Book Review: Of Saints and Miracles

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“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.)

Book Review: Yesterday

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Yesterday, by Juan Emar (translated by Megan McDowell), tells the story of a day in the narrator’s life – the one before the day on which he is writing down what happened. It opens with the man and his wife rising at dawn that they may attend the beheading of Malleco, condemned by the church for spreading details of the secret of love – for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Tickets to Malleco’s execution are hard to come by, the macabre spectacle proving popular. Much of this first chapter is about how Malleco came to be sentenced to removal of his head. The remainder of the book focuses more keenly on the narrator’s activities and musings.

After Malleco’s gory death, the man and his wife visit the local zoo. This is one of the more surreal chapters. Monkeys sing and the couple join in; observed from the top of a tree, an ostrich swallows a lioness. If there are metaphors to be gleaned they remained opaque to this reader on first perusal.

Following lunch at a restaurant the narrator decides to visit a painter friend, Rubén de Loa, who works only with the colour green. I enjoyed this chapter for how it presented the conceits of art appreciation. There were still plenty of oddities in what was recounted – such as repeated silences of exactly fifteen minutes after which the same nondescript phrases would be uttered. Eventually the visitors study de Loa’s work, the narrator interpreting it based on his past experiences and finding a reflection of his life and philosophies therein. Before such thoughts can cause offence, they leave.

Next stop is a waiting room in which a pot-bellied man sits. The narrator ruminates on how the world changes as one’s mind wanders and time passes. Unable to find the serenity he seeks, he looks elsewhere but is still over-stimulated by minutiae. Exhausted by the direction his thoughts take him, the couple leave.

After a dinner taken at the same restaurant as earlier in the day, they visit the man’s family. Here they become embroiled in a foolish bet set up before they arrived. This leads the man to reflect on the causes of fear and the madness it may lead to – that it’s all in your head but still powerful.

“it is one thing to say that the dead can do nothing to me, directly, personally; it’s another thing, a very different thing, to say that I can do nothing to myself at night, when I am surrounded by the dead.”

“Why not be equally afraid when faced with that chair or that hat?”

I found the ponderings in this chapter of more interest than those woven around the pot-bellied man – although this did offer somewhat depressing nuggets on an individual’s wider value to society.

On leaving the family home, the couple walk through a rain shower before seeking shelter in a tavern. Here the narrator has an epiphany while urinating.

They make their way to their flat where the man, requesting solitude, reflects repeatedly on his day to a point verging on mania.

The detailed digressions, repetitions, observations and considerations wrapped around the bones of a plot set out here reminded me at times of the writing of Simon Okotie. The abstract nature of many of the musings brought to mind a literary Picasso. The wife, a companion throughout the day, remains an undefined shadow by the narrator’s side. There are passing references to: a disgust for all things gelatinous, war and death, a past lover. These appear influential yet remain unexplained. It is a reminder that however much of a day is recorded, there is always more happening – details sidelined.

In the introduction, Alejandro Zambra writes of the author, ‘it’s almost absurd to present Emar as a forgotten writer, since he has never been, so to speak, sufficiently remembered.’ There is much in this book to chew over and I know of many readers who will likely enjoy the challenge. I found it best to read a chapter at a time before pausing to digest and colour with my own interpretation.

An interesting exploration of what constitutes a personal reality that will likely benefit from rereading.

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

Book Review: The Others

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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.