Friday, October 24, 2014

Last words

No quiero ser un espectro más de esta casa...

When she died earlier this year, the Spanish writer Ana María Matute left behind an unfinished novel, Demonios familiares ("Family Demons," or conceivably "Familiar Demons"), which has just been published in Spain by Ediciones Destino. Though she was 88 at her death and had suffered from various ailments, it's quite clear from reading it, and from the brief "Nota final" by María Paz Ortuño, that she died with her wits and her gifts soundly intact.

Like much of Matute's work, Demonios familiares is set during the Spanish Civil War and centers on an adolescent girl, in this case one who would have been just a few years older than the author, who was born in 1925. As the story begins, Eva has just been retrieved from a convent school where she has been living with the intent of becoming a novice. The convent has been set ablaze by persons unknown and the fire is visible from her childhood home, where her father, a retired colonel who is confined to a wheelchair, lives accompanied only by a taciturn male servant, Yago, and an elderly cook and housekeeper, Magdalena.

Eva has grown up, motherless and almost friendless, in a household presided over by the colonel's mother, known to everyone as Madre. Madre is now dead but her presence lingers everywhere, especially in Eva's attic refuge, where her portrait is now stored. Restored to her home, and abandoning any thought of becoming a nun, Eva is now fiercely determined to gain her independence, but with the outbreak of full-scale war her world will be turned upside-down by the discovery of an injured parachutist — one of "the enemy" — in a nearby forest. The text ends abruptly, perhaps half-written.

There are familiar elements in this scenario: the old house inhabited by memories and retainers, the remote and despotic paterfamilias (though he is beginning to soften his grip), the love affair that cuts across battle lines, but their presence should not mislead us. Matute's inhabitating of Eva's thoughts and emotions, and her ability to resuscitate in Eva the spirits of her own childhood, keeps Demonios familiares fresh and original throughout.

There are two attitudes customarily taken when a writer leaves unfinished work behind; the first — and this applies particularly if the writer was elderly at her death — is that the work, being unfinished, is of interest more to scholars than to readers; the second is that it's a terrible shame that the work was never finished. Neither attitude is really appropriate in this case; no doubt the concluding chapters of the book would have provided additional pleasures, but there's something satisfying about it in its unfinished, indeterminate state. It's as if Matute's long career as a writer did not end but simply opened out into generous possibility.

The jacket art, by the way, is by the Canadian painter Michael Thompson. The book's epigraph is by the poet Luis Cernuda: "Todo lo que es hermoso tiene su instante, y pasa": everything that is beautiful has its moment, and passes.

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