31 may. 2018

Pep Puig's La vida sense la Sara Amat: A Review

Pep Puig, La vida sense la Sara Amat (Barcelona: Proa, 2016). 295 pages.
Josep is 12 years old, and he’s been spending the long summer holidays at his grandparents’ house in a Catalan village called Ullastrell. It’s early September 1981; he and his gang of friends (la colla) are playing hide-and-seek at nigh time when one of them, Sara, 13, suddenly disappears. Where has she gone? What has happened? Has she been abducted? Or is she fleeing home?

Ullastrell: it's s big small world. Photo by Pere López. 
A search party is quickly organised, with no success. In the meantime, Josep has gone back to his room, where he discovers Sara, who is neither pretty nor ugly. In fact, Josep fancies Sara a fair bit, and when she asks him to keep mum about her whereabouts, he easily acquiesces.

The house is a big one, the typical two-floor building with long corridors and a shop at the front. Josep’s grandfather died a couple of years before, so his widow appreciates her grandson’s company. What follows is a tender love story and a literary game between reality and fiction. Quite incredibly, Sara gets to stay at Josep’s room for longer than a week. He gets her three meals a day, she gets to use the bathroom and even the shower every now and then; she hides beneath the big bed whenever visitors approach.

The first edition of War and Peace.
So what does she do with her time when Josep is not in the room? She reads Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We learn that Sara is thought of as ‘a little weird’ by most villagers. In fact, she’s a gifted and talented teenager, who should have been sent to a first-rate school by her parents. Nonconformist and a little rebellious, she hates the village and wants to leave and decide for herself what her life will be like.
“Of all of us, Sara was the only one who was different. The rest of us were all alike, except for her, who was different. Already as a little child. I daresay Sara’s difference essentially lay in her intelligence, not so much her rebellious instinct. I mean, if she was rebellious, it was precisely because she was far more intelligent than all of us. It must have been very hard for her to adapt to a village full of idiots, I mean; and even though I was not from the village, I count myself as one of them. And the older she got, the worst it became. She kept coming out to play with us, but it was almost against her will, as if by the force of habit of so many years doing so, but you could already see that one day she would stop coming and would leave us alone for good. At least, I did; and I particularly see it now, remembering her when she was nearing her thirteen years of age, sitting on the green wooden bench under the mulberry tree, sullenly looking towards the far end of the street, as if she were already pondering the way to flee.And it was certainly what she was doing: pondering the way to become a fugitive from the village.” (p. 15-16, my translation)
La vida sense la Sara Amat [Life without Sara Amat] is an assured and sensitive narrative on the challenges and fears any teenager encounters. Told by an adult Josep with an autobiographical technique, the story makes the young kid face the issues that appear while growing up and reaching maturity. Puig succeeds in inviting the reader to understand which are the contradictory aspects of the adult world that completely puzzle and baffle young Josep: love and sexuality, of course, but also hypocrisy, loyalty and secrecy.

Leaving aside its minor issues of plausibility, Pep Puig achieves a rare sensitivity in this novel: young Josep is a timid boy, hesitant and apprehensive about the trials life will bring him to, yet the adult narrator (how dissimilar he can be from the author is probably a tricky question) creates a deftly balanced story. Just as Josep discovers something about himself by staring at his reflection in the mirror, La vida sense la Sara Amat is an invitation for the reader to doublecheck their firmest notions about fiction and memory. Let’s play hide-and-seek once again.

La vida sense la Sara Amat was awarded the Sant Jordi Prize for fiction in 2015. The first twenty-odd pages are available for download here.

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