Tag Archives: Spanish fiction

Still the Same Man: Jon Bilboa

In Spanish author Jon Bilboa’s taut, tightly written ominous novel, Still the Same Man, middle-aged Joanes has a chance encounter which leads to a terrible appointment with fate. Joanes was once a top student with a promising career ahead of him, but now in middle age, Joanes, the owner of a dying air-conditioning company, is facing failure. Dependent on the charity of his bombastic, wealthy artist father-in-law, Joanes, his patient wife and his teenage daughter, find themselves in a Mexican resort to attend the “teeth-grindingly tasteless” destination wedding of his obese father-in-law and his new wife, the employee of a tanning salon.

still the same man

On the night of the wedding, a hurricane alert changes everyone’s plans. Tourists are “desperate to fly out,” and with overcrowded airports, the wedding party has no choice but to move inland. Right before they leave, Joanes is ordered to take a sauna with his loud, crude, father-in-law where he is grilled about a promising looming air-conditioning contract:

The sauna was, in fact, a typical Mexican temazcal sweat lodge. Right next to the pool, there was a small, dome-shaped adobe construction that looked like an igloo or a bread oven. You entered by a door so tiny you had to crawl in on all fours, so tiny the father-in-law’s great carcass almost got stuck in it. From outside, Joanes spent a moment staring at that fat, tanned, waxed ass, only partially covered by its yellow Speedo, fighting its way through the door, then he averted his gaze.

While everyone else evacuates to Valladolid, Joanes is sidetracked and finds himself driving alone to join his family who are already on safe ground. Along the crowded roads where he joins thousands of other people also trying to escape the hurricane, Joanes spies a couple by the side of the road–an older man and his wheel-chair bound wife. Incredulous, Joanes realizes the man is none other than his old professor–the man he holds responsible for scuttling his career.

The professor has a tale about being ejected from an evacuation bus, and his version of events seems to be missing some salient details. The professor, an autocratic man who sails through life with the attitude that everyone is inferior, at first, doesn’t seem to recognize Joanes–even though Joanes was a stellar student.

Joanes, the professor and his wife, find themselves fleeing the hurricane and seeking refuge in a rudimentary Mexican hotel. With no power, and dying cell phone batteries, tensions between the hurricane evacuees explode. Ironically danger doesn’t come from the hurricane, although the hurricane exists as an unpredicatable background driving our characters relentlessly towards their violent fate. The savagery of nature seems nothing compared to the savagery of humans.

This compulsively readable, shocking novel takes an extremely dark, twisted path in its exploration of damaged psyche, simmering resentments, and horrific revenge. Author Jon Bilboa describes the professor’s absolute, tyrannical power in the classroom and his “aristocratic indifference” towards the students with a painful echo of accuracy. Many of the students hated the professor for the way he demeaned his students. Joanes admired him–a reflection perhaps on the hidden side of Joanes’s nature. But when Joanes’s promising career is snatched away, over time “the professor became
the virtual stooge for Joanes’s problems.” In an apparent act of kindness, Joanes gives the stranded professor and his wife a lift. How can this possibly end well?

The professor became a vessel for all his frustrations and rage. And the vessel gradually filled up, and its contents grew more and more viscous, until eventually they became as hard as stone; the professor was no longer a mere emotional device, a fantasy for self-exoneration, he’d become the one true culprit of everything bad that had ever happened to Joanes.

Translated by Sophie Hughes

Review copy.

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None So Blind: José Ángel González Sainz

The protagonist of José Ángel González Sainz’s quiet, introspective novel None So Blind is peasant/factory worker, Felipe Díaz Carrión, who has recently retired and moved back to a village, and the plot of land with its crude house that has been in his family for generations. The novel opens with Felipe, carrying an old satchel, walking along an old familiar road. It’s been twenty years since he walked along the road, but it hasn’t changed.

He was relieved when he realized that the road was the same as it had always been. They hadn’t redone anything yet or built anything in the area, and when he walked along that road, walking as if it were in fact the road that were walking through him, he was infused with a strange sense of calm and strange feeling of liberation. It must be that what’s permanent, he said to himself, that what will always be the same no matter how many things change, as his father used to say, or as people said his father used to say, is what actually frees you the most. Things that remain the same speak to you, sustain you, and they do it without ego. Although knowing how to listen to them is something else entirely.

As the story unfolds, we read that Felipe was forced by circumstance to uproot his family twenty years earlier and leave his family home in order to earn a living in a city located in the province of Guipúzcoa, the Basque area of Spain. Felipe had to trade a job in a print shop for chemical factory work, but while he has to make readjustments, he never complains. Yet in spite of the fact Felipe never complains, we feel the culture shock, the unpleasantness of trading the quiet countryside for the urban hell of a tiny flat in a “giant apartment building.”

He would slowly leave behind, one by one, an old, dismal metalworks from which, even in the early morning hours, there issued an incomprehensible screeching; a tire retread shop whose premises he felt from the very beginning were completely disproportionate, with an attached lot, beyond a blackened stucco wall, where he could see loads of large truck tires and little car tires all piled up, and which sometimes emitted a stench of burning rubber–it stank to high heaven, he would say, even though what he breathed inside the factory most days was no better

Felipe’s life is the life of an ordinary man. Twenty years of work with a relentless pattern to life, and not a great deal of thanks for being a good employee, a good husband, a good father. Twenty years in the city have served to alienate Felipe from his eldest son and his wife–both are now radicalized and refer to Felipe as a fascist. When Felipe returns alone to his home village and embraces the fact that nothing has changed, there’s also the silent admission that both his wife, now a publically elected official, and eldest son, now accused of violent politically motivated crimes, have altered beyond recognition.

none so blind

Immutability, political violence and the central question: do the ends justify the means are at the heart of None So Blind, and while this is a simple, rather sad story of a man whose experiences his own family fail to acknowledge, this is also the story of how history repeats itself.  Even though this a quiet, introspective story, there’s an underlying rage and violence here simmering under the surface. While the novel examines, philosophically,  the morality of using violence to further political goals, the author also emphasizes the physical world and the senses, so the sounds and smells of Felipe’s environment are juxtaposed with people’s inability to ‘see’ another opinion.

There’s one scene in which Felipe’s son is screaming in his father’s face. It’s a wonderful scene with Felipe’s unspoken thoughts racing through his head as he realizes that his son sees people not as human beings but as “burdens, obstacles, abstractions.” While I always have difficulty reading about passive characters, here, the author argues that Felipe’s very passivity is born from early exposure to inexplicable, meaningless violence.  Felipe avoids direct confrontation with his wife and his son, and while he’s been ‘too blind’ to see the evidence of his son’s political beliefs, his wife and son are also completely blind to Felipe’s humanity and the reason for his established belief system. While many people tell Felipe that politically, he’s a simpleton and “you just don’t get it,”  in reality, Felipe understands all too well how a family can never recover from violence whether it is introduced by some homicidal maniac or conducted to fit someone else’s political agenda.

It’s the life of human beings, which is sacred, even though you might laugh when I use the word, just as you might laugh if I mentioned honor, other people’s honor and your own honor, and scruples, too, scruples about hurting others, and the humiliation of being hurt, but it doesn’t matter–other people’s honor and scruples about hurting them, as my father, may he rest in peace, used to say, those are the fine lines that give worth to your own freedom and the freedom of others.

Review copy

Translated by Harold Augenbraum and Cecilia Ross

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Filed under Fiction, González Sainz José Ángel

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós

Tristana from Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is a subversive novel that takes a sly look at the power structure in the relationships of its three main characters: Don Lope, an aging, dissolute roué, his ‘ward,’ the beautiful Tristana, and the handsome, wealthy young man she falls in love with, a painter named Horacio. This is the sort of novel guaranteed to elicit a range of responses from its readers, and that would make this relatively short book, clocking in at just under 200 pages, a great choice for book groups who’d like to sink their teeth into complex characterisations and slippery morality.

tristanaWhen the book opens, one of the main characters Don Lope Garrido, now well past his prime, is living in “cheap plebian rooms, with, as noisy neighbors, a tavern, a café, a shop selling milk fresh from a goat, and a narrow inner courtyard with numbered rooms.”  That wonderful quote creates a cacophony of sounds surrounding Don Lope as he emerges from his surroundings as a rather slippery character:

The first time I encountered this gentleman and observed his proud, soldierly bearing, like a figure in a Velázquez painting of one of Spain’s regiments in Flanders, I was informed that his name was Don Lope de Sosa, a name with more than a whiff of the theatre about it and worthy of a character in one of those short tales you find in books on rhetoric; and, that, indeed was the name given to him by some of his more unsavoury friends; he, however, answered to Don Lope Garrido. In time, I discovered that the name on his baptismal certificate was Don Juan López Garrido; so that sonorous Don Lope must have been his own invention, like a lovely ornament intended to embellish his person; and the name so suited the firm, noble lines of his lean face, his slim, erect body, his slightly hooked nose, his clear brow and lively eyes, his greying moustache and neat, provocative goatee beard, that he really could not have been called anything else. One had no alternative but to call him Don Lope.

Even though Don Lope Garrido (and the name is explained in the footnotes) is 57, it’s still possible to see this dapper aging womanizer as the dangerous threat he used to be. Some of the measures he takes to hang onto the shadow of his vigour are laughable.

The age of this excellent gentleman, in terms of the figure he gave whenever the subject came up, was a number as impossible to verify as the time on a broken clock, whose hands refuse to move. He had stuck fast at forty-nine, as if an instinctive terror of the number fifty had halted him on the much feared boundary of the half century.

He’s spent his lifetime pursing women while evading the consequences of his actions, but now living on an “ever-decreasing income,” he floats on his past glory as a supreme seducer of women with a manufactured morality “which, although it seemed to have sprung solely from him, was, in fact, an amalgamation in his mind of the ideas floating around in the metaphysical atmosphere of the age, like invisible bacteria.” The situation with Tristana is perfect for Don Lope. She’s beautiful, innocent enough to fall for his manipulative arguments and as his ward, she’s entirely dependent upon him.

Don Lope Garrido–just to whet  your appetite–was  a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity that he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: ‘You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier.’

So there, in a few quotes, is a lot of information about Don Lope, who, IMO is the main character of the book–in spite of the fact that its title is the name of Don Lope’s ‘ward’ Tristana. The term ‘ward’ is applied sarcastically as beautiful, young Tristana, who fell initially into Don Lope’s power through the poverty of her parents and Don Lope’s generosity, is her guardian’s mistress.  Locals theorize that Tristana is Don Lope’s niece or even his daughter (“there were even some who claimed to have heard her say ‘papa’, just like one of those talking dolls”), but in time  it becomes clear that “she was nothing […] an item of furniture or an article of clothing, with no one to dispute his ownership.” Tristana, who has a great deal more power than she realizes (or is able to exercise) is, however, the celestial body that the other two main characters, Don Lope and Horacio orbit. Too young and naïve to initially understand her vulnerability, she grasps her situation in her guardian’s home too late, and when she begins to put up resistance to Don Lope’s despotic power, he, a lifetime seducer of women, unscrupulously checkmates her at every point.

The domestic situation in Don Lope’s house is at once bizarre and pathological, and gradually as the story develops we see how Tristana was initially under Don Lope’s thumb and how she now chafes under his control. Don Lope, once the great seducer, entranced women with his words, his wiles and his caresses, but now he alternates various roles to keep his control on Tristana, his “last and, therefore, dearest trophy,” so in one moment, he sits her on his knee and fondles her, and in the next he’s her caring, but authoritative parent who sends her to her room. This leaves Tristana, who’s a neophyte when it comes to manipulation, always one step behind her aging lover/protector/guardian, and while she knows she’s being manipulated and used, she can’t ever quite challenge the various arguments that seasoned seducer Don Lope sends her way. As a result, her resentment and desire for freedom grows, and then she meets Horacio, a young painter who understands her plight….

There were so many ways this novel could have ended, but Benito Pérez Galdós delicately constructs the most subversive route to his story’s conclusion. There’s love and tragedy but there’s also irony, domestic comedy and the massive egos of two of the three main characters, and that’s as much of the plot as I’m prepared to discuss.

A section of the novel takes the form of an epistolary as mushy love letters pass back and forth between Tristana and Horacio. At this juncture the novel lost some of its momentum, and yet at the same time, these letters were essential to question the nature and authenticity of love while showing how the three characters inhabit necessary roles for each other. Tristana and Don Lope eventually become almost caricatures of themselves while Horacio, always a lesser player in the game, does not.

Balzac was an enormous influence on Galdós and you can see this in Tristana in the way the author gently dismantles the layers of his characters with each new event as jealousy, rivalry, and tragedy challenge the triangular relationship between Don Lope, Tristana and Horacio. In this parable of power, self-deceit and ego, who will emerge the victor? And what will victory look like? Don Lope, the seducer, Tristana, his victim, and Horacio the lover begin by inhabiting the lives stock characters, but as the tale continues and the layers of this tale unfold, Galdós does not let his reader make easy moral judgments.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Review copy/own a copy

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Filed under Fiction, Galdós Benito Pérez