4 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments



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.

20 March 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P. T. Smith on The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, and published by Hispabooks Publishing.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how a book that should have been called The History of Silence never came to be written. Although common, failure is not easy to explain.” I prepared for a self-aware, post-modern, and concept-heavy work. While Zarraluki never abandons his exploration of silence, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The narrator and Irene dive into the philosophies of silence, into religious ideas, into odd experiments with it, but this is a novel about relationships, about complicated, emotional, thoughtful, sexual people. Zarraluki creates whole, original characters in the brush of a couple sentences, builds their relationships with the others, and then plays out all the shades of those human interactions. It’s in the midst of that, of what people say and don’t say to each other, in the way things are said and the silence behind words, that the history of silence is uncovered.

When the pair are focused on their work of silence, they experiment and run tests—they try to not speak to each other for a week; Irene collects photos of loud events and posts them all over the apartment, till it drives their housekeeper to panic at the intensity of them. They push the boundaries of silence as they and their friends push the boundaries of relationships. The History of Silence begins in the intimacy of a single couple, moves to the intimacy that couple shares with their group of friends, and from there to the individual lines between each and every one in the group. It isn’t elaborate, it isn’t a complicated step-by-step move around the group, but a work of finesse.

Go here for the rest of the review.

20 March 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how a book that should have been called The History of Silence never came to be written. Although common, failure is not easy to explain.” I prepared for a self-aware, post-modern, and concept-heavy work. While Zarraluki never abandons his exploration of silence, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The narrator and Irene dive into the philosophies of silence, into religious ideas, into odd experiments with it, but this is a novel about relationships, about complicated, emotional, thoughtful, sexual people. Zarraluki creates whole, original characters in the brush of a couple sentences, builds their relationships with the others, and then plays out all the shades of those human interactions. It’s in the midst of that, of what people say and don’t say to each other, in the way things are said and the silence behind words, that the history of silence is uncovered.

When the pair are focused on their work of silence, they experiment and run tests—they try to not speak to each other for a week; Irene collects photos of loud events and posts them all over the apartment, till it drives their housekeeper to panic at the intensity of them. They push the boundaries of silence as they and their friends push the boundaries of relationships. The History of Silence begins in the intimacy of a single couple, moves to the intimacy that couple shares with their group of friends, and from there to the individual lines between each and every one in the group. It isn’t elaborate, it isn’t a complicated step-by-step move around the group, but a work of finesse.

Zarraluki crafts these unique people and relationships by making them just a little odd, without dodging off into the quirky, playful ground. When we meet François and Silvia, the closest friends of Irene and the unnamed narrator, we find: “Another of their habits (a result of their first) was never to arrive together. They preferred to bump into one another, in an eternal re-enactment of their first meeting in that bygone Paris café.” From there, I understand something of them, and start to glimpse the outline of what I don’t know. Even more, from all these perceptive insights into those the narrator cares about, I see that for all he hardly speaks to them, how intimate he is with each of them. His observations are trustworthy, it seems, but there are still lines to be read between, and his flaws, his desire to ignore what he does not want to see, threaten the group, and our trust in him.

This is a book of one great strength: Zarraluki’s breaths of life into his characters, and their relationships, the way one relationship brings one side of a person to dominance while another brings out a different side. This isn’t appreciative of just the way that relationships change and change people, but of the specific vitality of an individual. Of their friend Olga, our narrator says: “She never spoke to more than one person at a time. She used to say that small talk drove her crazy, and she was only interested in people’s secrets.” Part of what makes this group of friends so enjoyable to spend time with is how well they all know each other, and the way they use that to care, even in slight ways, as when Irene displays an unneeded gift because “Silvia got depressed when she bought people the wrong presents.”

Likeable characters can be overrated, but so can unlikeable ones. I imagine that if after finishing History of Silence, a dozen readers were asked to rank characters most likeable to least, those lists would be varied. Those readers likely wouldn’t have the same list at the end of the novel as halfway through. At the same time as we’re getting to know them, Zarraluki puts them through the strains of life. There are events out of their control that change them, as their reactions to those events also do, and they all necessarily react differently, which comes with its own consequences. Any time one member of the group enters a new phase of his personality, it triggers others: in and through relationships, individuals grow into someone slightly altered, and the hope is that those relationships can live in the change.

For the most part, the narrator does not pay specific attention to these changes; there are not moments of pure telling. It is aesthetically graceful, while also one of the silences of the book. Thought it isn’t what dominates the narrator’s and wife’s research, the silences between people are the silences that dominate History of Silence, for health and for pain. They exist in passing moments, in quiet, emotional moments: “Motionless (the inevitable stupid grin on my lips), I thought that one day I might learn to banish my obsessions, or make them real, or at least conceal them from others.” It’s that “inevitably stupid grin” that makes him so necessarily silent, a breath held between two people, before anything else can happen.

Eventually, the silences between the friends, between partners, becomes a betrayal, and the breaking of that silence is something that threatens to destroy the lives they have built. The unsaid preserves relationships and it harms them; Zarraluki’s book unfolds both of those routes, and which one a silence will be, preservational or harmful, is uncertain till it breaks. Along the way it can be one or the other; it can even switch from time to time until the end. The History of Silence does this one thing, this rich manifestation of these people’s lives so well, so beautifully, and in so few pages. It feels as if every aspect of relationships are explored, including one that so many books falter at: sex, sexuality. The History of Silence is one of the most sensual, intimate books I’ve read. The sex is physical, can be simple and rough, it is passionate, but it is also caring, messy, and kind. Let that be a synecdoche for everything else that Zarraluki does with his characters.

7 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of José Ovejero’s Nothing Ever Happens lies in its five protagonists (the chapters are titled with the names of the characters; almost everyone gets two chapters to his or her name). Carmela, an excessively independent woman, and her husband Nico, a too gentle man respectively, lead a quiet and comfortable life of middle-class marriage, full of almost imperceptible silences. But the secret of Olivia, their Ecuadorian immigrant housekeeper, could bring down the appearance of normality. Especially with the potential involvement of Claudio, a gifted boy of convoluted ideas who has fun in revealing what is hidden.

As we enter into Nothing Ever Happens, we will find the secrets, sins, and fears of the young couple and Olivia, as well as the activities of Claudio, who, while denouncing the hypocritical vision of an established society order, is not a model of behavior. And Julián, the gardener, who tries to profit from Olivia through the debt she has contracted with him for his help.

Nothing Ever Happens is a humorous book at times, and at times tragic. In it, José Ovejero unfolds his narrative arts (along with the masks of his characters), playing with the idea of “Nothing ever happens around here . . . Or does it?” to dismantle the mechanisms of our good conscience, and to show the underlying conflicts and tensions in a world where appearances rule over reality.

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