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Spanish Lit Month: The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol

August 11, 2017 11 comments

The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol (2011) Original Spanish title: La tristeza del Samurái French title: La tristesse du Samouraï. Translated by Claude Bleton.

Peu d’êtres humains supportent leur propre regard, car les miroirs déclenchent un phénomène curieux : vous regardez ce que vous voyez, mais si vous traversez la surface, vous avez l’impression désagréable que c’est le reflet qui vous regarde avec insolence. Il vous demande qui vous êtes. Comme si l’étranger, c’était vous, pas lui.

Few human beings can stand their own reflection because something strange happens in front of the mirror: You are looking at what you see, but if you dig a little deeper, beyond the surface, you are overcome by an uncomfortable feeling that it is the reflection that is looking at you insolently. You ask yourself who you are. As if you, and not the reflection, were the stranger.

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem.

In the prologue of The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol, we’re in 1981, in a hospital room in Barcelona where María is dying. She’s also under police protection and she’s about to write everything she knows about an investigation and crimes she was involved in.

Flash back to 1941. We’re in Mérida, Spain, not far from the Portuguese border of the Alentejo region. Isabel Mola is at the train station with her younger son Andrés. She’s fleeing Spain leaving her husband Guillermo and her nineteen years old son Fernando behind. Andrés’s tutor, Marcelo Alcalá has property in Portugal where she intends to hide until she can immigrate to England. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is finished and the aftermath is called the Blue Terror, a period of elimination of political opposition. Guillermo Mola has a high-ranking position in the Falange and has a lot of power in the Mérida region. Isabel Mola had an affair with a man from the opposition and this someone just betrayed her. He came to take her son back to his father and to make her disappear. Guillermo’s second in command, Publio, is the one who organizes Isabel’s murder and frames Marcelo Alcalá for it. Isabel’s affair and its consequences will set the future of the Molas, the Alcalás and her lover’s family.

María, the dying woman, is a lawyer and in 1976, she was the defense attorney of a client who had been tortured and beaten up by a policeman, César Alcalá, Marcelo’s son. He was investigating Publio’s shady past when his daughter Marta was kidnapped.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot because it’s hard to write about this book without spoilers.

The Sadness of the Samurai is well-constructed. We go back and forth between 1941 and 1980/1981. Isabel Mola’s death will set a lot of events into motion, especially after Marcelo Alcalá is condemned to death penalty for it. When María sends César Alcalá in prison decades later, she doesn’t realize that she’s just opened a can of worms that are forty-years old, well-alive and venomous. Isabel Mola’s betrayal and murder will resurface. In the young Spanish democracy, former Franco officials like Publio managed to find a place in the new regime. We see the same phenomenon in Balzac’s novels after the fall of Napoléon. It doesn’t mean that Publio and his crowd changed their methods: murder, violence and torture are the common tools of dictatorships. They mastered in them, why abandon them? And in 1980, when María puts her nose in this story, nothing was solved, nothing was investigated and the crimes from the past were swiftly put under the carpets of the brand-new democracy. And this young democracy will be tested during the coup d’état attempt on 23 February 1981.

The personal history of the characters is a web of connections, of betrayals and secrets. In 1980, three generations cohabit. The older generation, the one who was active during the Civil War and who is responsible for the conduct of the war and its subsequent terror. The Fascists won, a dictatorship of forty years started. The winners got the power, the losers were hunted and went in hiding. This generation is represented by Guillermo Mola, Publio, Marcelo Alcalá, Isabel Mola and her lover.

The children of this generation, the ones who were born in the 1930s is a sacrificed generation. Their childhood was tainted by war and its consequences. They suffered from hunger, they witnessed the violence and knew which side the adults were. They lived most of their lives in a dictatorship and were already middle-aged when democracy was instaured. This generation is represented by Fernando Mola (1923), Andrés Mola (1931) and César Alcalá (1933).

The third generation is the baby-boomers. They grew up under Franco but where young when he died.  María belongs to this generation and she doesn’t know anything about her parents’ past. What they did during the Civil War is not discussed.

Víctor del Árbol shows the fragility of the democracy but also a country that never healed their wounds. There’s a lot of unsaid between the generations and the events of the Civil War were not clearly acknowledged. The wounds festered. Hatred is a predominant feeling in this novel. Hatred and resentment against people who murdered a mother, who managed to keep up appearances and remained in power despite being the mastermind behind a lot of crimes.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by this side of the story. I was not convinced by this violent hatred that burnt so bright for forty years. Is it possible to keep it so strong all those years? Does it not fade a bit because one must live their life and it costs too much sterile energy to keep hating those who wronged you? It doesn’t mean that people forget but to be motivated by hatred the way these characters are was not totally plausible to me. A powerful sense of justice, a need to have the criminals convicted, yes, I would have understood that but blind hatred? I

It’s a minor flaw, though and not one big enough to stay away from The Sadness of the Samurai. Víctor del Árbol does paint a convincing portray of Spain and according to his speech at Quais du Polar, showing how many issues still need to be addressed in Spain regarding Franco’s time is a significant part of his writing. He was born in Barcelona in 1968 and he said that when he was a child, people threatened unruly children by saying that the Republicans would come and take them if they weren’t quiet. Isn’t that incredible that people still said that in the early 1970s?

This is the second crime fiction novel I’ve read that mentions the coup d’état attempt of February 1981. The first time was in A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. This is a major event in Spain’s recent history and as often, reading pushed me to dig further and learn new things.

Good news, contrary to One-Way Journey by Carlos SalemThe Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol is available in English!

This is my third contribution to Stu and Richard’s Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month.

 

 

Spanish Lit Month : No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza

July 31, 2017 10 comments

No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (1990) French title : Sans nouvelles de Gurb. (Translated by François Mespero. Original Spanish title: Sin noticias de Gurb)

Lucky me, this year, Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard is extended to August and to Portuguese Literature. Since I’m on holiday in Spain and Portugal, I’m more than happy to participate. This billet is my first about Spanish literature this year. Don’t count on me to write a billet on a book by Javier Marias, I’m not a fan. But like last year with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub, I picked up two crazy books, No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza and One Way Journey by Carlos Salem. I loved Salem’s Swimming Without Getting Wet and I wanted to read another one by him. But that will be another billet.

First published by instalments in El Païs, No Word From Gurb is a novella by Eduardo Mendoza. It is the diary of an alien who landed in Barcelona from his planet. He’s accompanied in his mission to explore the planet Earth by his partner Gurb. In order to explore our world inconspicuously, they pick a physical appearance in a catalogue. Gurb went out looking like Madonna and went missing. The book was written in 1990, you can imagine the kind of attention he must have brought to himself walking around looking like Madonna.

The unnamed narrator and author of the diary decides to leave their spaceship to look for Gurb. From the 10th to the 24th of this month, we follow our narrator in his adventures in Barcelona. And it’s huge fun as he explores both the city and human condition.

As mentioned before, we’re in 1990, two years before the Barcelona Olympic Games and the city is a work in progress. Traffic is horrendous and dangerous as the Narrator soon experiences:

8h00 Je me matérialise à l’endroit dénommé carrefour Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. Je suis écrasé par l’autobus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. Je dois récupérer ma tête qui est allée rouler à la suite de la collision. Opération malaisée du fait de l’affluence des véhicules.

8h01 : Ecrasé par une Opel Corsa

8h02 : Ecrasé par une camionnette de livraison

8h03 : Ecrasé par un taxi

8h04 : Je récupère ma tête et je la lave à une fontaine publique située à quelques mètres du lieu de la collision. J’en profite pour analyser la composition de l’eau locale : hydrogène, oxygène et caca.

8:00 I materialize myself at a place named crossroads Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. I am run over by the bus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. I have to fetch my head that rolled away after the collision. Difficult action because of the flow of vehicles.

8:01: Run over by an Opel Corsa

8:02: Run over by a delivery truck

8:03 : Run over by a taxi

8:04: I fetch my head and I wash it in a nearby public fountain. I take advantage of the task to analyze the local water: hydrogen, oxygen and poo.

They are some roadworks everywhere, museums are closed for renovations and when the Narrator wants to buy an apartment, the realtor asks him if he wants to buy one in the Olympic Village. The whole city runs around the upcoming event.  Mendoza gently mocks the city council of Barcelona.

La pluie de Barcelone ressemble à l’activité de son Conseil municipal : elle est rare, mais quand elle tombe, elle est d’une brutalité stupéfiante. The Barcelona rain looks like the activity of its city council: it is rare but when it happens, it is of a stupefying brutality.

One of the local councilors encourages the Barcelona inhabitants to trade their car for a bike to improve traffic in the city center. Our Narrator comments:

Peut-être les gens se serviraient-ils davantage de bicyclettes si la ville était plus plate, mais c’est un problème insoluble car elle est déjà entièrement construite comme cela. Une autre solution serait que la municipalité mettre des bicyclettes à disposition des passants dans la partie haute de la ville, ce qui leur permettrait de se laisser glisser très rapidement jusqu’au centre, presque sans pédaler. Une fois au centre, la même municipalité (ou, en son lieu et place, une entreprise concessionnaire) se chargerait de mettre les bicyclettes sur des camions et de les renvoyer dans la partie haute. Ce système serait relativement peu coûteux. Maybe people would use their bikes more often if the city were flat but it’s an intractable problem because it’s already built that way. Another solution would be that the city put bikes at the disposal of people living in the highest part of the city. They could glide quickly to the city center, almost without pedaling. Once in the city center, the municipality (or a private company) would load the bikes on trucks and bring them back to the upper neighborhoods. This would be a cheap system.

We’re in 1990. I don’t know if this existed somewhere. However, I know that in 2005 the city of Lyon, which is about as flat as Barcelona, signed a contract with JC Decaux to provide free bikes around the city. It is well-known to Lyon inhabitants that people ride bikes down from the Croix-Rousse neighborhood but never up and that trucks need to bring the bikes up there. Visionary Narrator, it seems.

The Narrator also interacts with different people in Barcelona, a café owner and his wife, a concierge, his neighbors and various salespeople in shops. Once he gets acquainted with a corporate executive and Mendoza makes fun of the business frenzy in Catalonia.

Besides exploring Barcelona’s way-of-life, the Narrator also experiences human condition. He takes colloquial expressions at face value and it gives hilarious deadpan entries in his journal, like this one:

8h05 : J’essaye de rentrer chez moi en traînant des pieds. Ou l’expression (courante) ne correspond pas à la réalité, ou alors il existe une méthode que je ne connais pas pour traîner des deux pieds en même temps. J’essaye de laisser traîner un pied et de faire un saut en avant avec l’autre (pied). Je me retrouve à plat ventre. 8:05: I try to go home, dragging my feet. Either the common expression doesn’t correspond to reality or there is an unknown-to-me method to drag both feet at the same time. I try to drag one foot and to leap with the other at the same time. I end up sprawled on my stomach.

The whole novella is peppered with funny moments like this, the contrast between the action and the serious tone creates a fantastic comical effect. I loved his attempts at hitting on his pretty neighbor or his ideas to get acquainted with his neighbors or his obvious love for human food.

This is a book that we’ll make you laugh and unwind. There’s no artistic purpose to this novella, it’s fun for fun’s sake. In other words, it’s a perfect Beach & Public Transport Book.

 

A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. A stunning Spanish crime fiction novel.

May 1, 2017 23 comments

A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar (1996). French title : Comme un blues. Translated from the Spanish into French by Hélène Serrano.

Aníbal Malvar wrote A Fly’s Wing in Galician and it was then translated into Castillan. The French translation I’ve read is based upon the Castillan version.

Madrid, winter 1996. Carlos Ovelar is at home when his ex-wife’s husband calls him on the phone. His daughter Ania is missing. She’s 18 and he doesn’t want to tell his wife that their daughter disappeared. So he doesn’t want to involve the police. But why would he call his wife’s ex to investigate their daughter’s disappeance? Because of Carlos’s past life as an agent of the Spanish secret services, the House. He was hired by his father who was at the head of the House during the tricky years of transition between the Franco era and democracy. Carlos feels that he shouldn’t accept this job and keep working on this photography business. But his only encounter with Ania was memorable enough to push him into action. He accepts and goes back to his native Galicia to start digging. Ania’s father gives him the keys to Ania’s apartment, thinking Carlos would be the first to know if she came home.

Carlos hasn’t been back to Galicia for twenty years and this trip brings back memories. He soon discovers that Ania is probably involved in the local cocaine drug trafficking. He wants to find Ania, even if it means that he ruffles some feathers or needs to cash in some favors from former colleagues of the House. He keeps on investigating even if he stumbles upon the ghosts of his married life and his years at the House or if it confronts him to his unhealthy relationship with his father.

A first murder implies that Ania is deep into a highly dangerous organization. Why does Carlo’s father show up at Ania’s place out of the blue? Why is the Old Man meddling in this? What’s in it for him?

The drug dealing plot brings us to the 1996 Galicia. More than the end of the journey for pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela is a hub for drug trafficking, tobacco and arms smuggling. The place doesn’t ooze with Christian feelings. Malvar is a journalist and he’s known for his articles about the terrorist group ETA and about drug trafficking. His plot is plausible, well drawn. He might have even heard of this quote during an investigation for a paper:

Une fois, un junkie m’a affirmé que le monde n’était qu’une hallucination que Dieu se serait tapée en pleine overdose de coke. Dieu y serait resté, mais le monde aurait survécu à l’hallu, devenue éternelle. Once, a junkie told me that the world was only a hallucination that God would have had while overdosing on cocaine. God wouldn’t have made it but the world had survived and the hallucination went on forever.

Carlos reflects on his past with the House and his relationship with his father and former boss. The two are intertwined. The Old Man was the head of the House when a coup threatened the young Spanish democracy, on February 23rd, 1981. The Old Man orchestrated this putsch to prevent a real one from Franco’s old supports and rally the people around their new democracy. This was new to me and I found this part very interesting. I never considered what happened in Spain in these early years after Franco’s death and how the old guard must have clutched the armpits of their chairs to remain in place.

Carlos delves into his past and Malvar gives life to Spain in the early 1980s. Franco died in 1975. The young democracy is trying out its fragile wings. The House has to find new occupations for their agents

Au début des années 80, la Maison s’était concentrée sur les stups et le terrorisme, une fois les franquistes tardifs convaincus que les facs ne regorgeaient plus de trostkystes et de stalinistes, mais de gens occupés à étudier et à baiser. In the early 1980s, the House focused on drug traffiking and terrorim as soon as the last Franco supporters got convinced that unis weren’t full of Trotskists and Stalinists but only full of people occupied with studying and fucking.

It is the beginning of la movida and people start to breathe, to party to shrug out of the heavy clothes of Francoism.

La vraie vie reprenait ses droits chaque soir. Madrid commençait à respirer la liberté, la movida, le poing et la rose. Il y avait une révolution madrilène qui ne révolutionnait que la nuit, et c’est d’elle qu’allait naître la postmodernité. La nuit était le creuset libertaire du futur imminent. Les policiers s’efforçaient de se faire discrets et le fascime ordinaire ne gueulait plus en chemise de nuit au balcon. La rue bouillonait de futur. Real life was taking over. Madrid started to exhale freedom, la movida, the fist and the rose. There was a Madrilene revolution that only revolutioned at night and postmodernity would emerge from it. The night was the libertarian pot cooking up the imminent future. Policemen made themselves scarce and ordinary fascism was no longer yelling in pyjamas from balconies. Streets bubbled with future.

Apart from the crime plot and the reflections about the young Spanish democracy, A Fly’s Wing explores the complex relationship between Carlos and the Old Man. Carlos was hired by his father when he was the House’s commandant. The Old Man is a high powered secret agent, someone who has all the strings to make history. And in his book, making history is worth all the sacrifices, including manipulating his son and killing his chance at happiness. A Fly’s Wing is also the story of their twisted relationship. Carlos is in a love-hate relationship with his father and he can never shake his hold on him.

Le problème, avec nos aînés, c’est qu’ils seront toujours plus vieux que nous; ça leur accorde une autorité fictive, on se sent comme des mômes à côté d’eux. Mon vieux était là, en train de me faire la leçon, les pieds sur la table et la bouteille de whisky à la main, bourré comme un coing et fier comme un seigneur. Mes quarante et quelques balais me sont tombés des mains et le môme que j’étais instantanément redevenu n’a pas eu la force de les ramasser. Je supposer qu’ils étaient trop lourds. The problem with our elders is that they’ll always be older than us. It grants them some fictional authority and you feel like a kid besides them. My old man was here, lecturing me, his feet on the table, a bottle of whisky in his hand, drunk as a skunk and as proud as a king. My forty and some years fell from my hands and the kid I instantly became again wasn’t strong enough to pick them up. I suppose they were too heavy.

His father is controlling and manipulative. He shows an unhealthy interest in the women in Carlos’s life. Susanna, his ex-wife. Ofelia, his girl-friend during his years at the House. And now Ania, the missing teenager. The Old Man’s actions ruined Carlos’s life. He roped him into a career he wasn’t ready for, sabotaged his son’s love life and didn’t behave as a father. Carlos came out of these years bruised and battered. He never recovered from his years working in the secret services.

Mon passé est un cimetière bourré de gens que je n’ai pas su aider. Certains cadavres respirent encore. Ce sont eux qui me font le plus mal. Il y en a d’autres que j’ai à peine connus, mais dont les yeux s’ouvrent et me regardent dès que j’éteins la lumière. Il y a tellement de fantômes autour de moi que parfois, j’ai peur de me découvrir immortel. My past is a cemetery full of people I failed. Some bodies are still breathing. Those are the ones who hurt me the most. Some of them I barely knew but their eyes open and look at me as soon as I shut the lights out. There are so many ghosts around me that sometimes I’m afraid I might be immortal.

He carries his ghosts around, invisible balls and chains.

A Fly’s Wing is a breathtaking equilibrium between the crime plot, the portrayal of pivotal years in Spain’s recent history and Carlos’s angst and personal story. All this is written in an evocative prose. Carlos’s voice sounds like a voice over in an old movie. I think it’d go well with Ascenseur pour l’échaffaud by Miles Davis, even though the book comes with a playlist. It’s available on the publisher’s website and it’s not exactly Mile Davis.

Atmospheric is the operating word to describe Malvar’s brand of prose. It’s true in the literal sense of the word, the weather is a huge part of the book. It’s winter in Galicia and it rains all the time. Carlos drives in downpours, his stakeouts are full of humidity and it gives a dramatic twist to the burial scene of the novel. It reminded me of Marlowe in rainy LA. In fact, it’s like Chandler’s manna hover over Malvar’s pen and Marlowe is giving Carlos a friendly hug. Ania is the femme fatale of the book, even if she’s absent. She weighs on the story and reminded me of Laura by Vera Caspary. You see this is one fine specimen of classic noir.

I loved A Fly’s Wing and it will probably belong to my year-end list. It lingered on my mind. I was enveloped in its prose and I think that the French title of the book is aptly chosen as it sums up its atmosphere. The original title, Ala de mosca means A Fly’s Wing. It refers to the type of cocaine that is at the centre of the trafficking. The French title is richer, at least for a French reader. Comme un blues means Like a blues song. And Carlos is blue and he’ll always be a bit down because of his past. In French, bleu / blue has also another meaning. Un bleu is a rookie and that’s what Carlos remains compared to his father. Despite the passing years, he’s still a naïve beginner when it comes to shady dealings.

A Fly’s Wing is a fantastic piece of literature and I’m so grateful that Asphalte éditions picked this and brought it to the French public. I’m sorry to report to Anglophone crime fiction lovers that this little gem of Spanish literature is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

To end up with a merrier tone, since I’m French and we probably have a cheese for every occasion, here’s the cheese St Jacques de Compostelle that I bought when I was reading this.

Marta gone

August 26, 2014 26 comments

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marías 1994 (French title: Demain dans la bataille pense à moi. French translator: Alain Keruzoré.)

This month our Book Club had picked Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías. It’s my second Marías after Todas las almas (Le Roman d’Oxford in French). I wasn’t enthralled by Todas Las Almas but I was intrigued by the blurb of Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me and I had heard so much good about Marías in the bloggosphere. So I was quite happy to start this novel.

Marias_DemainVíctor is a ghost writer and screenplay author. Tonight he has a date with Marta Téllez. They had met previously and flirted a bit, enough to meet again. Marta’s husband is away on business and as she doesn’t have a babysitter for her two-year old son Eugenio, she invites Víctor at her house. Eugenio doesn’t want to go to bed, the diner lasts longer than expected and it’s already late when Víctor and Marta start to have sex. They are hald-dressed, half-undressed when Marta feels unwell. She wants to rest, asks Víctor to stay with her but refuses than he calls a doctor. Her malaise doesn’t fade away and she dies quietly in Víctor’s arms. What to do? Víctor is not supposed to be in this apartment; calling for help would mean revealing Marta’s infidelity. What about the child? What about the husband?

Víctor chooses to leave the apartment without saying anything to anyone. He tries to erase the traces of his presence but leaves food and drink within Eugenio’s reach. The rest of the novel will disclose Víctor’s feelings after the event and the consequences of his leaving Marta and Eugenio on their own.

I’ve had ups and downs with this novel. The first chapter blew me away because of its style and its way to describe Marta’s death and Víctor’s reaction to it. Then I got bored in the chapter where Víctor meets the Only One, a prominent politician for whom he’s supposed to write a speech. I nearly abandoned the book after the chapter where Víctor recalls his night across Madrid in the company of a prostitute who looks like his ex-wife. I was interested again to see how things went with the Marta affair and I was totally blown away by the last chapter. Clearly, it’s a book for militants of the never-abandon-a-book committee.

Overall, Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me is a brilliant novel. The idea of Marta’s death in the arms of her fling is excellent. Marías muses about death, memories and what remains of us after we die. His style is proustish, if I may say so. He’s into long introspective sentences, lacy phrases and all kinds of digressions. Marías explores the same topics as Proust. Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me reminded me of a condensed and modern In Search of Lost Time.

Several moments, themes and characters brought me back to Proust. The narrators have things in common. It’s a first person narrative and Víctor is a second zone writer. His screenplays find a drawer more often than they reach a camera, his speeches are told by others. Like Proust’s narrator, he’s not a famous author but writing is his calling.

Then you have Eugenio who doesn’t want to leave his mother and go to bed while she socializes; that’s in Swann’s Way. Víctor digresses about the meaning of names; that’s in The Guermantes Way. The Only One, the politician reminded me of the ridiculous M. de Norpois; that’s in In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Ruibérriz, Víctor’s friend reminded me of Bloch, mentioned in several volumes. The awful chapter where Víctor chases the image of his ex-wife Celia in a prostitute because Ruibérriz told him that acquaintances have reported that Celia became a prostitute sounds like The Captive and the narrator’s obsession about Albertine’s doings. Is Albertine cheating on the Narrator? Is she a lesbian? I think this volume of In Search of Lost Time is long, claustrophobic and rather unpleasant. The Narrator is not in his best behaviour and the same thing can be said about Víctor. The last chapter is a masterpiece, worth suffering the boring ones, just like Time Regained is worth suffering though The Captive (La Prisonnière) and The Sweet Cheat Gone (Albertine disparue), the volume where the Narrator grieves after Albertine’s unexpected death. I wonder if Marías wrote this novel with Proust in mind.

I love Proust but I’m not sure I love Marías. He’s excellent, thought-provoking and literary but I’m not in a rush to read another book by him. He lacks the irony that makes Proust funny and his style does not allow the plot to shine as it should. The plot and its conclusion are absolutely brilliant. I just wish it had been written by Philippe Djian, Pascal Garnier or Jean-Patrick Manchette, in other words by someone with a darker side and a wicked sense of humor. In my opinion, their style is a better fit for that kind of plot and it has enough depth to explore the feelings and turmoil generated by Marta’s death.

Now I’m curious to see what the other book club members thought about it and to read other reviews. So please leave links to yours in the comment section if you’ve reviewed it.

The Boy in the Last Row, by Juan Mayorga

February 12, 2011 19 comments

El Chico de la última fila by Juan Mayorga. Translated in French as  “Le Garçon du dernier rang” by Dominique Poulange et Jorge Levelli. The title means “The boy in the last row”

 I have seen Le Garçon du dernier rang last November and I really spent a good time. It is a play written  in 2006 by a contemporary Spanish playwright, Juan Mayorga.

I don’t think it has been translated in English so far but others of Mayorga’s plays have.

On the cover of my copy it is indicated: “French text by Dominique Poulange and Jorge Lavelli, so I wonder if it is a faithful translation or if the original play has been adapted for the French public. As always, the first names have been translated or changed, I don’t know the Spanish names.

The play opens on Germain, a middle-aged frustrated literature teacher and his wife Jeanne. Germain has asked his students to write about their latest week-end. He is now reading their works and ranting a great deal about the emptiness of their thoughts and the poverty of their language. This is a familiar scene to Jeanne: she is used to hearing him thundering about the silliest students he ever had and she is also used to listening their compositions. Then Germain comes to Claude’s text. Claude is the boy sitting in the last row and here the beginning of what he wrote:

Samedi je suis allé étudier chez Raphaël Artole. Cette idée m’était venue parce que depuis un certain temps, je voulais entrer dans cette maison. Cet été, tous les après-midis, j’allais regarder la maison depuis le parc mais un soir le père de Rapha faillit me surprendre à espionner depuis le trottoir d’en face. Vendredi, profitant de ce que Rapha venait d’échouer en mathématiques, je lui proposai un échange : « Tu m’aides en philosophie et moi, je t’aide en mathématiques. » Ce n’était rien qu’un prétexte, bien sûr.

On Saturday, I went to study at Raphael Artole’s place. This idea came to my mind because I had been willing to enter into this house for a while. Last summer, I used to go and look at the house from the park every afternoon, but one night, Rapha’s father almost caught me there, spying. On Friday, as Rapha had just failed in mathematics, I offered him a trade: “You help me in philosophy and I’ll help you in mathematics.” It was only a pretext, of course.

His text ends by “To be continued” Germain is hooked like a soap-opera addict. He wants to know what will happen next, at any cost. Jeanne is immediately suspicious, feeling something unhealthy about Claude’s fascination for Rapha’s family.

The play follows three different subplots, all intricate with one another. The first one is the relationship between Germain and Claude, the second one is the everyday life in Rapha’s family and the third one is the professional life of Jeanne.

 A relationship starts between Germain and Claude — two Roman emperors’ names, btw, Germanicus and his younger brother Claudius, who will succeed to him. Germain, as a failed writer and a desperate teacher, hopes he has in front of him a future writer, someone who could justify by his later works that his carrier as a teacher won’t have been sterile. He wants to reach some immortality through Claude, like Camus’s grammar school teacher did. Indeed, after Camus got the Nobel Prize, he wrote to his teacher Louis Germain – is this a coincidence? – to thank him for his help during his childhood. Germain thus starts lending books to Claude, to develop his literary tastes. He reads the story with avidity, gives advice.

Jeanne also follows Claude’s literary progress and indirectly intervenes in the process as Germain’s professed opinions often come from her. Jeanne worries for Germain and questions the ethics of what Claude is doing. Isn’t he spying Rapha’s family? She is Germain’s moral compass and often needs to remind him where North is. The relationship between the master and the student isn’t of a Pygmalion kind. Claude respects Germain but he also has power over him. Curiosity leads Germain into compromising with moral standards, despite Jeanne’s warnings.

The second plot relates to Rapha’s family. The father, Rapha Senior is something like a salesman or a middleman in a trade company. He and his son share a common passion for basketball. Rapha Senior sounds ridiculous, the average philistin. On stage he was wearing sweaters and was often hopping, like a sportsman does to warm up. He reminded me of Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading. He’s a committed and loving father though and a nice husband as well. Esther, the mother is a bored housewife. She seems to have a common body with the house.

Là, assise sur le sofa, feuilletant une revue de décoration, je découvris la maîtresse de maison. Je la fixai jusqu’à ce qu’elle lève ses yeux, dont la couleur s accorde avec celle du sofa.

There, sitting on the sofa, browsing through a decoration magazine, I saw the lady of the house. I stared at her until she lifted her eyes, whose colour matched with that of the sofa.

 Esther constantly intends to redecorate her house as if it would also redecorate her life. She dreams of finishing her law degree started 20 years ago to find a job.

 The third plot is about Jeanne’s job in a contemporary art gallery. The new owners of the gallery think that contemporary art is just nonsense and that they would rather use the place for a more profitable business. She has a month to prove them wrong, so she looks for more sellable art products.

 In addition to the three intertwined stories, thoughts about literature and painting creation processes are scattered all over the text. Germain is the speaker for literature and Jeanne for painting. Juan Mayorga either makes fun of contemporary art or mocks Germain’s incapacity to understand it. Here is Jeanne showing her new catalogue from the gallery: 

Ce sont des objets normaux, mais manipulés pour produire un étonnement. Regarde bien la pendule : 13 numéros. L’artiste intervient dans l’espace domestique en mettant en évidence des signes que nous ne percevons plus à force de les voir. Il parvient ainsi à montrer la mécanisation de notre vie et à défier les frontières entre intérieur et extérieur, entre privé et public. These are normal objects but manipulated to create astonishment. Look at that clock: 13 numbers. The artist intervenes in the domestic sphere by showing the signs we fail to see because we are so used to seeing them. He thus manages to show how our life is mechanical and to defy the boundaries between the inside and the outside, between the private and the public.

 Sometimes it’s funny. I perfectly understand Germain. I’m often puzzled by contemporary art. I read the description and I don’t understand what the artist really meant. And I never know if I’m too stupid to understand or if someone is trying to sell me a lie, though I tend to think my mind isn’t able to grasp the artist’s intention.

The reader peeps into Rapha’s house, along with Germain and Jeanne. Sometimes the spectator feels ill at ease and wonders if Claude isn’t unbalanced.

This is a very powerful text. The scenes aren’t cut off. There is a continuum of reading, with cinematographic effects that I hadn’t understood when I watched the play. I didn’t see the end coming. Here is Germain advising Claude about the end of his story:

Tu sais quelles sont les deux composantes d’une bonne fin ? Le lecteur doit se dire : je ne m’attendais pas à ça et pourtant, ça ne pouvait pas finir autrement. Ca, c’est une bonne fin. Nécessaire et imprévisible. Inévitable et surprenante. Do you know two ingredients of a good ending? The reader must think: I wasn’t expecting this and yet it couldn’t end differently. This is a good ending. Necessary and unpredictable. Inevitable and surprising.

 Juan Mayorga practised what Germain teaches. The denouement is good.

 

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