The Horizon Line. That distant boundary between sea and sky, a path travelled by memories, traversing the great nothingness. It haunts Vicenzo Fontana, the narrator of The Last Days of Terranova by Galician writer Manuel Rivas. As the sole surviving owner of an eclectic bookshop that, after nearly seventy years of existence, is scheduled to close, he takes little comfort in the presence of the other businesses lining the streets of his hometown with similar Total Liquidation signs in their windows. A developer, it seems, has other plans for all this real estate, but he feels liable, as if he has failed in some self-appointed role as guardian of local history.
I feel responsible for all these closings. For having written my sign. A rebellion of the eyes. For having stuck my damn paw into the intimacy of words. I should stay open day and night, should hang up ship lights. It’s been a long time since I saw young people stealing books. The thrill in their bodies, in their gaze. I have to get back and open the bookstore right away. Someone might be hoping to steal a book. They’ll be so crushed. So disappointed.
As the novel opens, Vicenzo is watching a young couple illegally catching barnacles on the rocks below him while the waves threaten to rise and carry them off. He is worried for them, he is worried for his future, he is talking to ghosts. He knows he is seen as an oddity. He describes himself as “An old, fallen angel on crutches. A liquidation.” But he is not that old, no more than sixty-two, and the crutches—”Canadian crutches,” he notes—are necessary due to post-polio syndrome. The eccentricity he comes by naturally.
The story of Terranova, within which Vicenzo’s own story is inextricably bound, extends over nearly eighty years back to 1935, with the account of his maternal grandfather’s death across the Atlantic in Newfoundland. Before boarding the ship for what would be his final voyage, Antón Ponte had advised his son Eliseo, who had fallen in love with art and surrealist literature, to avoid the seafaring life. With this he was permitting a family occupational tradition to come to an end. The Galician name of his final resting place, along with money he’d earned working side jobs, would eventually fund, and christen, the bookstore Vicenzo’s mother, Comba, opened years later. His father, Amaro Fontana, was Uncle Eliseo’s best friend and a teacher of Greek and Latin until his career ended under the Purging Committees of the early years of the Franco regime. Amaro’s marriage to Comba in 1947, brought him into the bookselling business, along with Eliseo who came to live with the couple in the apartment above the shop. Over the years, Terranova would evolve into a rabbit warren of book-lined rooms, decorated with handmade globes, curiosities, posters, photographs and, often in false covers, smuggled and illegally produced copies of banned volumes.
Vicenzo, born into the Terranova world, was a reluctant convert to the family trade. As a small child he spent much of his time out in the country at the home of his paternal aunt and uncle where he was especially close to their housekeeper, the delightfully strong-willed Expectación, and her son Dombodán who is so close to him in age that his mother was able to nurse them both. Later on, Vicenzo and Dombadón will experiment with drugs and get into a little youthful trouble, but before that our protagonist will spend several years of his childhood at a sanitarium, trapped in an Iron Lung. Polio leaves him with lasting damage to his legs that further cripples him as he ages, and, to some extent, marks his self-identity for life.
In his early twenties, eager to put distance between himself and everything he thinks bookselling might promise (or threaten), Vicenzo heads to Madrid for University. That is, of course, the beginning of the road back home. In late 1975, with the death of Franco, the city is on edge. The apartment he shares with fellow students offers passing resources, like a place to develop film, to Argentinian youth escaping their own political turmoil back home. One is Garúa—or at least that is one of the names she uses. He is smitten, but their first proper encounter occurs at a café where, affecting his White Duke persona inspired by David Bowie, he is reading a contraband edition of the first Spanish translation of Catcher in the Rye. Garúa enters and, catching sight of him, comes right over:
She didn’t fall into the arms of the White Duke or admire the green lock of hair on his head or the lipstick on his lips or the makeup around his eyes. She simply stared at my book. That manner of looking. Squinted eyes squinting harder upon further scrutiny, not believing what they’re seeing, the cover absorbing her full attention, because it had an eye with an iris like a bullseye. This is from Libros del Mirasol! Let me see that, she said, as she tore it from my hands. I knew it—printed by the Compañía General Fabril Editorial in Buenos Aires! Are you…? No, I’m not Argentinian. And I’ve never been, I found it in a bookstore. I could have called it my bookstore, Terranova. But no, the White Duke liked to retain a certain air of mystery.
It turns out that her father had worked as a typographer for the publisher, creating in her the sensation that the very words he touched belonged to him. Over the weeks and months to come, they bond over books and music until eventually Garúa asks Vicenzo to take her to his family bookstore.
Back in Galicia, Garúa is immediately welcomed into the Terranova family. She is captivated by Amaro’s historical knowledge, swept away by Eliseo’s stories which have the capacity come alive before his listeners eyes, stories that come from a “deep place in the memory where only that which you want to happen will happen ” and Comba, ever sensitive, is instantly aware that Garúa’s arrival at Terranova is fated. “We have to protect her,” she tells her son. “That girl is full of souls.” In return, she has much to offer to Vicenzo, his family, friends and to the store. At least until her past comes calling.
The Last Days of Terranova is rich tale peopled with singular characters driven by idiosyncratic passions and hidden secrets, haunted by personal demons. Their relationships are complicated and the risks they take are real, set against uncertain and often dangerous political realities in both Spain and Argentina. The quirky bookstore is brilliantly realized while Vicenzo is the perfect, modestly eccentric, narrator to carry a story that holds so much humour, honest emotion, and literary and historical lore. The absence of quotation marks and the tendency to fall into an immersive, wandering narrative that seamlessly incorporates the memories and stories of various actors without immediate guideposts, apart from occasional time stamps, can lead to passing uncertainty about exactly whose account is being presented, but the disorientation never lasts long. Rivas is an accomplished storyteller with strong poetic sensibilities who trusts his readers’ attention to hold and rewards it with an original story that celebrates family, friendship and the power and wonder of books. As Vincenzo says early on:
People say that books can’t change the world. I disagree. Just look at me, they’ve given me quite the beating. But I’d still forgive anything for a stack of them.
The Last Days of Terranova by Manuel Rivas is translated from the Galician by Jacob Rogers and published by Archipelago Books.
5 thoughts on “Looking out toward the Horizon Line: The Last Days of Terranova by Manuel Rivas”
Stories like this, that show the heroic role of booksellers in oppressive regimes, always impress me because they show the power of the written word.
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The fact that special interest groups continue to try to censor and ban literature shows that it is not only within oppressive regimes that books are seen as a threat. Librarians are also heroes!
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I’ve read a few of Rivas’ novels, though not for a while. That this is about a bookshop does make it hard to resist!
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This the first of his novels that I’ve read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.