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

J. Á. González Sainz ‘None So Blind’

‘The entire linguistic topography of threats and intimidation encapsulated in expressions—preceded by silences, gestures, and looks—that people had to take in stride, imageas if living with threats were just as completely normal as the idea that there might be rain one day instead of sun.’

This 2010 novel from González Sainz about Felipe Díaz Carrión and his family’s move to the Spanish Basque country is, in this time of Islamic Terrorism, full of actuality. How can your own family become radicalised around you? The title of course gives away some of the writer’s thoughts. This book was read for the Spanish lit month 2016. González Sainz sets the scene early on of the economic migration behind the story:

It was a time when many young people and even some not-so-young people emigrated from the area to large cities and industrial zones, to Barcelona or Madrid, to Zaragoza or the industrial towns and centers in the north, and that’s just the ones who didn’t cross the Pyrenees or even the Atlantic. Those cities and regions seemed to have made off with all the wealth and activity in the country, with all the advantages and incentives, and more than anything else, they seemed to hold an absolute monopoly on the future.

Felipe Díaz Carrión and his family then move into an industrial town, which seems only to exist for the particular industry, lumping together the workers and their families into cheap identical apartment blocks where we live Felipe’s difficulty to integrate, epitomised by his habit of walking, originally in the beautiful countryside but now in his new industrially oppressive landscape, whenever he is troubled. And of course living grouped together in such a way radicalises the society and put’s pressure on the weak as well as those with no roots looking for acceptance.

More than wealth or age or sex or worth or career, that separated people there into two groups: the people who proffered such expressions with varying degrees of bravado or conviction, and real-life consequences, and the more scattered, defenseless, vulnerable group of people who stood on the receiving end of them with varying degrees of composure—and varying degrees of fear—and then had to face those consequences.

Felipe and his younger son, the only one in his family born in the industrial town, live through the gradual radicalisation of the eldest son and of Felipe’s wife, without seeing or wanting to see what is happening around them, despite the comments of the people around them to Felipe:

“You just don’t get it, Felipe,” they said to him again as they watched him stare unblinkingly at the photo of his wife on the page of a newspaper he now bought himself. “You know it, but you don’t want to admit it.”

After the tragic events and hate thrown up in the novel, Felipe, after his retirement, moves back to the old farm, where of course life has moved on, only his memories have remained stationary. We then learn that the violence we have witnessed in the industrial town had of course always existed and that Felipe’s father himself had been killed in such a bout of violence, with different words to describe the group’s involved and understand to an extent Felipe’s understanding and need to avoid violence. But I do not think, and I guess this is the author’s point, that we understand his blindness to what is happening around him and what could he or should he have done.

In current circumstances this is a thought provoking read.

First Published in Spanish as “Ojos que no ven” by Anagrama in 2010
Translated into English by Harold Augenbraum and Cecilia Ross as ‘None So Blind’ and published by Hispabooks in 2015

Manuel Puig ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’

– What’s your definition of incredibly good looking? I’d like to hear.image
– Well, he’s tall, dark, wears a moustache, very distinguished-looking, broad forehead, but with a pencil-line moustache a little bit like a pimp’s….I don’t know if I’m making it very clear….a wise-guys moustache, which gives him away.

I saw the film back in the 80’s with William Hurt’s Oscar performance and decided to explore this book and Manuel Puig for the Spanish lit month 2016.

The book written in the 70’s centres on two prisoners sharing a cell in an Argentinian jail cell, there is Valentin, a hardline Marxist who feels he is a small, committed part of a movement to change the world where feelings are irrelevant, and there is Molina, homosexual and effeminate, in jail for sexual offences with a minor, who has no political consciousness and who romanticises little known ‘B’ movies and their heroines.

An example of the difference in their personalities is given early on in the book when Molina talks about a married waiter he has talked to and become friendly with and fantacises about helping him leave his job and study

That he might come to live with me, with my mom and me. And I’d help him and make him study. And not bother about anything but him, the whole blessed day. Getting everything all set for him, his clothes, buying him books, registering him for courses and little by little I’d convince him that what he had to do was just one thing: Never work again. And I pass along whatever small amount of money was needed to give the wife for child support, and make him not worry about anything at all, nothing except himself, until he got what he wanted and lost all that sadness of his for good, would’ that be marvellous?

Valentin, unable to see this as a fantasy replies with a viewpoint that is so classical as to be a parody of Marxist thinking

yes but unreal. Look, there is one thing, you know, he could also go right on being a waiter but not feeling humiliated about it or anything like that. Because however humble his work is, there’s always the option: joining the union movement
-but he doesn’t understand any of that.
-he doesn’t have any idea about politics?
-no he’s rather ignorant. And he even says some foul things about his union, and probably he’s right.
-Right! If the union’s no good he should fight to change it, so it gets better.

In order to pass time before sleeping when the lights are out, Molina tells the story of films, slowly hooking Valentin on his movies, these are short stories within the book telling of a triangular love story between an architect, his assistant and an enigmatic young girl who turns out to be a panther woman or of a love story between a French singer and a German counterespionage officer in Paris and Berlin during the war, both of these stories end tragically and as Valentin gets sucked into further stories we start to see his slow softening process

– I’m sorry because I’ve become attracted to the characters. And now it’s all over, and it’s just like they died
– So, Valentin, you too have a little bit of a heart.
– It has to come out some place….weakness, I mean.
– It’s not weakness, listen.
– Funny how you can’t get along without becoming attached to something…It’s….as if the mind had to secrete affection without stopping.

Why do these such different characters share a cell? This we learn halfway through the book as Molina is put under pressure to deliver Valentin’s political secrets in return for a pardon. The prison authorities are slowly poisoning Valentin to weaken him, causing Molina to look after him in his bouts of illness and bringing the two prisoners both mentally and physically closer together, leading to them to have a homosexual relationship which begins with no tenderness and moves toward a close relationship illustrated by the passage giving the title to the book

-I’m curious…. would you feel much revulsion about giving me a kiss?
-Mmm… It must be fear that you’ll turn into a panther, like the first movie you told me.
-I’m not the panther woman.
-It’s very sad being a panther woman; no one can kiss you. Or anything.
-You, you’re the spider woman, that traps men in her web.
-How lovely! Oh, I like that.

Finally Molina is released in a hope he will lead the authorities to Valentin’s political connections where Molina then makes a choice that seems to come from one of his films.

First Published in Spanish as”El beso de la mujer araña”  in 1976
Translated into English by Thomas Colchie and published as “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Vintage in 1991

Gioconda Belli ‘Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand’

Giaconda Belli’s book expands on the mythology of the garden of Eden and mankind’s expulsion recentered from a female viewpoint, starting with the title from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, feminised in the English translationimage To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour. Belli chooses not to attack the myth itself:- expelling and replacing the warm, providing female earth gods of fertility, harvest etc by the haughty, removed, unforgiving male air god. But instead to revisit the myth changing the view of Eve from that of the week partner being easily tricked and ensuring mankind was ejected from paradise to the strong partner making the necessary decisions Adam was too afraid to make: Clearly it is inconceivable that Adam and Eve could avoid being forced out of the garden of Eden since humans have free will and this will always confront blind obedience. She paints Adam as fickle, Adam chose not to comprehend. It was easier to blame her than the Other who never allowed himself to be seen.
Belli’s novel treats duality, He (Adam) saw the Serpent. “It’s you. I recognize you….. You know him (Elokim) very well.”
“We have been together for a long time. As long as he exists, I will exist, too.”
“You exist to contradict him.”
“Without me he would find eternity intolerable. I provide him with surprises, the unpredictable.

This is not a book about creationism and an all powerful God ruling over us, as the serpent says to Eve
“Are you saying that we will create Good and Evil on our own?”
“There’s no one else. You are alone.”
“And Elokim?”
“He will remember you from time to time, but what he forgets is as vast as what he remembers.”
“We are alone.”
“The day you accept that, you will be truly free. And now I must go.”

The first half of the book dealing with the Garden of Eden myth kept my attention, the second half dealing with Cain, Abel and their twin sisters I found rather tedious.

First published in Spanish by Seix Barral in 2008
Translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden and published in 2009 by HarperCollins