Book Review: The Song of Youth

song of youth

The Song of Youth, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Tiago Miller), is a collection of eight short stories that explore universal themes – love, loss, grief, aging, memory, sex – but touched on from angles that tell the reader much about themselves. Although set in a Catalonia shadowed by the Franco regime, the tales explore human experiences and attitudes that will resonate widely. The writing is taut yet expressive, conveying the conflicting emotions of situations without including unnecessary detail. Characters are not always likable but will draw reader empathy.

The collection opens with the titular story in which an elderly woman is lying on a hospital bed, in a ward reserved for those expected to die soon. She is regarded as difficult by the busy nursing staff. She is not yet ready to expire despite being barely able to move. As the woman observes comings and goings around her she relives a key event in her life, prompted by a doctor who reminds her of a former lover. She ponders the changes to her body caused by aging.

“She raised a hand and held it against the ray of sunlight coming in through the window. It was a transparent hand with protruding bones, riddled with swollen blue rivers cut through by clods of earth coloured stains.” 

When youthful and regarded as pretty the woman chose to indulge in an act of rebellion against the path her parents expected her to take. Now approaching her end, she continues to push back in small ways available.

My favourite story in the collection was Love and Ashes, in which a middle-aged woman, Maria, travels abroad for the first and last time with her husband. They must borrow money to make the trip but it is an experience he wishes to indulge in before he dies. There is much humour in this tale, from the frenemy who has travelled frequently and insists on sharing every detail, to the ridiculous husband whose behaviour ends up freeing Maria to enjoy what time remains. 

Mar is another strong inclusion, exploring the impact of a friendship on family and community when a woman will not conform in her behaviour. Both Mar and the narrator are married with children, the latter being an intellectual with socialist ideals that she comes to recognise ‘only existed in our heads’. Early in the story we learn that Mar is now in hospital, kept alive by machines. The narrator is pondering the year they spent together, one that led to the breakup of both their marriages.

“Perhaps I was attracted by what I perceived in her as innocence but which was, in fact, a merry immorality. She unearthed feelings I didn’t care to define but which had long been lurking deep inside of me, as dark as the thoughts I didn’t dare express”

It is posited that those who condemned Mar did so due to their own unhappiness. It is a story of ideals and the lies we tell ourselves about what we believe in, how we wish to be perceived.  

I found the final story, Before I Deserve Oblivion, disturbing. It offers a depiction of a man with sexual proclivities few would admit to. As a boy he masturbated while secretly watching his parents have sex. As an adult he is caught spying on schoolgirls he is teaching as they undress in a changing room. The man also worked as a censor of literature, ensuring the public could not read the erotica he had access to in order to remove it from texts. He is trying to explain his unsavoury behaviour. Whilst acknowledging he will be condemned by others, it is unclear what he believes to be acceptable in thought and deed.

Although covering numerous challenging topics, the stories are relatable in the characters that populate each page. The writing flows easily, maintaining an engaging pace. There is depth as well as humour, a poignancy in the unflinching portrayal of how people judge both others and themselves. A deftly written collection of short form fiction that I am glad to have read.

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

Book Review: Forty Lost Years

forty lost years

Forty Lost Years, by Rosa Maria Arquimbau (translated by Peter Bush), tells the story of a woman born and raised in Barcelona during the turbulent years of the mid twentieth century, when Catalonia suffered insurrection, war and fascism. It is not a political book but rather one of how ordinary lives were affected by authoritarian change. The author lived through this time and, in an epilogue written by Julià Guillamon, it is suggested that she wrote her own experiences into her central character. This is not memoir but offers a portrayal of lived history.  

The tale opens in 1931 when the protagonist, Laura Vidal, is fourteen years old. She lives with her parents and siblings in the cramped quarters provided for the concierge of their building – her mother’s job. Her father works for a furniture maker but money is tight. Laura has recently become an apprentice seamstress at an up-market workshop, along with her good friend, Herminia. Following elections, the president has proclaimed the Republic of Catalonia leading to widespread if short-lived celebrations.

Laura has little interest in these wider events being more concerned with her day to day existence and social life. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on her through lack of money and parental demands that she conduct herself with decorum. She is impatient to acquire womanly curves, to grow up and gain independence. Although developing an interest in boys, she draws little attention.  

The story follows Laura, her family and friends over the coming four decades. There are times of hardship when food is scarce and the young men, required to complete military service, are endangered by numerous conflicts. Laura is ambitious but requires backers if she is to set up the business she dreams of. Throughout her life she retains a pragmatic approach to securing what she needs.

There are marriages, babies, affairs and deaths as the years pass. In their twenties, Laura and Herminia leave Spain along with many other refugees in an attempt to relocate to Mexico. The trials faced in this period are described in the epilogue as autobiographical in nature. Eventually, Laura returns to Barcelona where she prospers in the opulent post-war years.

In many ways Laura is fortunate, finding those who are willing to help her when she is hungry or in need of accommodation. She works hard and feels no need to rely on a partner, noting the compromises married acquaintances must make. In her fifties, however, she observes how younger women now regard her and feels regret at some of her decisions. 

The spare prose offers little emotion yet succeeds in drawing the reader in. The portrayal of an independent woman as she navigates her way from naive teenager to successful business owner is rendered engagingly. Laura occasionally faces criticism from her family and friends but, despite this, mostly acts as she sees fit. Given her earlier approach to life – her attitude towards other’s expectations of her – I was surprised by the denouement, that she was so affected by what is natural aging. Her reaction to others’ opinion appeared out of character, or maybe this is also a change that comes with age.

Certain sections of dialogue could flow better – I wondered at some of the translator’s choices of spoken words – but this may be true to the region. Encounters with the young idealists who then turn to profiteering offer a reminder that principles are rarely fixed.

An enjoyable read set in a time of great change that refuses to pander to a stoicism that so often veneers survivors who are later regarded as worldly successes. The characters portrayed here have flaws as well as strengths, and this adds to their depth. 

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

Book Review: The Others

the others

The Others, by Raül Garrigasait (translated by Tiago Miller), is set across two timelines. It opens in a Berlin library in roughly contemporary times. The narrator is seeking information on Prince Felix von Lichnowsky, a Prussian gentleman from the nineteenth century whose memoirs he has been commissioned by a small publisher to translate. In amongst the papers he is provided with is a misplaced file on someone else, Rudolf von Wielmann. This manuscript contains incomplete commentaries – diary entries – that intrigue the narrator. The earlier timeline is his attempt to pull together Wielmann’s biography from when the young gentleman was in Spain during the same period as Lichnowsky.

“flanked by his mother’s detached benevolence and his father’s absent severity, he had never had to shoulder a single burden in his life”

Wielmann has left his privileged life in Berlin, the capital of Prussia, at the behest of his father. It is considered that gentlemen from a family of their standing should achieve something of note in their lives. Armed with a letter of recommendation from an uncle – intended to introduce him as a man of consequence, thereby not putting him in avoidable danger – Wielmann intends to join those fighting the Carlist Wars in Spain.

From what I can gather from the story, the Carlist Wars were a series of civil uprisings in which small armies fought to maintain Order – as imposed by the Inquisition – against liberals who wished to introduce a new form of central governance. The contenders each fought to establish their claim to the throne. Despite not being particularly religious, Wielmann was willing to fight on the side of legitimism and Catholicism.

Wielmann catches up with the army of the monarch, Don Charles Maria Isidre de Borbó, as it enters the half-destroyed municipality of Solsona. His interactions with the king lead to him being given orders to remain after de Borbó and his contingent move on towards Madrid.

“Traipsing the solitary streets, he pondered how receiving an order that, for the time being, didn’t require him to do anything or, rather, required him to do nothing, wasn’t a situation altogether different from the lethargic life he had maintained his entire adult existence in Berlin.”

Wielmann befriends a local doctor, Miquel Foraster, visiting him regularly at his home to discuss topics of note and play Beethoven on the piano. Wielmann is living in basic accommodation, housed by a widow who provides his meals silently with little other contact. How he ended up staying here, and for so long, remains opaque. Aware of his family’s expectations, Wielmann is unsettled by the emptiness of his days.

“Not even in the midst of this invisible war that he was theoretically participating in had he been required to do anything even remotely worthy of mention.”

The writing has, at times, elements of the uncanny but is mostly as playful as it is poignant. The actions and interactions depicted lay bare the mundanities of life despite a desire to find meaning.

Episodes recounted are often sensory. The music becomes other-worldly to those who listen. A meal containing mushrooms evoke the forest in which they grew. A carnival party depicts the decadence of participants.

“Far from home, our sense of shame lessens its clutches on the reins.”

About a third of the way through the book I realised I remained confused by what was happening and the apparent lack of direction. By returning to the beginning and flicking through again, the narrative began to make more sense. In the contemporary timeline, looking back through the lens of known history, more depth may be added to Wielmann’s tale.

“For the most part, Catalan troops still lived and fought in a half-primitive state”

The importance – or should that be vanity – of principles is explored alongside the futility of war. The denouement is fitting but searing.

One element of the text that presented me with some difficulty was occasional dialogue that had not been translated into English. Perhaps readers are expected to know a smattering of French – my guess as to the language. I found this a snag in the flow of the story – a small niggle but one I raise as a reminder that not all of us are linguists.

A slow burner of a tale that nevertheless offers a window into a time period and place I knew nothing about previously. The lightness of the writing style belies the seriousness of topics presented. Stick with it for what becomes a lingering and satisfying read.

My copy of the book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum D’Estampa Press.

Book Review: Andrea Víctrix

andrea victrix

“The excess of information made it impossible to be reliably informed about anything and every citizen would have required the talents of a Sherlock Holmes to make out the truth from the chaos and misrepresentation on all sides.”

Andrea Víctrix, by Llorenç Villalonga (translated by P. Louise Johnson), was first published in Catalan in 1974. It is set in an imagined future, 2050, when Palma Mallorca has been renamed the Tourist Club of the Mediterranean – Turclub for short. The narrator of the story was in his sixties in 1965 when he opted to begin a cryo-cure. His doctor told him he would come round 85 years later looking 30 years younger. Unlike many, he survived the process but then had to face a world that had changed radically.

He discovers that the political and economic superpowers of old are gone. America and Russia annihilated each other – a mutual unleashing of their nuclear arsenals. The United States of Europe rose up in their wake, exterminating many of the remaining Asian nations. The State is all powerful.

Citizens are now forbidden to form families or have children. Procreation occurs in central facilities that produce only the types of people deemed necessary. Any form of emotional attachment is punished. Gender must never be referred to – this is now regarded as insulting. The ideal is to keep it ambiguous, sometimes achieved surgically. Drugs are available for any sensation desired.

“Our world was founded on the dissolution of the family and so it was essential that love became independent from sex and lost any connection with such an incredibly dangerous concept as intimacy.”

Life revolves around consumption and pleasure. Ubiquitous advertising berates those who do not have the latest fridges and vacuum cleaners, even though housing is mostly tiny, food requiring preservation scarce, and constant purchasing leads to permanent debt. Pleasure increasingly proves elusive, with moral and ethical standards subverted. Individual lives have no value. Consensual violence is rife.

“without sentiment, pleasure was so slight that it must necessarily lead to tedium and aberration.”

The story opens with the narrator, released only a few hours previously from the casket of his cryo-cure, travelling at speed in a car driven by Andrea Víctrix. He is shocked when she (he assumes Andrea is female but his choice of pronoun causes offense) deliberately collides with pedestrians and is then rewarded for doing so. To take his mind off his obvious discomfort, she gives him drugs.

The world he now views has become synthetic. Food is in short supply so is supplemented by chemically enhanced substances that are barely edible. People live with the cacophony of propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers and on radios they are required to buy.

“Secular propaganda is less scrupulous than its religious equivalent, and this is aggravated by the fact that those behind it know they have no absolute truths to draw on. Such knowledge ought to make them question everything like Socrates, but instead it makes them stubborn and disingenuous as Xanthippe. This is what we have come to know as practical sense and cunning.”

Requiring an income, the narrator enquires about employment. It is suggested he become a performer such as an acrobat or dancer. Entertaining others – giving pleasure – is regarded as a worthwhile calling. Daring feats are undertaken in front of an audience, often by young children made carefree by drugs. Death regularly results from such risk taking and nobody cares.

Unhappy with his prospects, the narrator recalls a recent visit made to a bath house. These offer sex or violence – the two often overlapping. He discovers that Andrea, the teenage Head of the Bureau of Pleasure, is a high class prostitute. Her job requires her to entertain wealthy tourists, to submit to whatever deviances they desire.

“Industrializing the masses and exciting them with heady, coarse pleasures, the panem et circenses of ancient Rome.”

Regular drug taking shortens lives but people are disposable. What is marketed as for the collective good underpins decision making and is seemingly accepted by the masses. The health of the economy is regarded as more important than the health of consumers, who can easily be replaced.

“This is why we encourage pleasure and debauchery, but without focusing on a particular person, and without making distinctions between the sexes.”

The world building and story telling appear secondary to the opinions the author weaves into the tale. While there are obvious flaws with the way Turclub is run, he points out the similarities with contemporary arguments for changes in what is regarded as acceptable. He has picked up recent adjustments to moral and ethical ideas and run with them to extreme.

The State places faith in scientific progress, where only a specialist few understand the intricacies and potential repercussions. This is likened to faith in geography. To explain, there is a belief that Greenland exists despite most never having been there. If taken to a frozen landmass, few would know how to use the instruments necessary to prove it was Greenland. People largely swallow what they are told if it is repeated often enough and supported by peers.

“Progress cannot be stopped”

Described as part essay, the portrayal of this dystopia and its citizens explores meaty issues. The author uses the story as a device for expanding his discourse on state coercion – how the public comes to accept what would once have been recognised and rejected as socially and individually damaging. The narrative can be shocking, the point being to raise awareness of the irony in what can come to appear normal, how opinions can be changed by indoctrination. The State survives only when its population acquiesces.

The writing style is engaging if didactic in places. Although published half a century ago, what is portrayed has proved prescient. It is pointed out that when those in power fall, what rises from the ashes may be no better.

A fascinating work of fiction that is both thought-provoking and disquieting. A reminder of the importance of critical thinking when considering widely promoted changes in attitude that are supposedly for the common good.