Why This Book Should Win – "Paris" by Guest Critic Chad W. Post
Paris – Marcos Giralt Torrente, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Spain, Hispabooks
1. Marcos Giralt Torrente is a literary descendent of Javier Marías. Similar to a Marías novel, the plot of Paris advances by one step forward, two steps sideways. The prose is interior, probing, less concerned with moving from point A to point B, as to recreating the thought process of the narrator, in this case a man describing his youth, his relationship to his mother and father, and his mom’s dark secret. This isn’t to say Torrente is Marías 2.0 or as good as Marías, only that Marías’s way of seeing the world and relating this vision in fiction has been passed on—and that’s a solid reason for why Torrente should win the BTBA: he’s continuing a great literary tradition.
2. All the stuff about memory makes for a hazy, wonderful book. The subject matter—remembering his youth, his relationship to his mother—provides the narrator with ample opportunities to reflect on the nature of memory and how the workings of memory influence the way he’s telling his story. This tie between form and content makes me happy.
I remember the days that followed in the confused and disorderly way in which we always remember past events that time has done nothing to clarify. How else can I judge them except under the influence of the profound feeling of disquiet that filled me and kept me hovering between suspicion and trust, between sudden anger and tormented remorse, between an urgent, searing need to know and a proud refusal to ask the one person who had the answers to my questions, between rage at my own ensuing sense of impotence and complete sympathy for my mother’s situation, regardless of what she might have done, and regardless of whether she had or had not been honest when she told me about it later on?
3. The long, winding sentences make you slow your reading down. I love books that you can whip right through, turning pages as fast as your eye-brain can process the words, but there’s something useful and charming about books that force you to pause and have to think about sentences. Not every sentence written has to be a cinematic description of what’s happening. (Which tend to be sentences you can read really fast.) There is a benefit to prose that unfolds in a way that follows the labyrinthine way a mind processes ideas and emotions. (Which tend to be sentences you have to let sink in and/or reread.) These are the sort of books that tend to win awards—the ones you mull instead of digest.
4. The one definitive crime by the narrator’s father that we’re told that about is pretty fun. This isn’t too much of a spoiler, but the narrator’s father is absent for most of the book because he’s either in jail, or flitting about running unsuccessful scams. What we’re told about his is vague, often tangential, and generally revolves around how awful he is at remaining solvent. He hangs out with lowlifes, borrows money that he can’t repay from people he probably shouldn’t, vanishes for long periods of time, and is a constant liar. The one fraud that’s articulated in the book involves the narrator’s father teaming up with others for a bank scam in which they borrow money for a faux-business then split, knowing they’ll never pay back the loan. Most of the conspirators leave the country, but not the narrator’s dad, who instead is arrested in his home . . . when he provides the police with his fake ID.
For when the police burst into the apartment demanding to see everyone’s papers, they knew who they were looking for, but not his real name. They were hoping to arrest one Antonio José Domenech, and that was the name on the identity card that my father instinctively produced instead of his own. By presenting his false ID instead of his real one, he thus contributed to his own arrest. It’s hard to know what would have happened had he presented his genuine ID, but, according to my mother, the memory of that fatal error was enought to make the next two years of his life even more bitter.
5. This is translated by Dame Margaret Jull Costa, which is reason enough to give it the prize. Costa doesn’t get involved with mediocre projects. And she’s one of the best translators working today. (Which is saying a lot, since there are so many great translators of Spanish.) All of the quotes above demonstrate how beautifully this book is written and translated, how the prose meanders, speeds up and slows down, changing directions through repetitions, all of which is mighty hard to imagine translating . . . I’ll leave off here with one other example of Marcos Giralt Torrente’s prose in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation that stood out to me:
Time passes, and memories grow hazy, and what never dies loses intensity and inevitably, in hindsight, seems less important than it was. There are no answers to the unresolved unknowns, apart from those I myself can offer, but I shouldn’t complain. No word can change the past, and no word is the right word if you say it when what it describes is the past and not the present. In the present, there are no words. Words come later, and then we all use them in the same way, we can all describe things and give our opinions even though what we are describing and giving our opinions about is not ours, even though it never happened to us. We don’t need someone to spell out what we can only guess at, because we can never be sure that what he or she is telling us is the whole thing or only part of it, and our doubts will remain unassuaged.