I was given this book shortly after its publication in 2013 by mi abuelito, Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas, whose work is featured in the anthology of short stories, memoirs and poems. Currently living in Spain, it felt like a good time to read the whole book. The collection showcases twelve contemporary writers, in both Spanish and English translation, and definitely has a modern, experimental feel to it. The use of first person throughout blends the line between truth and fiction, and despite often feeling personal, there is always a sense of the political throughout.
despite often feeling personal, there is always a sense of the political throughout.
The opening story ‘Mangled Flesh’ by Fernando Aramburu (translated by Valerie Miles) recalls the Madrid underground bombing of March 2004, which killed 192 people and injured around 2000. What I found most interesting was the grandfather’s refusal to cry when revisiting the site, saying ‘I won’t give a single tear to those bastards’. The short descriptive sentences are dispersed with dialogue, as the grandfather repeats ‘in his typical curmudgeonly tone that he wasn’t going to cry. Not a tear.’ This is something that is undoubtedly tied up with a masculine pride, making it all the more moving when we witness his breakdown ‘crying disconsolately and in a trembling voice screamed murderers, murderers, cussing and saying he no longer believed in God.’ The scene ends with the whole family in tears, painting a picture of tears, not as a sign of weakness that had been built up, but a simple and necessary expression of emotion.
In the extract from ‘Rage’ by Antonio Gamoneda (translated by Forrest Gander), we get just a few lines on each page. These lines are aligned centrally, and due to the use of white space, and the movement of turning each page, the emotions of the piece seem to be simmering between the lines. The language is quite abstract, such as the ‘mothers who run through my veins’. There is a repetition of ‘I saw’:
There was an extraction of me. I saw
the root living on the omen.
I saw insects sucking up tear, saw
blood on the yellow churches.
This is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and conjures up the same kind of monumental emotions. The ‘Orations / boiled up between the lips / of frigid women’ is interesting in its translation, as in the Spanish, it could also be contrasted as ‘cold women’, giving a more obvious contrast between the ‘boiled’ and ‘cold’. Yet, the focus on ‘lips’ does imply sexual connotations. Furthermore, the image here begs the question as to whether these women are forced to repress their sexuality. In fact, in turning the page, there is a ‘howl’ and it is described as ‘maternal’ and coming from a ‘gargoyle’, alluding to religious imagery as it does throughout. The meaning, without the context of the whole piece, is difficult to decipher, but it does seem to be critical of religion, which is very much still dominant in Spain.
One of the women in the collection writing in Spanish, Olvido García Valdés (translated by Catherine Hammond) writes the poem ‘What Do You Expect, Heart’, in which she mixes binary oppositions such as good and bad with the descriptor ‘angel’. She notes in parentheses that women throughout history have merely been tolerated:
where their lives evolved
was a rung below the rung
where the lives of the men
they depended on evolved).
She comments on the personal as political when she asks what love is, stating ‘protection / soothes if it does not kill’ seeming to allude to domestic violence. She continues to play with binaries in her metaphors of women as ‘sugar candies’ that dissolve and are ‘not sweet / at all’. The author’s voice is contrasted with one that speaks in imperatives, which appears as a religious authority: ‘do not be so quick with your mouth’, she disobeys.
In ‘Under the Sign of Anaximander’ by Miquel de Palol (translated by Martha Tennet), tell of a troubled childhood that reminds me of a darker cynicism that J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield if he were an adult (The Catcher in the Rye), and a twisted mind such as in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. It states that ‘pariahs deserve considerably more respect than princes, sluts more than ladies.’ From the onset there is a violence that is exacerbated throughout, and the protagonist’s obscene behaviour results in a woman getting ‘the Swedish truck driver she lived with throw me down the stairs’, and another woman ‘who had become a bodybuilder… well, she threw me down the stairs herself’. He faces the consequence of their actions in a way that is beyond nonchalant, lacking emotional depth, finally describing himself at the end as ‘being in itself: Art’.
a contemporary picture of Spain is shown as both passionate and politicised.
Spain has been known for its machismo culture and arguably modern-day Spain can be guilty of holding onto traditional patriarchal structures. In this collection of work we are confronted with this in the extreme, and ideas of binary opposites such as the virgin/whore dichotomy are challenged. Additionally, notions of masculinity, which are tied up with strength and vulnerability, are dismantled. Through personal stories – both true and invented – and the use of the lyric ‘I’, a contemporary picture of Spain is shown as both passionate and politicised.
In a world still dominated by the English language, and now, post-Brexit, it is important to read work originally written in other languages – to gain a wider perspective, move outside of our cultural lens, and enrich our own language and literature habits. Visit the Words without Borders website to find this book and other translations.