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

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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

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

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

José Carlos Somoza ‘Zigzag’


–The first human being from the past we have ever seen. There calm, on the screen. A real woman who really lived two thousand years ago. IMG_1252Where was she going, to market?What was she carrying in her bag? Had she seen Jesus preach?..Then something happened that took Elisa’s breath away. After a new cut the outline appeared in profile the head raised as if she was looking at the camera as if she had seen them all…Her eyes were missing as well as a large part of her face and even like that she seemed to be walking as if she could see perfectly.***


OncJosé Carlos Somoza brings to the reader a fiction based on science, and an esoteric thriller rolled into one. I enjoyed the story with some reticence addressed at the end of this post. The story concerns a group of scientists who are eventually brought together on an isolated tropical island to work for a nebulous private group, the Eagle Group, with the scientists and the this group having conflicting targets. The science, based on string theory was introduced at a level that I could follow and that intrigued me, the extrapolation of this theory to the project Zigzag, being able to unfurl a string to see events in the past was captivating.

The question asked by the conflict is if you could see some events in the past, what would you look for? The scientists grouped together are not just physicists but include palaeontologists and historians and in particular historians of christianism. The Eagle Group of course have more military and security type aims, going back to recent times and spying on someone who would not suspect if for instance, but before they can obtain the “tool” there are questions about its safety, an effect labelled “Impact”, the people seeing back in time are left profoundly effected and the scientists are to be the Guinée pigs, and both the scientists and Eagle group have reason to keep the work secret:


–For example if we should see Jesus Christ, Mohammed or Buddha…just see them and know with certitude that it is them… without talking about discovering aspects of the lives of these religious founders that differ from that which the churches of these religions have made millions of people believe for centuries, including some of us, that is motive enough for keeping project Zigzag secret.***


Things go profoundly wrong and the scientists create their own Frankenstein’s monster and one by one over a ten year period meet horrific and unexplainable deaths.

Somoza handles the story in majority in two time periods, 2005 when the book was written and in the near future, 2015. There is a slow ramp up of anxiety and horror as the story progresses and the conclusion is well handled.

The idea behind this story is interesting and this story could be adapted to screen.

I’d like to treat the question of sexism within this book, brought up on forums by a number of readers, through my understanding of Somoza’s treatment of the main female character , Elisa Robledo. For me there are two separate reasons for unease due to the treatment of the female characters in the book, one arguably legitimate as Elisa over the ten years of the book develops from the exceptional student physicist and young adult not caring about herself:


–Her mother wouldn’t let up about the never ending mess in her room. She arrived at the bus station as the coach started up…she was wearing a t shirt with greying shoulder straps and her torn jeans were frayed at the edges. What’s more her hair was clearly dirty …in the last few months she had been under huge pressure.***


Then she develops into the Physics lecturer and caricature of a woman pandering to men’s lust:


–With her magnificent profile shaped by her cardigan and trousers, she could have passed for a student, maybe even for the hostess of an important ceremony….a porn star holding her first Oscar, or as Rafa whispered to his friends on campus: “a mixture of Einstein and Marilyn Monroe”
But anyone paying attention would have noticed that something wasn’t right: Elisa’s face at the beginning, as the lights came on, was different.***


The change in Elisa as we learn is due to her being influenced and controlled by an immature and flawed outside force and her representation as a mutation towards being an object of sexual desire within this framework seems to me legitimate. Although the reference to a porn star by a person from outside of the main story line here is gratuitous and unnecessary.

The treatment of the scientists on the tropical island, sleeping in non air conditioned rooms so that they, in particular the women,  are naked or next to naked with spy holes in the doors where anyone on the island can see them, is not necessary for the story and panders to a sexism with which I, as a reader, was uncomfortable.
To conclude on this subject there is I believe a thin line to tread  between what is necessary for the development of the storyline (an immature and male manipulator) and cheap sensationalism which the author does not always manage to follow.

First Published in Spanish as “Zigzag” in 2006 by Random House Mondadori.
Translated into French by Marianne Millon as “La Théorie des Cordes” and published by Actes Sud in 2007
Translated into English by Lisa Dillman as “Zigzag” and published by Rayo in 2007
*** My translation

Lorenzo Silva ‘Une Femme Suspendue’


-I’ll give you a good tip, Rubén. It was the girl friend that did it, in a rush of anger, and your job is to piece imagetogether a coherent explanation.***


At the end of the nineties, Lorenzo Silva penned this, the first in an award winning series of crime books, seven to date, featuring Sergeant Bevilacqua and his assistant Chamorro of the ‘Guardia Civil’. This story, ‘The Hanging Woman’ read in French, takes place in the holiday resorts of Majorca, A young and rich Austrian woman is found hung from the ceiling of a holiday villa with two bullet holes in her head, and the murder weapon is found nearby with the villas occupant, her vanished girl friend’s prints on the handle. The investigation seems cut and dry as the initial quote tells us. This book was read for Spanish lit month 2016.

I’ve said all I’ll say about the intrigue, the interest for me was in the two ‘Guardia Civil’ characters, Silva caught what I would imagine to be a military police atmosphere, Bevilacqua and Chamorro operating in a background of rules and obedience, the following exchange between the two Guardia Civil officers illustrates this:


-You should know that as long as you’re with me, if anyone criticises what you are doing or how you do it will be as if they are spitting in my face. And I can assure you that when someone spits in my face I’m pitiless….
-Understood sergeant! I’ll not mention it again.


As they went undercover Silva had me laughing at times such as when these two uniformed police officers were required to spend time on a nudist beach, and he describes their discomfort with the idea, which they hide by military abruptness:


-Once on the beach I indicated to my subordinate. Over there and let’s try not to draw attention to ourselves
My assistant seemed confused
-Come on, Chamorro! I haven’t brought a camera.
But this didn’t seem to be the problem
-listen, I said trying to make things more acceptable, me too I’m feeling the same embarrassment as you. I wasn’t brought up by the clergy, but my mother didn’t walk around the house naked either. Let’s just carry on as if there wasn’t a problem and think no more of it.


This was not a must read crime book but it’s dry humour made me smile, one of this series is available in English, ‘The Faint-Hearted Bolshevik’.

First Published in Spanish as “El Lejano Paìs de los Estanques” by Destino in 1998
Translated into French by Dominique Lepreux as ‘Une Femme Suspendue’ and published by Lattès in 2000
*** My translation