Sarah Gerard’s novel Binary Star is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in January 2015. Her essay chapbook, Things I Told My Mother, was published by Von Zos this past fall. Other fiction, criticism and personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other journals. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra was my personal selection and occupies a special place on the longlist for me. I’m a real sucker for understatement and Pedro Mairal’s writing is just that: simple, happy to get out of the way for a story that’s elegant and peopled with vivid characters. Nonetheless, his descriptions of the setting and the titular artist’s work are precise, colorful, atmospheric and wholly relatable. At the risk of being reductive, the book is a very well-crafted mystery complete with a plot that deepens as it progresses. The risk that it takes is that it doesn’t seek to impress, doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s a small-town folk painter in a global art market.
Not long ago, a friend of mine who mostly writes poetry asked me for tips, as he was beginning to write stories. I told him to write into a hole: find what’s missing in a story and dive into it. The Missing Year exemplifies this perfectly. It opens with the death of the narrator’s mother, and proceeds then into the studio left behind by his long-deceased father. Once in the studio, we find the real engine of the story: the missing scroll. Miguel Salvatierra’s father, a mute, painted a scroll-per-year throughout his lifetime, each of which told the story of that year. One is missing – what happened? Who has it? What did it depict? The need for answers guides Miguel, drives him forward with a purpose, along the way shedding light on his father’s past, his own past, and the past of his community.
The book is constructed like Salvatierra’s scrolls; the chapters are kept brief, emphasizing their separateness. The story flows across from one to the next, like the movement of the Uruguay River bordering Salvatierra’s hometown of Barrancales, Argentina, and which flows through the scrolls, literalizing the flow of the story. But the story reverses as Miguel Salvatierra delves into his family’s past – like the movement of pages turning right to left – a reminder that the scrolls, too, tell a story that can be retraced. The opening scene takes place in a museum; the final scene takes place in the same museum, at an exhibition of work encircling a room, as the book’s structure encircles the plot.
The subtle sense of an onrushing, market-driven future creates a need to preserve what remains of the past. It’s a futile fight but one that’s motivated by love and loyalty as much as a reader’s desire to side with the underdog. Miguel Salvatierra’s story, that of a son wanting to honor the memory of his father, is one we know well, and that’s exactly why we like it. I don’t mean to make it sound like candy; Mairal writes it with passion and a deft hand. He knew he was appealing to archetype – it’s a strong backbone. So is the story of disappearing tradition, and nostalgia for one’s childhood, and a past that contains more secrets than you imagined.
New Vessel is a relatively new translation press, just founded in 2012 but already doing fantastic work. They did well to collaborate with Nick Caistor on The Missing Year, as Caistor has translated some 40 books from the Spanish and Portuguese – which also bodes well for Mairal. Caistor’s sentences in The Missing Year are sensory, but objective and concise, well-suited to the voice of Miguel Salvatierra. In the reading, The Missing Year is a pleasure, like walking down the main road of a remote village, observing its people in their day-to-day, unaware of the unstoppable advance of commercialism.
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