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.

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