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

May 1, 2017 22 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.

Spanish Literature Month: Guillermo Cabrera Infante

July 13, 2014 8 comments

Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. 1995. French title : Coupable d’avoir dansé le cha-cha-cha.

Cabrera_chachacha_FrenchI’ll be reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias with my book club in August and that’s too late for Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month. So I decided to pick Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante instead. I bought it when I was browsing through the Folio 2€ collection in a book store. I like this collection, it’s a good way to discover new writers or forgotten texts. I’d never heard of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I expected three short stories but it’s something totally different and hard to define. (Help, if you know in which literary category this one goes. I put it in Literary UFO)

Regular readers of this blog know that I haven’t studied literature beyond high school, that I’m not particularly curious about literary criticism and that I read mostly for enjoyment. I’m not much interested in the techniques leading to the books I’m reading. So, Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha and me started on the wrong footing since the first page is about repetitive literature and something I don’t even know how to translate into English but I’m trying anyway.

La littérature répétitive tâche de résoudre la contradiction entre progression et régression en répétant la narration plusieurs fois. Il s’agit d’un jeu de narrations qui veut dépasser la contradiction entre réalité et fiction. Les fragments sont autonomes et d’égale valeur, mais l’auteur se réserve le droit d’exercer un certain déterminisme narratif. Les choses ne sont pas, elles arrivent, mais en littérature autorité devient auteur. Repetitive literature endeavours to solve the contradiction between progression and regression by repeating the narration several times. It is a set of narratives that wants to overcome the contradiction between reality and fiction. The fragments are stand-alone and of equal worth but the writer has the right to impose a certain narrative determinism. Things aren’t, they happen but in literature authority becomes author.

Cabrera_chachacha_SpanishThis is a totally literal translation as I don’t even understand what that means in French. This introduction is by Guillermo Cabrera Infante himself and to say I started the first story with a feeling of dread is an understatement. The book is some sort of literary exercice, like Exercice de style by Queneau where the same story is told three times but each time with a different style. The basic outline of the story is: a man and a woman have lunch in a restaurant in La Havana in the 1950s and it’s raining. The first version entitled The Great Ecbó is a third person narrative and the style reminded me very much of Marguerite Duras. It’s told in that clipped and neutral tone you can find in The Lover. I liked it. The second version –A Drowing Woman—is also a third person narrative and the style is warmer. The third one –Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha—is a first person narrative and it’s in a messy stream-of-consciousness style. Oh my, what a labyrinth of words. I lost track of where digressions started and I almost wished that like in a Excel formula I could browse the closing parenthesis to found out where the opening one was. What’s more terrible than having literature make you crave for Excel spreadsheets? In the end, I’m not sure I would have understood anything without reading the two other versions.

Cabrera_chachacha_GermanThat aside, each story represents a side of Cuba and of its culture and history. The first story brings the characters to an ecbó, a ritual ceremony of African origin, like voodoo. The second one shows the luxury hotels and the last one pictures communism and its political persecutions.

In the conclusion –that I didn’t fully understood, I’m afraid—Guillermo Infante Cabrera compares his three stories to music and to the three steps of ChaChaCha. Hmmm…It’s a hundred pages long, it’s good to read it in one sitting and if someone out here has read it or will read it, please come back and explain it to me. It left me puzzled. I also don’t understand why three translators were involved in translating this short book into French. When I see three translators like this, I expect a collection of short stories published at different times and put together afterwards. Here we have a fully constructed literary exercice wanted by the writer himself and I really don’t know why one translator didn’t do the whole job. After all, it’s only 100 pages long.

Cabrera_chachacha_EnglishPS: I’m adding four covers of the book, the English, the French, the Spanish and the German one.  The French and Spanish ones are great for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but for this? The English one is a mystery although there’s a car involved in story one and two. I think the German one is the best and represents the book better than the others. You see the two men, the woman and the communist.

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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