden traumatic events of his life.

First Published in Spanish as “Escipion” in 2000 by Inter zona.
Translated into French by Francois Gaudry as “Scipion” and published by Métailié in 2015
*** My translation

Javier Cercas ‘Outlaws’


–Tell me when you met Zarco.
—At the beginning of the summer of 1978. It was a strange time. Or that’s how I remember it. Franco had died three years earlier, IMG_1254but the country was still governed by Franco’s laws and still smelled exactly the same as it did under Franco: like shit. I was sixteen years old back then, and so was Zarco. We lived very near each other, and very far away from each other.


The opening quote from this book read for Spanish lit month illustrates the setting for the initial events in Javier Cercas’s Outlaws, with the ending of Franco’s regime the social problems did not go away but were slowly allowed to come to the surface and amongst them the beginnings of juvenile delinquency.

The story is about the relationship between three people, Zarco a young gang leader at the beginning of the story and Tere a girl in the gang both coming from the shanty towns on the outskirts of Gerona and the sixteen year old “Gafitas” from a middle class suburb. Many years later Cañas the lawyer who  recounts this his first meeting with Sarko and Tere:


–What’s up, Gafitas?, asked Zarco, taking my place at the controls of the machine. He looked me in my bespectacled eyes with his very blue ones, spoke with a husky voice, had a centre parting in his hair and wore a tight denim jacket over a tight beige T-shirt. He repeated, defiantly, What’s up? I was scared. Holding up my hands I said: I just finished. I turned to leave, but at that moment Tere stepped in my way and my face was a handspan from hers. My first impression was surprise; my second, of being completely dazzled. Like Zarco, Tere was very thin, dark, not very tall, with that springy outdoors air quinquis used to have back then….Going already?, she asked, smiling with her full, strawberry-red lips. I couldn’t answer because Zarco grabbed my arm and forced me to turn back around. You stay right there, Gafitas, he ordered, and started playing pinball on the Rocky Balboa machine.


The Outlaws is a series of interviews between the writer, Cañas who had been known as Gafitas in his gang days, the police detective from the events in the 70’s and who arrested Sarko following a tip off at a bank robbery, and who crucially let “Gafitas” get away and then the prison director from Gerona. How was “Gafitas” allowed to escape? Why did Tere not turn up for the robbery? These questions remain open throughout the story. Sarko as a first Of his kind Is romanticised by the media and then left to rot in Spanish jails:


–For Sarko everything went very fast in fact my impression is that when I knew him in the late 70s Sarko was a sort of precursor and when I saw him again in the late 90s he was almost an anachronism if not a posthumous persona
From precursor to anachronism in just 20 years?
That’s right, when I knew him he was a forerunner in a way of the masses of juvenile delinquents who filled the jails the newspapers radio television and cinema screens in the 80’s I’d say he not only announce the phenomenon he played the part better than anybody.


This book throughout these interviews, a process used to blur the lines between fiction and reality, seems at times to ramble on without clear aims as Cercas slowly and indirectly shapes for us, through the three narrators and the writer, a full view of his main character Cañas and Cercas’s writer tells us something about the story writing and his subject:


–The idea at first (was) to write a book about Sarko to denounce all the lies that have been told about him and tell the truth or a portion of the truth. But a person doesn’t write the books he wants to write but those he can or those he finds, the book I’ve found both is and isn’t that one


First Published in Spanish as “Las leyes de la frontera” in 2012 by Literatura Mondadori.
Translated into English by Anne McLean as “Outlaws” and published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2014

Rosa Montero ‘Tears in Rain’


–I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, attack ships on fire off the of the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser gate.IMG_1253
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.


In Blade Runner, genetic engineering had lead to the “manufacture” of Replicants.  Replicants were essentially slaves who were not allowed to come to Earth, to assuage human fears that they could develop their own emotional reactions love, hate fear, anger envy, they were built with a fail safe device, a 4 year life span. The film deals with the crisis around the Nexus 6 model of Replicant where for the first time an element of memory was given to the Replicants. The films penultimate scene ends with the last escaped Replicant, Batty, dying and pronouncing the words shown in the opening quote from which Rosa Montero extracts the title of her book.

Rosa Montero’s sequel sets out to investigate  some of the ideas introduced but not developed in the film such as :
What is the importance of memory? And if memory can be created, what will this lead to?
If Replicants were allowed on earth what would be their status and how would they live together with humans?
The story is old from a Replicant point of view and was read for
Spanish lit month.

The central intrigue of the book is introduced but not yet analysed in the first chapter as the Main protagonist of the book, a private detective and a rep, Bruna Huskey opens her door to her neighbour, Cata Caïn who almost immediately attacks and tries to kill Bruna who then successfully stops her and calms her down, then follows this dialogue:


–Why did you do this to me? asked Bruna.
—Why did you do this to me? babbled the android. There was a deluded and feverish look in her catlike eyes.
—What have you taken? You’re high.
—You people drugged me; you’ve poisoned me, moaned the woman, and she started to cry with profound despair.
—We people? Who are we?
—You… technohumans… reps. You kidnapped me; you infected me; you implanted your filthy things to turn me into one of you. Why have you done this to me? What had I ever done to you?…
—What’s behind all this idiocy? Are you mad, or just pretending to be? You’re a replicant, too. Look in the mirror. Check out your eyes. You’re a technohuman like me. And you’ve just tried to strangle me.


An interesting premise in this book, and at the heart of the intrigue is that if Reps can be given memories then somebody must be writing them and that if a rep is not feeling good (after all he knows he has a very short life span), then there must be a market for memories, Bruna had herself:


–gone into the night searching for the impossible and on more than one occasion as dawn was breaking she’d been tempted to inhale a shot of memory, a fake fix of artificial life, she hadn’t done it and she was glad that was the case


Rosa Montero brings home to the reader, the complexity of thought of the Reps, genetically engineered humans, and the sadness surrounding their short lifespans and their painful deaths. The Reps are themselves to all intents and purposes the next wave of immigration and despite the fact that they are equal in law they are discriminated against. And classically here good and bad cannot be distinguished purely by race or species grounds alone.

Bruna Huskey is a complex hero with many flaws, she drinks as much as Harrison Fords character in the film, and finally there is of course a reason for her inner doubts and questions. I had great fun with this book, if you liked Blade runner here is a nuanced sequel chasing down a different angle, a well thought out intrigue and an interesting story.

First Published in Spanish as “Lágrimas en la lluvia” in 2012 by Booket.
Translated into English by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites as “Tears in Rain” and published by AmazonCrossing in 2012