Friday, November 14, 2014
I seem to be reading the late Ana María Matute in reverse chronological order, having started with her last, uncompleted, novel, Demonios familiares, before moving on to Paraíso inhabitado (Uninhabited Paradise), which was published in 2008. Since she began publishing in the late 1940s there's a lot of territory left to be explored.
Like Demonios familiares, Paraíso inhabitado is set around the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and centers around a young girl in a conservative upper-class family, though in this case the girl — Adriana, or Adri — hasn't yet reached adolescence. The youngest of four children whose parents have separated, she leads a solitary existence, roaming the corridors of her home at night when the grown-ups (the "Giants," as she calls them) are asleep, and relying on her books, the family servants, and her imagination for companionship. She dreads school, where she is bullied, and has no friends until a Russian boy — Gavrila, or Gavi — appears outside one day playing ball with his dog. Despite her family's ambivalence, the two quickly become devoted friends, "Siamese twins" as they call themselves.
The narrator occasionally tips her hand that the events she is describing happened long in the past (and like a garrulous but fascinating old aunt she is sometimes guilty of repeating a point), but otherwise the story is told entirely from within Adriana's childhood perspective, carefully respecting her understanding (a very limited one) of the events that are beginning to take place outside her own horizons. The novel skirts the borders of the fantastic; there is, it's true, that unicorn that is occasionally seen to escape from the frame in which it hangs in the family home, but really nothing that can't be understood as being a realistic part of Adri's interior life, which is as rich as her external circumstances are confining. As she approaches adolescence, Adriana begins to rebel against the restraints under which she lives, in which "boys play with boys and girls play with girls" and even the deepest rifts are papered over with false propriety. That rebellion can be seen, perhaps, as symbolic defiance of the old, conservative Spain that was about to reassert itself, or simply as a reflection of Matute's own personal development; perhaps it is both.
Matute reportedly contemplated a sequel, to be called La rama normanda (The Norman Branch), but it was never written. Thus far, Paraíso inhabitado has not been translated into English.