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 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.