Sunday, November 30, 2014


At first glance, Ana María Matute's 1960 novel Primera memoria seems much of a piece with the narratives with which she ended her career some five decades later, Paraíso inhabitado and the unfinished Demonios familiares. Like the later books, it takes place during the first months of the Spanish Civil War and centers around an adolescent girl in a conservative Catholic family divided by death, separation, or emotional remoteness. There are even some common allusions: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," a toy theatre, and so on. But though there's a bittersweet, autumnal sorrow even in Matute's last books, Primera memoria, written and published in the dead years of the Franco era, is a very different, much more troubling tale.

The heroine, Matia, fourteen years old, has lost her mother years before; her subsequent caretaker, a family retainer, has taken ill shortly before the novel begins. With her father absent (and regarded as a black sheep due to his allegiance to the Republic), she is packed off to her grandmother's home on an island that is unnamed but presumably Majorca or one of its neighbors. The forbidding figure of her grandmother reigns over the house and much of the vicinity, but Matia and her male cousin, Borja, who is a year older, regularly escape to drink and smoke on the shore, out of sight of the family and the slightly older tutor who is supposed to be keeping tabs on them. Borja also steals money, weapons, and other contraband from his grandmother and elsewhere, and caches them in a stranded boat. Inevitably, the two lonely adolescents form close, but deceptive, bonds.

Nothing on the island is above board, and nothing is what it seems. Smuggling is rampant, adultery widespread, and with the outbreak of the war old scores begin to be settled. Some of the scores are ancient: on the outskirts of town there is a ruined district — the plaza de los judíos — where, centuries earlier, the Inquisition had burnt the island's unconverted Jews. The descendents of the conversos, the Jews who chose to adopt Christianity in order to save their lives, are taunted as chuetas, the worst imaginable insult; nevertheless their bloodlines, like subterranean streams, in fact appear to be everywhere on the island. A rival gang of teenagers, armed with meat hooks, sets bonfires and immolates straw men dressed up to resemble Borja, in order to draw him into battle. But in the end, they all fear Borja, and with good reason; he is charming, but as Matia delares, he also has "an absolute absence of pity." His streak of ruthlessness will do terrible damage by the novel's end, and he will not pay be the one to pay for it.

Though she had a long and successful career, Ana María Matute reportedly ran afoul of Franco-era censorship at times. Primera memoria, which won the Premio Nadal and is the first part of a loosely linked trilogy, may simply have been too subtle and ingeniously crafted to set off the censor's alarm bells. It is no less subversive for all that. It has been translated into English twice, once as Awakening and once as School of the Sun.

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