Book Review: Goodbye, Ramona

Goodbye, Ramona

“I’ve been chasing chimeras all my life”

Goodbye, Ramona, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Megan Berkobien and María Cristina Hall), follows three generations of women – grandmother, mother and daughter, all called Ramona – each of whose lives tilt on what turns out to be defining encounters with men. They lived in Barcelona through its varying, tumultuous times, although their personal concerns remained insular. Despite close family ties, they misunderstood the impact of each other’s experiences and preoccupations.

The stories being told of these women jump from one to the other. Although chapters are headed by name, secondary characters serve to remind the reader which Ramona is being focused on. The novel is bookended by a key event in the life of Ramona Ventura – the mother – on a day during a violent uprising, when she searched for the remains of her husband amongst a sea of mutilated bodies. She would hark back to this episode regularly in the years to come, her family growing weary of her focus on that one day.

And yet, it was an earlier period in her life that shaped her, the summer a republic was declared. It was then that she first fell in love, with a man regarded as dangerous. Ramona was eager for new experiences, regarding herself as ready to escape the ordinariness of her life to date.

“everything always began and ended in the same way. Except in the summer of ’34, and that fall when…
But everyone has a summer and a fall in life. The truth is I’ve been molded out of details and miniscule events that will never add up to much of anything at all.”

The grandmother’s story, Ramona Jover, was my favourite. As a young bride at the turn of the century, her early life experiences were more salubrious than they later became. This did not, however, bring her happiness. She longed for passion, but both she and her husband remained repressed by their upbringing.

“He loved me measuredly, properly. But I never felt seduced by him.”

Ramona was happier when they moved from a quiet district to an apartment in Barcelona, although this brought with it dangerous temptations to stray.

Each of the three women depicted are introspective, the men they become involved with self-absorbed. Love is declared but with the aim of providing personal satisfaction – in matters of: desire, art and literature, politics. Women were required to be supportive and compliant. Mostly the Ramonas try to perform as was expected by their peers.

“You know you’d prefer to be more like Telele, who gets whatever she wants using her feminine wiles. Knowing to always keep quiet, to pay attention to men when they speak”

Many of the other women depicted seek husbands, fearing the prospect of being an old maid. Once married they get together to complain about their husbands, secretly jealous of any single, financially independent ladies.

Although living through changing political times, the Ramonas are preoccupied by lovers along with their love / hate relationship with their home city. They each seek to broaden their horizons with travel. Those who do get away briefly then long to return. Barcelona is a vivid character in these stories as it adapts and homogenises with the passing of the decades.

“The city… A city that was no longer the same idyllic place it was in the 30s, and nowhere near the legendary Barcelona of the turn of the century. She crossed Gran Via and passed by the student bar. The prostitutes were just getting to work”

What the stories of these three women reveal is how rose tinted recollections can be.

I struggled to warm to the daughter, Ramona Claret. Described as impulsive she comes across as foolish. Perhaps she is simply young, but then all three women were in the periods of their lives being shared. What is interesting in her story is how she views her mother and grandmother, unable to consider that they too once had lives shaped by parents and grandparents, lives that did not include her.

“Her family would depict the war in a million different ways, and the differences always came down to the highly peculiar, highly singular way that each person had experienced it”

The pacing of each women’s tale is recounted with a degree of breathlessness, despite the mundanity of many of their experiences. This serves to build tension and retain interest. The Ramonas seek freedom from constrictions, a desire for passionate encounters, a longing to break the bindings that provide security yet feel suffocating.

A skilfully rendered, vivid history of life in Barcelona during a changing half century. With my lack of knowledge of the city’s history I struggled at times to place and differentiate each Ramona, but their stories remained taut and engaging.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

seven deadly sins

“humans cannot understand a full life without fun and pleasure; as such, we cannot possibly comprehend a truly human life without some aspect of lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Yet the sagest Christians demurred from going into details about what was attractive about the life to come: they weren’t sure. And humanists have done the same thing. When they tried to imagine a perfectly ordered human life it was far from appealing.”

The Seven Deadly Sins is a collection of essays written by seven Catalan authors who each explore the history and development of one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins. They discuss when the sin was selected and how it is defined. They ponder why a natural human emotion would be regarded as bad.

As these sins are a Christian concept, the tenets of that religion are focused on. There are also many reference to ancient beliefs and the more modern development of humanism. Key episodes in history are alluded to as markers in how what was considered sinful changed and developed. Philosophical thinking through the ages is analysed. A feature of the essays is the many digressions taken.

“nothing is excessive, disordered, or immoderate except in relation to a gradation that marks the point where excess begins.”

The first essay, by Oriol Qintana, covers sloth. It looks at changes to social and work culture in various societies and the pressure to perform productively and efficiently – to amass wealth for self or others. It is suggested that obligations are imposed to encourage aspiration for an idealised vision of ourselves.

“We don’t have the obligation to be the best people possible, but to be decent people, good enough people, each in our own way.

As in many of the essays, there are references to well known works of literature as the author introduces threads of personal opinion, each backed by argument but at times linking tenuously to the sin under discussion.

“We live among naysayers and enthusiasts, and the chaos is considerable. We certainly have a lot of opinions about good and evil.”

The second essay, by Adrià Pujol, looks at gluttony. The author suggests this is more of a man’s sin than a woman’s, a premise I disagreed with. He also offered gyms as an antidote – a way of offsetting overeating and its obvious manifestation, fat accrual – despite it now being known that, while exercise is vital for good health, weight loss still requires, first and foremost, a calorie deficit. Perhaps there is some cultural difference that made me struggle to engage with the arguments presented.

Lust is covered by Anna Punsoda. Once again I disagreed with the framework around which she built her reasoning. She seemed to be suggesting that all thought like her – I do not.

“It is not the most frowned-upon sin, because secretly we can all understand and forgive it.”

Desire may be a compulsion but the author appeared to devalue love, suggesting the value of maintaining monogamous relationships could not outweigh the pleasure to be found in moments of passion, paying little heed to the hurt and damage wrought when sexual excitement is valued over devotion.

“Their passion places them beyond good and evil and, more than loving each other, they love the very act of loving.”

Having struggled to engage once again, I was relieved to find more to consider in Raül Garrigasait’s thoughts on wrath. In this essay, the author expands on his thoughts with many references to the ancients – their wars and philosophy.

“Their ideal sage possessed an unflappable cold intelligence that never grew irritated, fell in love, or got depressed. They saw the passions as impurities that sullied the individual.”

As with other arguments propounded in the collection, there are suggestions that each sin may also offer positives. The key is to remain in control, to avoid excess. Being constantly angry can lead to embittered obstinacy, but wrath can also offer strength to say no to degrading commitments or evil collaborations.

Marina Porras writes of the sin of envy, pointing out it is harder to recognise as it comes from profound feelings difficult to articulate. Much of this essay references a work of literature I am not familiar with (A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda). While I could follow the opinions being shared I did not find them compelling.

Oriol Ponsatí-Murlà then looks at greed, referencing both modern and ancient texts to argue his case. He suggests that the concept of greed cannot be analysed objectively, that it and other sins are relative contextually.

“Raising awareness of our basic fallibility at comprehending our cultural past and present is absolutely indispensable so as to avoid making dogmatic fools of ourselves”

The author writes of a golden mean, one that can be a challenge to evaluate and determine.

The final essay, by Jordi Graupera, looks at pride. The golden mean is once again referenced along with texts that illustrate the basis of the author’s thinking. There are a smattering of personal anecdotes that added interest. I admit though, that by this stage in the book, my attention had waned.

The writing throughout verges on the academic in elucidation and clarification. There is much on the historical perspective along with the function of ethical thinking – sins as instruments of social control. The many digressions, although considered and explained, too often veered off topic. Essays are, of course, an author’s opinion. That I disagreed with many of these won’t have added to my enjoyment while reading.

How the seven deadly sins were selected was of interest. Although not new to me, the adaptation of ancient beliefs to make religious dogma more palatable was well expressed.

“The vast operation of translating – from Greek to Latin – and of conceptual transposing – adapting ancient philosophical notions to the Christian spiritual paradigm – that was entailed in moving Greek pagan wisdom to a religious imagery (along, largely, the footbridge of neo-Platonism) still constitutes one of the most monumental and successful intellectual efforts ever carried out in the Western World. Without it, it is impossible to understand the course of the last two millenia of our civilisation.”

I found aspects of these essays worth my time and consideration. On the whole, however, the collection was rather too dry to appeal to my reading tastes.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

Book Review: Jacobé & Fineta

jacobe and fineta

Jacobé & Fineta, by Joaquim Ruyra (translated by Alan Yates), is a slim volume of two short stories preceded by an introduction by Julià Guillamon. I would advise skipping the enthusiastic introduction until after the stories have been read as it contains spoilers.

The first and longer story, Jacobé, is narrated by a young man named Minguet who has returned to visit the coastal town where he grew up. As a young child from a wealthy family he was placed in the care of Nursie, a widow with a daughter two years older than the boy. The pair were lively playmates and enjoyed each others’ company, developing a deep affection that abided long after Minguet was sent away to school.

The tale opens in autumn. The author uses descriptions of weather and the natural decay of the season to create a shadow of pervading melancholy. The comparison between this and the happy memories of Minguet’s time spent with Jacobé and Nursie portend some deterioration in events to come.

It has been Minguet’s habit to visit his former playmate and carer when home during holidays from school. He is always made welcome, although Jacobé’s enthusiasm could at times be uncomfortable.

“even though such a warm welcome was enough to stifle in me all feelings except tenderness, those ‘little one’ pricks felt very offensive to a man who had already turned twelve.”

By sixteen Jacobé was considered beautiful – ‘healthy and full of vitality’. She was, however, starting to display worrying behaviours.

“Jacobé would welcome me with exaggerated enthusiasm, and with a rather indiscrete interest in what I had been doing.”

Within a few short years this behaviour developed into a psychosis alongside which Jacobé’s physical health deteriorated markedly. At this stage there is a suggestion that she is being punished for the sins of previous generations. Minguet ponders such an idea under the tenets of his religious faith, which I personally found a tad off-putting. That is not to question its authenticity given period and setting.

The narrative voice employed in the telling is smooth. The dialogue between characters is somewhat coarse at times. I wondered if this was to highlight differing social statuses and associated opportunity in education.

Metaphors make much use of natural phenomena to portray how people appear and behave. The growing agitation felt by Jacobé and then Minguet add to the tension.

Although poignant, the denouement offers what is almost relief after the suffering described. While the religiosity did not work for me, the comforts to be found in nature, especially the sea, were skilfully wrought.

The second story, Fineta, tells of a sixteen year old girl left alone at home while her father and brothers go out to sea, fishing for days and nights at a time. She fears the darkness in her solitude so rises early, encountering a woodman who is new to the area. Later in the day, her fears dispelled, she walks to a nearby beach. Here she swims and feels at ease, until the man reappears. Her long term reaction to what happens next is more complex than expected.

Both stories evoke the time and place to effect as well as providing much for the reader to consider. The elements of dark behaviour depicted suggest a transience in happiness through lived experience, although both plot and character development are secondary to the author’s artistry with language.

A book worth reading, offering much that will linger. A compact but still satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.