Javier Cercas ‘Terra Alta’


“I’m sorry mate”, said his colleague. “My son broke his finger playing handball”.
“No problem” Melchior reassured him as he did up his safety belt. “I listened to a bunch of old people to pass the time”.
“I’ll bet all they talked about was the war”.
Melchor turned towards him.img_2777“How did you know”?
“Don’t talk rubbish”, said Sirvent.
“Here, the old folks don’t talk about anything else. As if nothing else has happened here in Terra Alta in the last 80 years”.***


This book, my third read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and my second by Javier cercas after ‘Outlaws‘ follows the main protagonist Melchor, who identifies his life with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and in particular, not to Jean Valjean but to Javert. Not the man who must choose between “Staying in heaven and becoming a demon or going back into hell and becoming an angel” but “the pretend bad guy, and pretend bad guys are the real good guys”. He even names his daughter Cosette.

Just for a change(heavy sarchasm) the story follows two distinct time lines, the present in Terra Alta and the past which has moulded Melchor. In the present, the story begins with an atrocious murder, the owner of the largest company in the area, Francisco Addel and his wife are sadistically tortured to death in their home, enough to shock the police at the death scene as illustrated below. In Terra Alta everyone knows everyone and the enquiry soon becomes bogged down and the task force eventually gets re-deployed. In the second time line we learn that Melchor much like Jean Valjean has been in prison and then with false paperwork was able to become a policeman, following a shooting incident where Melchor puts to good use the training he had working for a Cartel, he shoots dead four terrorists, making him famous, the police who had begun to realise his paperwork was suspect ensure his legitimacy and send him into the isolated Terra Alta until things quieten down.


Goma watches them all for a moment then points to a puddle of sticky stuff on the floor.
“Can anybody explain to me what this is”?
“The patrolman who came in with me vomitted”, Melchor answers.
“He wasn’t the only one”, adds deputy inspector Barrera. “Except that the others were more discreet”.***


This is a story of meanness, of cupidity and of revenge. And what if Javert once again had to choose, would he arrest the killer or let him go? throw into the cauldron the murder of Melchor’s wife.

Cercas keeps our attention and leaves enough doubt about Melchor’s choices.

First Published in spanish as “Terra Alta” in 2021, by Booket
Translated into french by Aleksandar Grujicic and Karine Louesdon and published as “Terra Alta” by Actes Sud in 2021
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Je suis désolé, mec, dit son collègue. Mon fils s’est cassé un doigt en jouant au hand.
—Pas de souci, le rassura Melchor en bouclant sa ceinture de sécurité. J’ai écouté un groupe de vieux, ça m’a fait passer le temps.
—Je parie qu’ils parlaient de la guerre.
Melchor se tourna vers lui.
—Comment tu sais ça?
—Arrête tes conneries, dit Sirvent. Ici, les vieux ne parlent que de ça. Comme s’il ne s’était rien passé en Terra Alta ces quatre-vingts dernières années.

Goma reste un moment à les observer puis montre du doit une flaque d’une matière pâteuse qui souille le sol.
—Quelqu’un pourrait m’expliquer ce que c’est?
—Le patrouilleur qui est entré avec moi a vomi, répond Melchor.
—Il n’a pas été le seul, ajoute le sous-inspecteur Barrera. Sauf que les autres ont été plus discrets.

Dolores Redondo ‘The North Face of the Heart’


Alvord Texas
The field in front of the Allen’s house showed little or no signs of the hurricane’s passage.For an observer, the farm seemed to give, at first sight, an impression of absolute normality……Only when you looked at the first floor,the windows, you noticed that the house didn’t have a roof.***


The wheel has turned another year and the Roman de Rochefort is upon us again, this year their are several thrillers in the short list, and as I was away on hols I’ve begun with one of these, The North Face of the Heart. Move over Star Wars, Dolores Redondo has written a prequel to her Baztan trilogy featuring Amaia Salazar which are available on Netflix. In this then her fourth book, Salazar is a young assistent detective sent on a course for international police forces at Quantico, to learn about profiling serial killers, but she is not just another student. The renown, somewhat maverick team leader, Aloisius Dupree, has noticed her before she arrives. We should mention here that she has already, at the age of 25, single handedly caught her first serial killer in her native Basque country at Baztan.

Early on in her training, Dupree seconds Amaia onto his team to look for an active serial killer dubbed “the Composer” who has passed under the radar by killing whole families during natural disasters, he then composes the family members with their heads facing north, to make it seem as if the father has killed the whole family, his wife and three children as well as the children’s grandmother before ending his own life. By profiling the victims, Amaia closes in on the composer, for instance as in the opening quote when she visits the Allen’s farm it seems her profiling may not be right as only the parents and the three children are initially found, but she is sure of herself and finally finds the grandmother who had tried to escape, shot and dragged under the houses missing roof.

Amaia closes in on the “Composer”, sure that it is a Martin Lenx, whose 5 family members had been found dead 18 years earlier, she talks to the photographer who had taken his family picture just before the massacre all those years before and who had recognised the frustration in him that his family were not what he had planned:


Look at Lenx’s mouth. It looks like a notch carved out by an axe. She agreed. It was exactly whhat she had thought on seeing it.
In fourty years of trade, I’ve often seen it, it’s what I call the “syndrome of the bride and the rain”.***


In this story, with team rivalry and loyalty put in question and explored, Dupree leads the down to New Orleans in 2005 ahead of Hurricane Katrina, ostensibly to get ahead of “the Composer”, but Dupree has unfinished business following the previous Hurricane to hit New Orleans, Betsy. From here on in I’m divided, the descriptions of Katrina and what happened are excellent historical reading, for instance that after hurricane Betsy the then mayor had encouraged everyone to have an axe in their attic ready for the next hurricane (to get out of course). However the story of the abductions and the voodoo with Dupree carrying a gris gris left me exasperated.

There is also the story of Amaia’s childhood played in flashback, explaining her sensitivity to evil.

The main story of the search for the serial killer, including the hunt for him in New Orleans was a page turner, Amaias own story in flashback was of interest but the third story of the abductions and voodoo could have been left out shrinking a near 700 page book back to a more reasonable 500 pages.

First Published in Spanish as “La cara norte del corazón” in 2021, in Spain by Booket.
Translated into french by Anne Plantagenet and published as “La face nord du coeur” by Gallimard in 2021.
Translated into english by Michael Meigs and published as “The North Face of the Heart” by Amazon Crossing in 2021
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Alvord Texas
Le champ devant la maison des Allen trahissait à peine le passage de l’Ouragan. Pour un obserateur, la ferme pouvait donner, dans un premier temps une impression de normalité absolue…..Seulement quand on regardait l’étage, les fenêtres, on s’apercevait que la maison n’avait pas de toit.

Regardez la bouche de Lenx. On dirait une entaille fait à la hache.
Elle acquiesça. C’était exactement ce qu’elle avait pensé en la voyant.
En quarante ans de Métier, je l’ai souvent observé, c’est ce que j’appelle le “syndrome de la mariée et la pluie”

Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“When We Cease to Understand the World”: In order of reading book number 2.


Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.


In this rambling book, Benjamin Labatut brings us in just over 150 years on a rollercoaster ride in sciences from the more or less alchemist days of the mid to late eighteenth century where little more than four elements were known, and with accidental experiments leading to discoveries that soon escaped the hands and minds of the person that discovered them, through to God playing dice, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal.

Labatut chooses to take us from the accidental discovery of Prussian Blue by Jacob Diesbach, useful in dyeing and painting, through the accidental discovery of cyanide by Carl Wilhelm Scheele stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and of Scheele’s death from a painting pigment poisoning, a wonderful green colour used extensively but based on arsenic. And yes as in the opening quote, he links this through to Zyclon A and then Zyclon B.

But how does he get us to Heisenberg and Nils Bohr? Well the first man to derive the exact solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus ultimately predict the existence of Black holes died as a result of being gassed in the first world war trenches.

I’ll stop here, an extremely interesting book, just too much information. Yes I’ve left out huge chunks of subject matter. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

First Published in Spanish as “Un Verdor Terrible” by Anagrama in 2020.
Translated into English by Adrian Nathan West and published as “When We Cease to Understand the World” in 2021 by Pushkin Press.

Fernanda Melchor ‘Hurricane Season’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Hurricane Season”: In order of reading book number 6.

In order to follow this event, I have managed to write articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Lagarta, you little shit-stirrer, you’re sick in the head, only you could come out with such a rotten, disgraceful pack of lies, aren’t you ashamed of yourself, whoring around and then pointing the finger at your cousin? There’s only one thing’ll stop you wanting to leave the house, you wicked little tramp. Grandma had cut off all her hair with the poultry shears while Yesenia sat motionless, as still as a possum in the headlights, terrified of being slashed by those icy blades, and afterwards she’d spent the whole night out in the yard, like the mongrel bitch that she was, and Grandma had said: a stinking animal that didn’t deserve so much as a flee-ridden mattress beneath its fetid coat.


As the story begins, the body of the witch is found in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of Matosa. To help us make sense of this discovery, chapter by chapter we follow what has happened through the eyes of one or the other of the protagonists. In sentences, rivalling Proust for length, through these different accounts we get a feeling for the town, Matosa:


They say that’s why the women are on edge, especially in La Matosa. They say that, come evening, they gather on their porches to smoke filterless cigarettes and cradle their youngest babes in their arms, blowing their peppery breath over those tender crowns to shoo away the mosquitos, basking in what little breeze reaches them from the river, when at last the town settles into silence and you can just about make out the music coming from the highway brothels in the distance, the rumble of the trucks as they make their way to the oilfields, the baying of dogs calling each other like wolves from one side of the plain to the other; the time of evening when the women sit around telling stories.


In this desperate town where the women seem to live from prostitution, and the men from the women we get a feeling of hopelessness, take for instance Lagarta from the opening quote, brought up harshly by her grand mother, as are so many of her cousins, nephews and nieces when their young parents runaway or are jailed. The hopelessness of their situations are drowned in Aguardiente, drugs or religion with dreams of having enough money to get a bus away from here.

The story is of machism and homosexuality, and the fine line between the two, of young girls discovering their power and becoming women too soon and preys of the men and of the age old solutions to unwanted pregnancies, with the witch central to both of these conflicts.

A second South American book in the selection, set 150 years after the first, The Adventures of China Iron , but treating many of the same subjects but this time through a realist vision, of the two, I preferred the first.

First Published in Spanish as “Temporada de huracanes” in 2017, in Mexico by Literatura Random House.
Translated into english by Sophie Hughes and published as “Hurricane Season” by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2019
Translated into French by Laura Alcoba and published as “La saison des ouragans” by Grasset in 2019

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.

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

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