By the “sun of the dead”: Wolf Moon by Julio Llamazares

The moon has not come out tonight either. The night is like a cold black stain on the outline of the beech groves, which climb up the mountain and into the fog like ghostly armies of ice. It smells of rosemary and shredded ferns.

Our boots slosh through the mud searching for the elusive surface of the ground with each step. Our sub-machine-guns shine in the darkness like iron moons.

We carry on climbing towards the Amarza Pass, towards the roof of the world and solitude.

Set in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain in the years following the collapse of the Republican front in Austrias in 1937, through the end of the Spanish Civil War and beyond, the above passage from the early pages of Julio Llamazares’ novel Wolf Moon could stand as a refrain that will echo down through the pages that follow. Inspired, the author tells us, by his childhood hero, Casmiro Férnandez Arias, one of the countless resistance fighters who led his brothers and comrades to seek refuge in the wilderness where they would be relentlessly pursued to their deaths or driven into exile, the result is a skilful blend of thrilling adventure, harsh natural beauty, and heartbreaking loss. An epic tale rendered with power and lyric intensity.

Wolf Moon is part of the Spanish Season of the World Series published by Peter Owen in association with Istros Books. It is in keeping with the high quality established with the debut Slovenian Season issued last fall. Born in Léon Province in 1955, Llamazares studied law but soon left for a career in journalism and literature. He released several volumes of poetry before turning to fiction. His poetic sensibility is especially evident in the present work, his first novel, originally published in 1985.

The desperate circumstances of the four Republicans at the heart of this story is immediately evident from the opening passages. The leader, Ramiro, is hiding in a ruined hut with his brother Juan, a fellow villager, Gildo, and the narrator. They are on their way over a mountain pass hoping to reach a region closer to home. But remaining hidden is critical. They must restrict their travel to the hours after nightfall and they must be on a constant alert for Franco’s Guardia Civil. “Daylight, we are told, “is not good for dead men.” Containment, darkness, and the tedium of waiting are recurring themes as they seek concealment, first in an abandoned mine, and eventually in a camouflaged cave where they will remain for years:

Since we got here I’ve scarcely felt the terrible moaning of the beast in the depths of my stomach, which bayed despairingly so many times in the final months of the war. It was even worse during the five days when we did not eat at all as we fled across the mountains, in the rain, from a more physical beast, more human and bloodthirsty, which pursued us implacably. It is as if the dampness and cold of the cave have penetrated my bones and my soul, imprisoning me here, lying beside the fire day and night with no interest in eating and talking or even peering through the mouth of the cave to look at the hard, overcast sky.

The narrative has a distinctive lyrical quality. This is most apparent in the strong presence of the natural elements. The landscape, weather, flora and fauna are continually evoked. Nature can be seen as a critical protagonist throughout—an aid, a threat, and a constant force to be reckoned with. As an account of years of seclusion in a wild environment this enhances the reader’s sense of connection with the characters and their plight. Wisely, Llamazares has chosen to make his narrator, Ángel, a school teacher. The tension, the emotion, and the striking bucolic imagery all work well through his voice, in tune with his sensitive, poetic personality. Otherwise, the language might risk feeling a little forced or melodramatic.

Over time, the fugitives engage in cautious contact with their home villages and families, but always at great risk to all involved. Tragic losses do occur, and the little band shrinks and becomes more isolated as the guardias continue their pursuit unabated, even after the war ends. The fugitives, the “men from the hills,” have taken on the status of mythic legend over time, fueling the official pressure to drive them out. In the end, those who survive will be those who manage to make it into France where the Spanish resistance will continue into the 1960s. What Wolf Moon captures so effectively is the alternating claustrophobia and physical exposure of life in hiding and on the run. It is a tribute to the incredible endurance of the young men who sacrificed the best years of their lives deep in the mountains—hungry, injured, and clinging like ghosts to the shadows—and the price paid by their families and the rural communities who likewise lived under continual fear and threat during this time.

It is, like many a great epic, a powerful testament to the futility and human cost of war.

Wolf Moon is translated by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillip-Miles.

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor—My Numéro Cinq review

My latest review for Numéro Cinq is now live. When I read for these reviews, the question that guides me is “What is interesting about what the author is doing (or trying to do) in this book?” I am listening to the language, paying attention to the structure, the voice, the tone, and asking what makes this work come together? What sets it apart? I am reading as a writer–an intuitive writer–unaided and yet unburdened by a formal education in literary theory.

Coming of age themed novels such as Black Bread by Catalan writer Emili Teixidor present a particular challenge. When a first person narrator is recounting events and experiences from his or her own childhood, my attention is focused heavily on narrative voice. I am always trying to determine where the narrator is standing in time relative to the story being told. I had the sense with Black Bread that the protagonist Andreu was writing from his later teens–just far enough away to have some perspective on the limitations of his understanding of the precarious realities around him, but close enough to recreate the innocence and naivete of childhood. It works, but the more absorbing, and I suppose the more effective the voice, the more difficult it is to describe how and why it works.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

In the Shadow of Civil War: Review of Black Bread by Emili Teixidor — Joseph Schreiber

black-bread

There is an interlude, just shy of a third of the way into Black Bread by the late Catalan writer Emili Teixidor, where the narrator steps back from his childhood reminisces to question the nature of memory. He asks why some things stay etched on his memory while he has forgotten others completely, and wonders, “how can I know I have forgotten what I can’t remember?” He recognizes that some places, people and incidents fade quickly whereas sometimes a word can come back unexpectedly and ignite a flood of distant memories. These reflections appear as a curious break in a narrative marked by a degree of youthful naiveté, but remind us that the journey from childlike to mature understanding is uneven and necessarily distorted in retrospect. So, although it is never entirely clear just how far removed the protagonist stands from the experiences he is sharing, as his account continues his ability to hold on to his own innocence will increasingly come into conflict with the harsh realities of life in post-war rural Catalonia.

In recent years, much revisionist debate has been dedicated to exhuming questions of the true impact of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship on Catalan culture and society; “true”, that is, depending on where one’s interests lie. Against this backdrop, a novel like Black Bread, originally published in 2003 when Teixidor was seventy years-old, could easily be construed as an attempt to reclaim history through lived memory. That may, in part, be a fair assessment, but this novel offers much more. It is, on one level, a tender and sensitive coming of age story, one that filters the joys, fears, mysteries, and discoveries of the fitful transition to adolescence through the unaffected lens of childhood memory. Our narrator, Andreu, an astute observer of his own confused emotions, must learn to navigate a world filled with dark dangers and even darker delights. He knows there is much going on around him that he doesn’t understand—truths that he isn’t certain he even wants to understand. However, his growing awareness and conflicted reactions open space for an indirect but honest commentary on the realities of Catalan existence during this time. In this respect, the work can be seen in line with that of writers like Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

The melancholy wanderer: War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda

Fresh air streamed in through the window. When the dining-room clock struck three, I rose and left without even washing my face and, you might say, with only the clothes on my back. I had taken some fifty steps when something made me turn around and glance back at the house. The moonlight fell full on it. My father stood at the door watching me, holding me–still a little boy–in his arms. It was the first night that I roamed alone through streets outside my neighbourhood. I ran. Goodbye carnations, adéu!

With this ghostly image of his deceased father holding his infant self, Adirà Guinart, the fifteen year-old narrator of Mercè Rodoreda’s poignant novel War, So Much War, turns his back on a fractious relationship with his mother and a life growing and selling carnations. He is seeking a life of adventure. Yet, as one must be careful what one wishes for, he is about embark on a journey that will leave him irrevocably changed, and sadly and wistfully mature for his age.

War_So_Much_War-front_largeAlthough the place and conflict is never explicitly named, it is assumed that the setting is Catalonia, the author’s homeland, during the Spanish Civil War. But in truth the exact details do not matter, this is a novel about the wide sweep of war beyond the front lines, about the damage, destruction and despair that works its way into the landscape, the villages and the lives of the people who are often hard pressed to explain who or why they are fighting. Yet, the bleakness is, in Rodoreda’s hands, filtered through a surrealist lens that renders it at once engaging, wise and profoundly sad.

Idealistic and bored, our young protagonist leaves home to join the war effort, but he is quickly disillusioned with the soldier’s life, and runs away again, falling into a life that suits his temperament, that of the wanderer. Unfolding over the course of a series of short episodic adventures he encounters an array of tragic comic characters–the bereaved, the abandoned and the eccentric–who share their wisdom, offer him lodging or seek his assistance. Classic folkloric elements are present, including a strange castle, an enigmatic young woman, an ugly old hag, a hermit with a tale of hard earned humility and a mysterious benefactor with a haunted mirror.

But War, So Much War is more than an allegory or a fairy tale, there is something profoundly serious and unsettling beneath the surface. The narrative, unadorned and seductive in tone, fuses sensuous evocations of natural beauty with brutal images of suffering and death. The ground is worked to plant crops in one place, only to be dug to bury piles of corpses in another. Our hero approaches each task without question, claiming resistance to the more tangible horrors of death; fearing instead the unseen,  phantasmagorical horrors that pursue him. But is there really a difference? In his world, reality blends with dreams, and the narrator treads a ground that gives away to as readily to natural beauty as to nightmare.

Even in romance, that line is readily crossed. Early on, Adirà falls in love with Eva, a free-spirited young woman. He is drawn to her most critically because she refuses to be held and restrained by anyone. As much as he admires that aspect of her character, a quality he also claims for himself, he begins to long for her as his journey moves, at least in spirit, toward home. Her ultimate fate is perhaps the most melodramatic, yet deeply tragic element of the entire tale.

The constant reminders of war–hunger, fear and confrontations with the stark face of human depravity–do not defeat Adirà, but their presence eventually closes in on him, working its way into his weary bones. At heart this pastoral novel is an existential coming-of-age story that leaves our hero enlightened but aged beyond his tender years. He is both a boy and an old soul at once. With so much disruption and young men lost to war, older men in particular seem drawn to his company. When a fisherman with who he has spent a couple of days invites him to stay on, become as a son to him, he explains:

My life is my own . . . A few months ago, I don’t know how many, I still had a pocket knife with a fork, spoon, corkscrew, and screwdriver that my father had given me, but I gave it away. And now the only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it. He gave me a pat on the back, almost laughing as he did so. I know , I added, that all lives are more or less the same in the essentials. He thrust his head back and closed his eyes, leaving just a slit open to spy on whatever it was he wanted to see. Don’t make me laugh. What will you do, restlessly drifting from place to place? Do you want to end up sleeping on the street or in a church portico when you are an old man? I don’t care. I want to roam the world. Be from everywhere and nowhere.

For all its sadness, there is much wisdom in these pages. Rodoreda’s smooth, clean prose with its seamless flow between speakers without breaks or quotation marks, adds to the dreamlike, reflective feel of the narrative. For all the fairy tale elements that feature in Adirà’s wandering, the underlying current of his journey is marked by despair and hope. This is a novel that is not only timeless but, sadly, still very relevant today.

Mercè Rodoreda was born in Catalonia in 1908. Her native language, Catalan, was banned under Franco’s dictatorship, but she continued to write in the language throughout her career, even while living in exile following the Spanish Civil War. Today Catalan is spoken by only about nine million people and translations are critical to help keep the literature alive. Originally published in 1980, War, So Much War is translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, and published by Open Letter.

* War, So Much War has been shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award.

All the world’s a stage: On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes – My review for Numéro Cinq

My latest review for Numéro Cinq is now live. On the Edge by the late Rafael Chirbes has just been released in North America (New Directions) with a UK release forthcoming from Harvill Secker in July. This is an unforgiving portrait of Spain in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, through the eyes of one man who has lost everything:

On-the-edge

For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:

A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.

This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction (Valerie Miles, Open Letter Books, 2014), should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.

Find the rest of the review here

Reality is a miracle… Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile

In a story titled “The Sea”, a couple vacationing on the Mediterranean make their way to the seashore each day where the husband joins the line of humans on the beach who sit staring at the water, mesmerized. The experience fills him with a sense of unease.

“The waves were never the same, although they may have repeated themselves in similar cycles. The meaning of the wave never went beyond being a rather comforting mystical murmur. But the sea seemed to express itself in ways superior to the wave, in whole unintelligible paragraphs and speeches, as rich in modes and forms as it was in depths and fishes. On the other hand, I understood nothing of what it said.”

thingsLike the vast sea with its hypnotic surface and hidden secrets, reality is a shimmering quantity in the hands of Spanish author Medardo Fraile. A master of the short story, he is able to distill an experience or sketch out an entire life span within a handful of pages. In this collection, Things Look Different in the Light, he breathes life into a wide variety of unforgettable characters – young or old, ordinary or eccentric. We meet weary professors, crafty spinsters, uncommunicative middle-aged couples, meek bachelors and curious children who don’t quite understand the world of adults. We even encounter inanimate objects that take on lives of their own rich with meaning and emotion, bound to and yet separate from the human with which they are associated.

Consider “A Shirt”, the simple fable of sailor who, after a single love affair, returns alone to his hometown to take up the life of a fisherman. Each day he dons the same tartan shirt until one fateful day when shirt is left behind on the line:

“At around four o’clock in the morning, with no wind to speak of, the shirt began to move. It flapped wildly about, anxious and empty, as if wanting to break free of the pegs gripping its shoulders. The flailing sleeves rose and fell, filled by the invisible lament of some terrible tragedy. They occasionally joined wrists or else stretched wide, arms spread.”

Or share the frustration of the lingerie salesman in “The Lemon Drop” who had imagined a literary career for himself and can’t quite come to terms with the place where life has left him. He wonders what happened to the scabby-kneed boy who used to go bird’s nesting and smoke on the sly:

“Now I never smoke. I used to own a pellet gun. I have big hands, like cowboys in the Wild West. And by ‘I’, I mean this person who is me. This weary fellow who walks home bent beneath the weight of his briefcase, which, one day, grabbed hold of his hand like a dog and feels equally weary.”

From the opening story about a tongue-tied man at a baby’s birthday party, set on edge by a woman he cannot bear to face, to the chillingly beautiful “Last Shout” in which a child recalls a beloved grandmother’s final months; you know you are in the presence of a gifted storyteller. He manages to adjust the focus to bring to light the details that are essential to the tale he wishes to tell. No more, no less. Simply perfect.

Born in Madrid in 1925, Fraile started his career in experimental theatre, a background that may well account for the spare, magical quality of many of his short stories. He left Spain in the 1950‘s, and although he would ultimately settle in Scotland, his work was not made available to English speaking readers until the release of this wonderful collection from Pushkin Press, translated by the renowned Margret Jull Costa, with a warm and enthusiastic introduction by Ali Smith. A fellow blogger, Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal first drew my attention to this book so I knew it was one that I wanted to read (sooner rather than alter, that is)  when it was longlisted for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Things Look Different In the Light has progressed to the shortlist.

Medardo Fraile died in 2013.