28 jun. 2017

Joan Miró - A Children's Book on the Catalan Master of Surrealism

Lletra Impresa, the Gandia-based publisher of Josep Bertomeu's Capvespre, has recently published my English translation of Joan Miró, within the series The Inquisitive Prince/El Príncep preguntador. A little book for children on Miró's art, it is the joint effort of authors Irene Verdú and Maria Martínez, with vivid illustrations and artwork by Noèlia Conca.

The book is available in four languages: Catalan, Spanish, English and German. An excellent little gift to introduce children to modern art and the life of a most renowned surrealist painter, a universal Catalan artist.

25 jun. 2017

Vicenç Villatoro's Moon River: A Review

Vicenç Villatoro, Moon River (Barcelona: Columna, 2011). 182 pages.
I feel I have an ambivalent attitude towards hospitals. It is the kind of place where you usually welcome the most cherished new life into the world. It was at a hospital that I first held my firstborn, my beloved daughter; yet there are also the memories of the place where many decades ago I saw my grandmother enduring the completely undeserved indignity of having her leg amputated a couple of days before she passed away.

The story of Villatoro’s Moon River takes place almost completely at a hospital in Barcelona. The day is the 11th of September – TV sets everywhere keep showing the footage of two New York twin towers falling over in pieces, while in the Barcelonan streets enthusiastic youths march with flags wrapped around their shoulders and backs. The protagonists are two: one is a middle-aged writer, Pere, who has been feeling under the weather and goes to the emergency ward at the Hospital Clínic to get some tests done. While waiting for the results he meets Maria.

Maria is also awaiting results. She has recently returned from a trip to Africa, and her symptoms have been baffling the doctors. It’s either some recurring form of cancer or a tropical disease. They start talking, and over the next twenty-four hours, an unexpected empathy develops between total strangers, who are very much alone. The reader can easily conclude that they both feel terribly lonely, something that is par for the course in big cities.

The plot is minimal: apart from strolls through corridors and lucid discussions while sitting together on benches, plus a charming scene in which the two engage in a dance to the tune of Henry Mancini’s song, very little actually happens in Moon River.

What matters is the words and the glances (and let’s not forget the ever-meaningful yet unfathomable silences that accompany the words unspoken by eyes) they share on every single aspect of human life. The issues are many: the proximity of unavoidable death, the imperishableness of human deeds on earth, religiosity, beliefs and superstition, the feelings of guilt derived from our wrongdoings.

Moon River is narrated in the first person, and there is little doubt that the narrator is partly inspired by the experiences of Villatoro himself, who in the acknowledgements makes mention of the many doctors and nursing staff at various hospitals where he was well looked after.

A place as good as any to start a new life...or to finish a spent one. Photograph by Jordi Ferrer..
As you can presume from the cover, Moon River was marketed as “a novel about love and the fear of losing it”; despite Pere’s seemingly unconquerable pessimism, it is indeed a book about love – perhaps more about the love for life than the romantic love the photograph appears to hint at. While not an extraordinary book, Moon River is mostly an entertaining read. Villatoro repeats some sentences way too many times: it is difficult for the reader not to begrudge a narrator who keeps admitting “I didn’t know what to say”. Leaving such minor flaws aside, it turns out to be an intimate, introspective account of a fictional encounter, one endowed with enough verisimilitude nonetheless.

20 jun. 2017

Reseña: The Snow Kimono, de Mark Henshaw

Mark Henshaw, The Snow Kimono (Melbourne: Text, 2014). 396 páginas.
El inspector Auguste Jovert, comisario ya jubilado de la policía parisina, recibe unos 40 años después de su estancia en Argelia (donde dirigió la Unidad de Operaciones Especiales – operaciones tan especiales que incluían la tortura) una carta que contiene la fotografía de una joven. La remitente dice ser su hija.

La noticia, lógicamente, le produce una cierta conmoción. ¿Quién iba a pensar que su vejez iba a depararle tamaña sorpresa? Además, y para más inri, Jovert sufre un accidente que le obliga a usar muletas primero, y posteriormente un bastón. En esa tesitura se encuentra cuando conoce a un vecino. Se trata del profesor de derecho (también jubilado) Tadashi Omura, prestigioso abogado y docente de la Universidad Imperial de Tokio. Para su solaz, Jovert podrá ahora departir con el ilustre letrado nipón. Las suyas son interesantes conversaciones: ambos tienen mucho que confesar, mucho de lo que sentirse apesadumbrados, si no arrepentidos.

The Snow Kimono se compone de 9 partes. Unas se centran en el pasado de Jovert, quien debido a su trabajo conoce al dedillo los escenarios más habituales del crimen y la desgracia. No es de extrañar que Omura le cautive con sus relatos. En especial, cuando el viejo profesor empieza a hablarle de un enigmático amigo suyo, Katsuo Ikeda, un escritor famoso en Japón, un hombre disoluto  que carece de pauta moral alguna. Para llevar a cabo sus conquistas amorosas, Katsuo no duda en usar el nombre de su amigo Omura. En la universidad, urde una trampa para ridiculizar y humillar a su mentor, el Profesor Todo; este episodio recuerda en gran medida al gran engaño de las letras australianas de finales de la década de los 40, Ern Malley.

En The Snow Kimono, Henshaw efectúa un experto estudio sobre la naturaleza engañosa de cualquier documento: lo real ataviado de los ropajes de la ficción, o la ficción disfrazada de autenticidad. Hay numerosas referencias intertextuales que no parecen ser gratuitas. Hay también un erotismo muy estilizado, dentro de lo que parece ser una típica trama de novela de misterio. Pero es mucho más que eso. El misterio es y será por qué hasta 32 editoriales norteamericanas (sí, has leído bien: 32) rechazaron esta obra de Henshaw, que finalmente, tras su publicación, fue premiada con el NSW Premier’s Literary Award, que lleva el nombre de Christina Stead en su vertiente de ficción.

La narración es una seducción constante, tanto por los elementos de la trama como por el lenguaje, detallado y gentil: un entramado literario magistralmente diseñado para cautivar al lector, atrapar su deseo y curiosidad y llevarlo absorto hacia adelante, capítulo tras capítulo, de París a Japón, de Japón a Argelia y de vuelta a París, por un sutil laberinto literario deliberadamente engañoso, hasta la conclusión, con un desenlace tan inesperado y sorprendente que es difícil no rendirse con admiración hacia el autor.

Una hora más o menos después del amanecer, doblamos una curva en la carretera y de pronto, desplegada por debajo nuestro, está Osaka. La ciudad se derrama por las laderas de la montaña hacia la bahía, que reposa inmóvil bajo la neblina de primera hora de la mañana. Más al sur, a lo largo de la costa, resulta imposible ver dónde termina la ciudad. Se disuelve en un lejano horizonte gris e indeterminado. (p. 191, mi traducción)
Los temas de la amistad, la traición, la pérdida de seres amados, la melancolía y la depresión, la separación, la crueldad… todos temas inherentes a la condición humana, a lo que nos hace vulnerables al tiempo que nos empuja a realizar actos de puro arrojo cotidiano. Rara vez se encuentra uno con un libro de la calidad de The Snow Kimono. Esperemos que encuentre un hueco en las editoriales que publican en castellano o en catalán. Lo merece, sin duda.

15 jun. 2017

Care Santos's Diamant blau: A Review

Care Santos, Diamant blau (Barcelona: Columna, 2016). 433 pages.
Researching your family history is a hugely popular hobby in Australia. Most descendants of European settlers can only look back at a 200-year-old history in Australia, and some (or, rather, very few) are able to precisely retrace their origins beyond the local records to European roots. Whether our ancestors remain somehow present in us or not is certainly debatable; yet writing about them certainly amounts to remembering something that may have not occurred at all.

Creating a family saga out of one’s own family is a risky literary proposition, and Care Santos gets away with it in Diamant blau. But only just. The family are the Pujolars (the patriarch drops the ‘r’ from the name after he decides to move the family from Olot to Mataró). The story spans two centuries, from the early 1700s to the decade just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The narrative is at times somewhat chaotic rather than fragmentary, as it takes leaps forwards and backwards through time without much of an obvious order to it.

This old church in Olot has seen more history than you and me... Source: Wikicommons
It is 1853 and Silvestre Pujolar is leading a less than peaceful existence in Olot, where he runs a textile dyeing business. The Carlist wars force his hand and resolve; he packs everything of value in a horse-drawn cart and sets course for Mataró, close to the textile factories and the growing metropolis that is the capital of Catalonia. He has a good eye for business, a convincing tone of voice and the manners that create friends rather than enemies. In just a few years he will become a well-off, respected gentleman. Pity that his son Florià is not endowed with the same shrewdness and talent.

Over the decades, the family’s fortunes change from success to ruin. Not even the First World War was to be sufficient for Florià to make the dyeing business flourish. Some of the decisions he makes soon after his father’s demise are plain dumb – the biggest mistake being asking for Margarida’s hand in marriage. They have four children, three girls and a boy, Josep, a pusillanimous prat who cannot stand the pestilent stenches of the business. The eldest is Teresa (the author’s grandmother), who is by far the most charismatic character in the whole book.

Teresa has been betrothed to a … how can we put it? An idiot? Someone who spends his days and nights studying in order to try and pass the examinations that will make a notary public of him. Allow me at this point to stray off the topic a little and remark that the incompetent PM currently in charge of the central Spanish government used to “work” as a notary public. These “professionals” enjoy some “special reputation” in Spain. Just ask anyone who has gone through the ordeal of trying to get an inheritance.

The market at Plaça de Cuba in Mataró is frequently mentioned in Diamant blau. Source: wikicommons
But let’s go back to the literature. I will not deny there is some in the novel, but it rarely reaches the heights of that which constitutes ‘high literature’. It seems to me that Care Santos throws all caution to the wind and chooses to tell a story rather than a history. In other words, Santos eliminates the possibility of creating a great work of literature right from the beginning, choosing the path of plain, simple storytelling. Which is fine as well, of course, but makes the book appear curtailed in its scope and generally underwhelming.

Two aspects need to be mentioned in this regard. First, the poorly finished portrayal of some characters, who seem to merely appear for the purposes of pushing on with the plot. For a novel with so many leaps forward and flashbacks into the 18th and 19th centuries and such a long cast of characters, it is regrettable that some of them come across as mere fillers. I daresay this is due to the author’s obstinate eagerness to construct a story out of a few historical facts.

Secondly, there is at times a palpably condescending tone towards the reader. This is most evident when the novel creates a parenthesis in the narrative by presenting a cul-de-sac stub in the plotline (a rather superfluous one, if not outright annoying). For example, the brief chapter devoted to William Perkin, the discoverer of mauveine, the first synthetic organic chemical dye, which concludes in this fashion: “And this was, my dear friends, my modest contribution to the story. I hope I did not commit the sin of boring you. I wish you all a very colourful life.” (p. 370, my translation). Oh my, 😬.

As in any family story, many are the themes that are central to the narrative: there is a family curse embodied in a grandfather clock; there is melodrama around marriages, unrequited love and illegitimate children; there is the hard fall from affluence and the despair poverty brings about; and there is the bravery of the women who defied social taboos and conventions in the early 20th century.

Do all these themes, subplots and gratuitous trimmings add to a great work of literature? Let other readers decide. For my part, I have made up my mind about the Diamant blau: the title refers to a feathered automaton kept in the birdcage the Pujolàs have in their back yard.

Set the bird free, I say.

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