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.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mark Strand (1934-2014)


A man walks towards town,
a slack breeze smelling of earth
and the raw green of trees blows at his back.

He drags the weight of his passion as if nothing were over,
as if the woman, now curled in bed beside her lover,
still cared for him.

She is awake and stares at scars of light
trapped in the panes of glass.
He stands under her window, calling her name;

he calls all night and it makes no difference.
It will happen again, he will come back wherever she is.
Again he will stand outside and imagine

her eyes opening in the dark
and see her rise to the window and peer down.
Again she will lie awake beside her lover

and hear the voice from somewhere in the dark.
Again the late hour, the moon and stars,
the wounds of night that heal without sound,

again the luminous wind of morning that comes before the sun.
And, finally, without warning or desire,
the lonely and the feckless end.

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.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Aurora Bernárdez (1920-2014)

Aurora Bernárdez, the first wife and literary executor of Julio Cortázar, has died in Paris. Though the couple divorced in the 1960s, after Cortázar began a relationship with Ugné Karvelis, they retained strong bonds of mutual respect and friendship, and upon the death of Cortázar's second wife, Carol Dunlap, in 1982, Cortázar assigned to Bernárdez the remaining half of his estate that was not already intended for her. Bernárdez cared for Cortázar during his final illness, and after his death oversaw the publication of his posthumous papers, including a splendid edition of his letters. More information is available at El País.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Good people

After the scarcely mitigated hell of the recently concluded election cycle, nothing would be easier (or, it would seem, more defensible) than to simply throw up one's hands and walk away in despair. And maybe we all do need to walk away, for a moment, just for the sake our mental health.

But on reflection, what really has changed? It's never been easy to change anything for the better in the US, and that will still be the case two years or ten years or twenty years in the future. We are what we are and that's the territory. Take a few deep breaths, then remind yourself that what you learned to be true and right when you first became of an age to understand these things is probably still true and right. We all learn from experience (or ought to) but the fundamentals are eternal: compassion is still better than cruelty and pettiness, truth and understanding are better than lies and ignorance, and extending one's horizons and empathy to encompass others and our own future is better than short-sightedness, greed, and xenophobia. End of sermon.

Below are links to three organizations that are directly involved in improving the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens (and non-citizens). None of their activities ought to be regarded as controversial (though to varying degrees no doubt they will be so regarded by some) and none of them are political in the sense of affiliating themselves with parties or candidates, but each of these organizations works, on a more-or-less modest scale and in its own way, to make a concrete and positive difference in people's lives. Check them out, or find one of your own.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Immokalee, FL)

Neighbors Link (Mt. Kisco, NY)

Workers Defense Project (Austin, TX)