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: 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.