“Un Amor” by Sara Mesa and Katie Whittemore [Excerpt]
Today’s #WITMonth post is an except from Un Amor by Sara Mesa and Katie Whittemore, coming out in October. This was the “book of the year” in Spain when it came out in 2o20, and was praised to the skies by all the major Spanish newspapers and media outlets. There’s even a film version coming out this fall directed by Isabel Coixet.
Here’s the jacket copy:
Subtly in the vein of Dogville or Coetzee’s Disgrace, and invoking the works of Agota Kristof, Un Amor probes ideas of language, alienation, and community through the eyes of a woman who, when brought into conflict, finds herself on the potential brink of deeper awareness of herself and her place in the world.
On the heels of a cryptic mistake, Nat arrives in La Escapa, an arid rural village in Spain’s interior. She settles into a small, shabby house with cheap rent to begin work on her first literary translation, with a skittish and ill-tempered dog—a gift from the boorish landlord—her only company.
Burdened with assumptions about country life, Nat will enter into relationships with the handful of local inhabitants—her negligent landlord, Píter the hippie, the dementia-afflicted Roberta, the young city family who comes on weekends, the unsociable man they call “The German”—from whom she appears to receive a customary welcome.
Mutual misunderstanding and a persistent sense of alienation, however, thrum below the surface. And when conflicts arise over repairs to the house, Nat receives an offer and makes a crucial decision.
In prose as taut and oppressive as the atmosphere in La Escapa, Un Amor extends Mesa’s exploration of language and power, confronting readers with the limits of their own morality as tensions mount and the community’s most unexpected impulses emerge.
This book—like so many of Mesa’s—is a slow burn, with tension increasing with every event, every turn of the page. The except below is from the first section of the book, setting the scene, introducing a few key characters, and creating the atmosphere of this part of rural Spain. Enjoy!
She’d be hard pressed to come up with a convincing answer if asked to explain what she was doing there. That’s why she hedges when the time comes, babbling about a change of scenery.
“People must think you’re crazy, right?”
The cashier smacks gum as she piles Nat’s shopping on the counter. It’s the only store in a few-mile radius, an unmarked establishment where foodstuffs and hygiene products accumulate in a jumble. Shopping there is expensive and the pickings are slim, but Nat is reluctant to take the car to Petacas. She rummages in her wallet and counts out the bills she needs.
The girl from the shop is in a chatty mood. Brazen, she asks Nat all about her life, flustering her. The girl wishes she could do what Nat’s done, but the opposite, she says. Move to Cárdenas, where stuff actually happens.
“Living here sucks. There aren’t even any guys!”
She tells Nat that she used to go to high school in Petacas, but she dropped out. She doesn’t like studying, she’s crap at every subject. Now she helps out in the shop. Her mom gets chronic migraines, and her dad also does some farming, so she lends a hand at the store. But as soon as she turns eighteen, she’s out of there. She could be a cashier in Cárdenas, or a nanny. She’s good with kids. The few kids who ever make it to La Escapa, she smiles.
“This place sucks,” she repeats.
It’s the girl who tells Nat about the people living in the surrounding houses and farms. She tells her about the gypsy family squatting in a dilapidated farmhouse, right near the ramp for the highway. A bus picks up the kids every morning; they’re the only kids who live in La Escapa year-round. And there’s the old couple in the yellow house. The woman is some kind of witch, the girl claims. She can predict the future and read your mind.
“She’s a little crazy, so it’s creepy,” the girl laughs.
She tells Nat about the hippie in the wooden house, and the guy they call “The German” even though he isn’t from Germany, and Gordo’s bar—though to call the storehouse where they serve up bottles of beer a bar is, she admits, a bit of an exaggeration. There are other people who come and go according to the rhythms of the countryside, dayworkers hired for two-week stints or just the day, but also whole families who have inherited houses they can’t manage to sell and who live somewhere else half the year. But you never see women on their own. Not women Nat’s age, she specifies.
“Old ladies don’t count.”
During the first days, Nat gets confused and mixes up all that information, partly because she’d listened absently, partly because she’s in unfamiliar territory. La Escapa’s borders are blurry, and even though there is a relatively compact cluster of small houses—where hers is located—other buildings are scattered farther off, some inhabited and others not. From the outside, Nat can’t tell whether they’re homes or barns, if there are people inside or just livestock. She loses her bearings on the dirt roads and if it weren’t for the shop—which sometimes feels more familiar to her than the house she’s rented and slept in for a week—as a point of reference, she’d feel lost. The area isn’t even very pretty, although at sunset, when the edges soften and the light turns golden, she finds a kind of beauty she can cling to.
Nat takes her grocery bags and says goodbye to the girl. But before she exits the shop, she turns back and asks about the landlord. Does the girl know him? The girl purses her lips, shakes her head slowly. No, not really, she says. He’s lived in Petacas for a long time.
“But I do remember seeing him around here when I was little. He always had a pack of dogs and a really bad temper. Then he got married, or got together with someone, and left. I guess his wife didn’t want to live in La Escapa—can’t blame her. This place is worse for girls. Even though Petacas is nothing special—I wouldn’t want to live there either, no way.”
She tries to play with the dog, tossing him an old ball she found in the woodpile. But instead of catching it and bringing it back, the dog limps away. When she crouches down next to him, putting herself on his level so he won’t be afraid, he skulks off with his tail between his legs. The dog is a piece of work, she thinks, a real rotter. Sieso, they’d call him in the part of Spain she comes from. It seems a good a name as any—after all, she has to call him something. It certainly describes his surly nature. But Sieso is as inscrutable as he is unsociable. He hangs around, but it’s like he wasn’t there at all. Why should she have to settle for a dog like that? Even the little dog in the shop, an extremely anxious Chihuahua mix, is much nicer. All the dogs she meets on the roads—and there are tons of them—run over when she calls. A lot of them are looking to be fed, of course, but also to be pet; they are nosy and curious, wanting to know who this new girl in the neighborhood is. Sieso doesn’t even seem interested in eating. If she feeds him, great, and if not, that’s fine too. The landlord wasn’t kidding: the animal’s upkeep is cheap. Sometimes Nat is ashamed of the aversion she feels toward the animal. She asked for a dog and here he is. Now she cannot—must not—say—or even think—that she doesn’t want him.
One morning at the shop, she meets the hippie, as the girl called him. Now she languidly waits on them both, smoking a cigarette with no sense of urgency. The hippie is a little older than Nat, though he can’t be more than forty. Tall and strong, his skin is weathered by the sun, his hands broad and cracked, his eyes hard but placid. He wears his hair long in a terrible cut and his beard is on the reddish side. Why the girl calls him “hippie” is something Nat can only guess. Maybe it’s his long hair or because he is someone who, like Nat, comes from the city, a stranger, something incomprehensible for anyone who has lived in La Escapa since childhood and can only think of getting away. The truth is, the hippie has lived there a long time. He is, therefore, nothing novel, not like Nat. She observes him from the corner of her eye, his efficient movements, concise and confident. As she waits her turn, she pats the back of the dog he has brought with him. She’s a chocolate Labrador, old but undeniably elegant. The dog wags her tail and noses Nat’s crotch. The three of them laugh.
“What a good girl,” Nat says.
The hippie nods and holds out his hand. Then he changes his mind, withdraws it and moves in to kiss her. Just one kiss on the cheek, which causes Nat to remain with her face tilted, waiting for the second kiss that doesn’t come. He tells her his name: Píter. With an i, he specifies: P-í-t-e-r. At least that’s how he likes to spell it, except when he’s forced to write it officially. The less one writes one’s real name, the better, he jokes. It’s only good for signing checks at the bank, for those thieves.
“Natalia,” she introduces herself.
Then comes the obligatory question: what is she doing in La Escapa? He’s seen her out on the trails and also saw her tidying up the area around the house. Is she going to live there? Alone? Nat feels awkward. She would prefer that nobody watch her while she works, especially without her knowledge, which is inevitable because the boundaries of the property are marked only by fine wire mesh, denuded of vegetation. She tells him she’s only staying a couple of months.
“I’ve seen the dog, too. You got him here, right?”
“How do you know?”
Píter confesses that he knows the animal. One of the landlord’s many. That dog, in fact, is probably the worst of the lot. Her landlord will pick them up wherever, doesn’t train them, doesn’t vaccinate them, doesn’t care for them in the slightest. He uses, then abandons, them. Did she ask for the dog? She can be sure the landlord has given her the most useless one he had.
Nat considers this and the man suggests she give the dog back. There’s no reason to settle if he isn’t what she wanted. The landlord isn’t a good guy, he says, she’s better off keeping her distance. He doesn’t like to speak badly of anyone, he insists, but the landlord is another matter. Always thinking about how to scam people.
“I can get you a dog if you want.”
The conversation leaves Nat uneasy. Sitting on her doorstep with a lukewarm bottle of beer—the fridge, too, is on the fritz—she watches Sieso sleeping beside the fence, stretched out in the sunshine. The flies loiter on his slightly swollen belly, where the marks of old wounds are visible.
The thought of returning him is deeply unsettling.
She is surprised by the activity in Petacas. It takes her a while to find parking; the layout of the roads is so chaotic and the signage so contradictory that once you enter the town, an unexpected detour can easily take you right out of it again. The houses are modest, their façades worse for the wear and mostly plain, but there are brick buildings, too, up to six stories tall, distributed arbitrarily here and there. The businesses are clustered around the main square; the town hall—an ostentatious building with large eaves and stained-glass windows—is surrounded by small bars and Chinese-owned bazaars. Nat buys a small fan at one of them. Then she wanders in search of a hardware store, reluctant to ask for directions. She is struck by the neglected appearance of the women, who have left the house with unkempt hair and slip-on sandals. Many of the men—even the old ones—are in sleeveless shirts. The few children she sees are unsupervised, licking popsicles, scampering, rolling on the ground. The people—men, women, kids—all of whom are loud and sloppy, look strangely alike. Inbreeding, Nat thinks. Her landlord is a perfect fit.
She worries about running into him, but it’s Píter, not the landlord, whom she meets in the hardware store. She is happy to see him: someone she knows, someone friendly, someone smiling at her at last, coming over, what are you doing here, he asks. Nat shows him the box with the fan and he scowls. Why didn’t she ask the landlord? It’s his responsibility to keep the property in habitable condition. Not air conditioning, obviously, but a fan at least.
“Or you could have asked me. That’s what neighbors are for.”
Nat looks for an excuse. She’s happy to buy one, she says. She’ll take it with her when she leaves La Escape. Píter looks at her askance, pretending not to believe her.
“And what are you buying here? Tools to fix everything he left broken?”
Nat shakes her head.
“No. Stuff for the garden.”
“You’re planting a garden?”
“Well, just something basic . . . Peppers and eggplants, they’re easy, I guess. I want to try, at least.”
Píter takes her by the arm, steps closer.
“Don’t buy anything,” he whispers.
He tells her that he can lend her all the tools she needs. He says, too, that she might as well forget about a garden. Nothing’s grown on her land in years; the soil is totally depleted; it would take days and days of hard work to get it into shape. If she insists—Nat hangs on that word, insists—he could lend her a hand, but he absolutely advises against it. Although he speaks smoothly, Píter’s voice contains indisputable sureness, an expert’s confidence. Nat nods, waits for him to finish his shopping. Cables, adaptors, screws, a pair of pliers: all very professional, very specific, nothing at all like the indefiniteness in which she operates.
Outside, Píter walks beside her at an athletic pace, straight but flexible. His way of moving is so elegant, so different from the people around them, that Nat is proud to be walking next to him, the sort of pride associated with feeling legitimate. The spell breaks when he points to the windows at the town hall.
“Pretty, aren’t they? I made them.”
Nat thinks the windows clash terribly with the building’s exposed brick, but she is all praise: they suit it perfectly, she says. Píter looks at her appreciatively. Precisely, he says, that’s what he seeks, for his work to befit its context.
“Petacas isn’t the nicest place in the world, but—to the extent possible—one should strive to beautify one’s surroundings, don’t you think?”
“So, you’re a . . .” Nat doesn’t know what you call a person who makes stained-glass windows.
“A glazier? Yes. Well, more than a glazier. A glass and color artisan, you might say. Like, I don’t just cover windows.”
“Of course.” Nat smiles.
They have a beer in one of the bars on the square. The beer is ice-cold and goes down easy. Píter observes her closely—too closely, she thinks—but his eyes are sweet and that softens her discomfort. The conversation returns to the landlord—that cheeky bastard, he repeats—the tools and her barren plot. He insists on lending her what she needs. Just a matter of tidying the yard, clearing space for a table and some lawn chairs, then planting a few oleander and yucca, or some succulents suitable for the harsh climate. There’s a huge nursery near Petacas, very cheap. If she wants, one day they can go together. It seems her plans for a vegetable garden have been scrapped. She doesn’t mention them again.