Some time ago I read this phrase: “The page is the only place in the universe God left blank for me.”
Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full ones. It’s a novel where the things that are left out are just as important as the pieces we’re given. Through a series of vignette-like chapters which are set, unlike most contemporary Argentine novels, outside of the scope of Buenos Aires, Mairal shows us what life is like in the parts of the country that don’t get as much attention. Life in the small village of Barrancales centers around sneaking things across the Uruguayan border, fishing on the bank of the river, and crazy old men whose shotguns have been rigged so they can’t actually shoot innocent passersby. There’s also an old shed that’s been locked and abandoned for years, protecting sixty canvas scrolls from the weather.
It’s these scrolls the protagonist, Miguel, is after when he returns to the village following the death of his parents. That’s when he unearths the life work of his late father, Juan Salvatierra: a continuous mural that begins shortly after the accident that rendered the artist mute and carries on until just days before his death. The sequence—dreamlike, beautiful, at times laden with artistic metaphor, speaks about what Salvatierra himself couldn’t:
I think he saw his work as something too personal, a kind of intimate diary, an illustrated autobiography. Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story. To recount his own experience in one never-ending mural. He was content with painting his own life, he had no need to show it. For him, living his life was to paint it.
What Miguel and his brother don’t find among the scrolls in the shed is one of a painting, which seems to have been stolen. Miguel has reason to believe that this particular scroll was the same one he vaguely remembers being slashed by one of his father’s friends during a whiskey-fueled, though otherwise inexplicable, duel. As it turns out, Salvatierra’s “missing year” was a little more intriguing than anyone wants to expect of their docile, artistic father.
Mairal’s prose, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, reflects the missing painting: honest, powerful, haunting. In a mere 116 pages, the reader confronts the truth and mystery of the things that we leave behind. The novel seems to rely on the principle of omission—Mairal doesn’t so much tell his readers everything as he does leave them wondering.
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is ultimately satisfying despite its loose ends, beautiful despite its sometimes ugly themes.
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