Book Review: Of Saints and Miracles

Of-Saints-and-Miracles

“Everything is happening at this moment and it’s all of equal importance, the only difference being who is telling the story and why.”

Of Saints and Miracles, by Manuel Astur (translated by Claire Wadie), is the first book to be published by the newly rebranded Peirene Press. It tells the story of Marcelino, a farmer who lives alone near the village of Cobre in the Asturias, where he was born and raised. He works the land inherited from his late parents, his younger brother having moved to the city. As a child, Marcelino was regularly beaten by his drunken father. He was abused by the local priest. All his life he has been considered an imbecile, loved only by his mother who was rumoured to be a witch.

The tale opens with a confrontation between the brothers that ends with Marcelino’s brother bleeding into the sawdust outside their farmhouse, which the brother planned to sell to clear his debts. When the body subsequently disappears, Marcelino realises he is in danger. He packs some food and a few belongings before heading into the mountains, seeking refuge at the abandoned village where his mother once lived. The residents of Cobre are galvanised by what has happened and set out to hunt the runaway down that justice may be served.

The timeline of the story moves back and forth between key events in Marcelino’s childhood and his current predicament. There are many disturbing incidents, including wanton abuse and bestiality. There are also sections that offer a view of the wider picture – of the village, its residents, and the area. These provide a reminder that stories can develop along unexpected trajectories. Woven in amongst the myriad challenges faced by Marcelino are local myths and legends. His tale will, in time, be added to these.

“He explained the past, on hearing which she began to miss what never was. He explained the future, at which she began to desire what could never be. And lastly, he explained the present, which made her feel trapped in a tiny space”

Although a well paced and engaging story, what raises the bar of this short novel is the beauty of the language used to construct the narrative. There is an ethereal feel to the sense of place evoked, despite the horror of many of the character’s behaviour. Marcelino seeks an Old World but cannot prevent the New World encroaching on the idyll he has tried to retain, if it ever existed.

The tangential threads add colour and, at times, humour. Marcelino, though, cuts quite a tragic figure. Even when his situation becomes known more widely, with supporters gathering to offer their hero solidarity, it is the cultish figure they revere rather than the reality of a man who has always struggled in the company of his cruel peers.

A beguiling and beautifully written story of a place that is ever changing yet, in many ways, retains its spirit. A reminder that life goes on, even after death.

“Men learn as egoists learn. When they suffer, it’s because they think they could have avoided it.
But there are always women, resisting, holding on, slowly chewing over their grief … Because a woman watches over a dying man knowing, like all women, that the real miracle is the giving of life, and so understands that it should end simply, without any fuss.
Death is never heroic. Life can be, but not death.”

(My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene.)