Ana María Matute and the Shadow Children [A Month of a Thousand Forests]
Next up in our Month of a Thousand Forests series is Ana María Matute who has one book already available in English—School of the Sun, which was translated by Elaine Kerrigan and published by Columbia University Press.
The piece that’s excerpted below is from Olvidado Rey Gudú which is “the book I wanted to write ever since I was a girl, all of my obsessions are in it.” According to Valerie Miles, this is “one of her most celebrated novels that, along with La torre vigía and Aranmanoth, make up a trilogy about a medieval court.
Unfortunately, Matute passed away in June, but left behind a huge catalog of works, including novels, short stories, books for children, and a few collections of articles. Given how many prizes she won over her lifetime, hopefully someone will bring out a few of these.
__And just as a reminder, all this month, if you order_ A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
You refer to your generation as the “shadow children” and you explain how important fairy tales were for them, and the phrase “once upon a time.” You started out writing social realism but over time you’ve shifted to the fantasy novel. Why?
Some women began to make significant inroads in literature in the postwar era. Carmen Laforet was the first, and although I’m often included in the same generation as her and Cela, she was older—I’m from the generation of the fifties. But it’s not entirely true to say that I’ve switched from realism to fantasy. It is, but not entirely. My intended style of writing forms part of the magic, you understand, of the magic of literature, of literature as invention. So that has always existed in my books and stories. But you have to take into account the time in which I had to live and develop as a writer. It was the Francoist era. First, when I was eleven years old the civil war broke out right in front of me and after I was fourteen, in my adolescence, I lived through a very long postwar period. And that left a mark on all of us, marked us decisively. This explains why I had to find a lung to breathe and to fight this man and his system. Pequeño tentro or Primaria memoria are realist, but not entirely. There is always a more poetic part. I think that social realism really killed Spanish literature for a while and I wanted to get away from it. I didn’t renounce my rebelliousness or my strong social criticism by writing literature instead of social reporting. I haven’t limited myself to telling, to narrating. I imagine. I invent. In any case, I have traveled a lot and I’ve seen how women are treated in the world and I’ve come to the realization that it’s not solely the heritage of Spain. But in a country like ours and at that time there were strong inherited prejudices.
_Did this generation of “shadow children” lose their innocence because of what they
saw so young?_
I’ve known many people for whom it’s not that they’ve lost it, it’s that they never had it. But childhood is something that’s never lost. Childhood leaves a mark. I’ve often stressed that childhood, the boy or girl that we were, is something we have inside forever and it’s a very rich place for imagination and invention.
Ondina of the Depths of the Lake had lived in the loveliest spot in the Lake of Disappearances for four-hundred-and-thirty years. Ondina was extraordinarily beautiful: smooth floating hair the color of seaweed coming down to her waist, large eyes ranging from the softest gold to dark green, as changeable as the light, and bluish-white skin. Her arms waved slowly between the deep roots of the plants, and her legs moved like the fins of a carp. A steady and shining smile, which transitioned from the pearlescent white of a shell to the liquid pink of a sunrise, floated across her lips. Any human would have felt a captivating desire to study her in all of her details—with the exception of her ears, which, like all of her kind, were long and pointed at the tips, although of a soft color between rose and gold.
Despite being the granddaughter of the Great Lady of the Lake, she did not possess a shred of her wisdom, not even a speck of the slightest intelligence—as often happens with water nymphs. On the contrary, she was so sweet and gentle, and exuded such innocence, that her profound stupidity could very well be mistaken for more poignant charm and enchantment. Like all water nymphs, she was exceedingly capricious, and her great whimsy was her Collection at the Bottom, where she had cultivated her garden of Intricate Greens with care. Ondina’s collection consisted of an already considerable display of men, young and handsome, between fourteen and twenty years of age. She liked them so much that she would often drag them to the bottom, and there she preserved them, rosy and unharmed, thanks to the sap of the maraubina plant that grows once every three thousand years among the wellsprings. But soon she grew tired of them, and however much she adorned them with flowers from the lake and crowned their heads with all sorts of glittering stones, and caressed their hair, and kissed their cold lips, they said and did nothing; and so she always needed more and more young men to distract her with variety.
Every so often, cautiously approaching the shores of the Lake, she had seen how young peasant couples caressed and kissed one another, and it filled her with envy. She had confessed as much on more than one occasion to the goblins, who, out of pity, sometimes pushed men to the bottom. Among them was the Goblin of the South, to whom she had confided her wayward obsession. “This is foolishness,” the goblins told her. “Choose a dolphin from those that roam the Southern coasts to take as your husband and stop this. Considering your youth, you can be forgiven, but tread carefully so your grandmother doesn’t find out: she doesn’t tolerate human contamination, and you can only play safely with the drowned.” “That’s what I’ll do,” she said then, contritely. “I promise not to forget.” But since she was stupid to the most remote depths of her being, she not only forgot, but persisted in her foolish desire to receive caresses and kisses from a living man. “But what for?” the Goblin of the South asked her, who, after his libations had given him his post in the Castle, the Northern region of which grazed the waters of the rising Lake, had long conversations with her. “I see no reason.” “Nor do I,” responded Ondina. “I see no reason, but so it is.”
This was the state of things when the Goblin opportunely remembered about her, her naïve nature and her foolish whimsy. This is how water nymphs were, it was said. He had met another, in the South, who had taken a fancy to donkeys, and also another, farther East, who had a penchant for red-bearded soldiers. Anything could be expected from a water nymph, except common sense.
(Translated by Lisa Boscov-Ellen)