Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente – A Review

Marcos Giralt Torrente
Trans: Margaret Jull Costa
Hispabooks Publishing, 2014, pg 343

Every time I read a book from Marcos Giralt Torrente I am amazed at his mastery of language and his use of memory as a subject. His two books in English, The End of Love published in Spain in 2011 (2013 in the US) and Paris from 1999, now translated for the first time by Margaret Jull Costa, show a writer who fascinated by memory and the past. It is a fascination that he uses immense skill, exposing the overlapping layers of the past that with each memory and each deeper exploration through them, those same memories change subtly so that there is never absolute certainty in his works, but a sense that I’m close to what happened but I’ll never quite know. It takes a delicate touch to work as he does, always keeping a simple explanation at arm’s length. The shifting search through memory that marks both books is where the brilliance of his writing lays.

Paris is narrated by a middle-aged man  attempting to understand his parent’s marriage. From the start he is doubtful he will find what he is looking for:

As with everything one has not experienced directly, for me, the beginning of their relationship, albeit devoid of all symbolism, belongs to a territory that is more mythical than real. According to the idealized version my mother gave me in my childhood—which was the one destined to last and which, even now, I have no reason to doubt, because she never amended it—they met in the late 1950s in a Madrid that I imagine to have been like the dusty skin of the elephant in the old Natural History Museum but that, when my mother spoke of it, was lit by the blue of a nostalgia that consisted in equal measures of partying into the small hours and a sense of life lived at a slower pace, which had to do perhaps with the general tone of the period and, in equal measure, a complete and proper youthful disregard for time.

Even in the search for what really happened the narrator not only admits he probably won’t be able to learn everything, but there is a sense that even what he takes is true might just be suspect. The quote is also an example of a typical Giralt Torrente approach to memory, describing not just what is remembered, but how it is remembered, which is as important and always part of the story.

His father was a restless man who never really wanted to work but wanted to live the good life. He drifts from job to job until his family’s money is exhausted. A perpetual liar, he drifts into crime. What kind it is not clear to the narrator. His father was always opaque, a man who shares little but who wants to be liked so well that he told people what ever they wanted to hear, promising what he could never offer. Midway through the book the narrator notes that he and his mother would receive phone calls from people he’d met and promised something. He couldn’t help himself, he had to be liked. They learn to disabuse the callers of any hope they have that his father will deliver on what he said. The mysterious calls are just one of the strange actions of a man who comes in and out of the narrator’s life, and he like so much in the book, is left to piece together what little fragments he can remember.

Even more mysterious and the true emotional center of the book, is his mother’s relationship to his father. She holds the family together, keeping the narrator safe, insulating him from the chaos of his father’s life. When he thinks back to his childhood, his mother his heroic if a little too patient. When he has left for what seems like good, she decides to move to Paris. It is in Paris that the mystery of their three relationships becomes more complicated. She takes on behavior much like his: no fixed address, writing infrequent letters, calling out of the blue. What is it that she is doing there? Living some Parisian fantasy or is something else going on? When she decides to come home and tells him on the phone, he realizes latter that there was something strange with her life in Paris.

Taking a rather questionable approach—questionable because it sets too much store by a supposition that is in itself extremely flimsy—I would say that, for some time, she had not appeared to be responding simply to the perfectly normal, pressing need to know if I was all right, but to a more egotistical need, like when we find ourselves alone and frightened in the dark night, hemmed in and harried by all our doubts, when we can see no way out of a life we imagine we have irrevocably chosen for ourselves and we need to be in touch with someone dear to us, not so much because that person will be able to give us the impossible answer we seek, but simply in order to hear their voice, feel their affirmative presence, and have them confirm to us that we are on the right path, that they support our choice, regardless of what right or wrong decisions we have made or not yet managed to correct. As I say, I did not realize this at the rime, and I’m not even sure that’s how it was.

As he grows older and the intertwining mysteries of his mother and father continue, he finds in the two of them a duplicitous relationship that is never fully explainable, one that they don’t even understand and it leads to a confrontation with the narrator that opens and shifts the past, at once explaining and obscuring what has happened. Ultimately, it is Giralt Torrente’s brilliant analytical eye that opens these doubts and gaps into forking paths that have a life of their own, making the search for explanations more important than an actual answer. And for the narrator, if there are answers they only will be fluid, something that one shapes as one needs. More than most authors Giralt Torrente knows how to show the slippery and ever changing reality of memory.

I’ve not read Giralt Torrente in Spanish yet, an oversight I hope to remedy. It is obvious, though, that Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is well done. Given the complexity of some of the languid complexity of some of his sentences, her work should be commended.

Paris has been one of the best books I’ve read this year and should not be missed if you are interested in great writing.

I want to thank the fine people from Hispabooks Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book. It was a pleasure to read.

Rafael Chirbes Wins the Nacional de Narrativa for En la orilla

Rafael Chirbes has won the Nacional de Narrativa for  En la orilla his hugely successful book on contemporary Spain after the economic collapse. El Pais has the story.

¿El perro Tom, Liliana, el oportunista Francisco, Justino y el estafador Pedrós le tirarían a la cabeza a Rafael Chirbes el premio que le acaban de dar? Él cree que sí. Diecinueve meses después de que los trajera a este mundo, en una réplica de la España de la crisis bajo el título de En la orilla (Anagrama), la novela sigue su larga marcha de premios. Solo que este último es el Nacional de Narrativa (dotado con 20.000 euros) que le produce a Chirbes (Tavernes de Valldigna, Valencia, 1949) sensaciones encontradas. Por un lado, se siente orgulloso por tratarse de un galardón que representa la narrativa de su país; pero, por otro, confiesa por teléfono con voz tímida pero segura: “Me produce cierta desazón, porque no me gusta nada la política que se está haciendo en este país, como lo referido a los presupuestos y el poco apoyo a la Cultura”. Y, encima, sabe que sus personajes son víctimas de esa política de España. Por eso aventura un pronóstico: “Todos mis personajes me lo tirarían a la cabeza”.

Dice que el Gobierno y la política le escribieron la mitad de la novela, porque “el desastre lo han hecho ellos”, y él se ha “limitado a escribir y contar ese desastre”.

Dice que los periodistas le han preguntado si va a rechazar el premio y que si cree que con él lo van a domesticar. “¿Por qué voy a renunciar?”, les ha contestado. Lo haría si viviera en una dictadura sanguinaria, pero, aclara, que quienes le han concedido el galardón es un jurado que no conoce, al que está agradecido y que es imparcial. Y que el premio contribuye a que su novela, lo que cuenta, se conozca más. Respecto a si va a ser más manso responde: “Ya se sabrá si soy tigre o gato”.

My Photos of World War I a Century Later

I recently had the opportunity to spend six days visiting the battlefields of World War I. Since this is primarily a literary blog, I have created a separate blog of the trip with many more pictures than the ones below, plus commentary on the sites. If this is something that interests you, the blog is at

Click an image to start the slide show.

October Words Without Borders: New Writing from Guatemala

The new October Words Without Borders is out now, featuring new writing from Guatemala. I’m particularly excited about this since I spent several months there learning Spanish some years ago.

This month we present writing from Guatemala. With contributors ranging from the master Rodrigo Rey Rosa to the rising young Rodrigo Fuentes, the prose in this issue offers a taste of this country’s little-known literature. Parent-child relationships drive many of the narratives here, as Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s frantic father searches for his disappeared toddler, Denise Phé-Funchal’s young girl tries to win the heart of her resentful mother, and Rodrigo Fuentes’s wary adult son is drawn into his mother’s remarriage to a haunted man. Mildred Hernández reveals the violence seething just under the surface of a couple’s home and marriage. Luis de Lion’s witty narrative monkeys around with politics. Dante Liano exposes the shocking truth behind a woman’s innocent pose. Carol Zardetto’s dreamy narrator returns to Guatemala and her previous life. And David Unger, winner of this year’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize for Literature, finds the best way to confront his country’s history of corruption is through fiction. We thank our guest editor, WWB favorite Eduardo Halfon, for his assistance with the issue.

Elsewhere, Alice Guthrie introduces writing from Syria. Alice interviews poet Mohamed Raouf Bachir, who takes a sorrowful inventory; Zaher Omareen finds a lullaby in a story of mistaken identity and loss; and Rasha Abbas observes the onset of madness.

New Story From Contemporary Argentine Writers Tonight, a Get-Together at Home by Vicente Battista

Contemporary Argentine Writers has published a new translation, “Tonight, a Get-Together at Home”, by Vicente Battista.

He ran into him one humid November night and was on the verge of screaming. Later, whenever Alejandro Funes thought of that night, the first and perhaps best thing he remembered was that initial encounter: Barreiro in the lobby of a movie theater, alone and carefree. I always imagined I’d run into him some day, Funes had often said, and he had always thought (although this he never did say) that day would be different. It wasn’t. It was the same as any other. With the same people and the same noises; with the same summer heat, and, like other Thursdays, the same get-together at home. The same as any other night. And, nonetheless, something had to be different; he didn’t know how, exactly (he never did know how), but different. Because the man now looking over the show times, that one in the grey suit and the beige hat, is, despite wearing different clothes, the same Francisco Barreiro who years ago, between blows and sessions with the electric prod, gave orders to those who had invented his humiliation; the same man who, one afternoon, told him he was free. And called him “chicken shit.” And spit in his face. Francisco Barreiro, who appears every night (when Funes, alone, has no one to tell his heroic feats to) is now there, in the lobby of a movie theater. Funes knows what he should say: “At last, Barreiro” and walk into the lobby. But, inexplicably, or because of something that would reveal itself that very night, he remains quiet, silent. That he also remembered, later.

Juan Trejo Won the Tusquets de novela

Juan Trejo Won the Tusquets de novela, a prize given to an author of an unpublished manuscript.

Quizá en poco tiempo podrá encontrarse, ni que sea tenuemente, un hilo conductor en la dispersísima obra de los escritores en lengua castellana de hoy que van desde los treinta y muchos a los cuarenta y pocos y que pasa por una cierta búsqueda de referentes morales y espirituales en estos tiempos de desguace de valores con perfume estudiado de outlet. Y eso podría ir de punta a punta del Atlántico desde Guadalupe Nettel a Miguel Serrano Larraz, para poner ejemplos bien distantes en lo físico y lo estilístico. A esa preocupación podrá encuadrarse a lo mejor La máquina del porvenir, segunda novela del escritor Juan Trejo (Barcelona, 1970), con la que ha obtenido el décimo premio Tusquets de novela, con sus 20.000 euros.

“Hemos llegado al mundo exterior y a la fase adulta de la vida y hemos hallado más ruinas morales que respuestas concretas, hemos encontrado desgana y tristeza y nos faltan referentes morales”, ratifica Trejo (Barcelona, 1970). Esa exploración, el filólogo y profesor de literatura en Aula Escola Europea la plantea a partir de Óscar, joven que parte hacia Berlín para identificar el cadáver de una madre de la que hace años que no sabe nada; casi lo mismo que de su padre, autor argentino de exitosos libros sobre la búsqueda de la felicidad. El joven, desarraigado, que quiere saber de su familia, descubrirá que es la tercera generación de una estirpe de insatisfechos y visionarios que arranca con su abuelo, de alguna manera vinculado a una extraña cohorte de visionarios y “gente psíquica” que rodeó al zar Nicolás II para construir un artefacto que anticipase el futuro.

Publishing Perspectives on UT Revival of Classic Latin American Literature in Translation

Publishing Perspectives had an article this week on The University of Texas Press’ (UT Press) revival of their Latin American Literature in translation.

When The University of Texas Press (UT Press) started publishing Latin American Literature in translation in the 1960s there weren’t many other publishers competing for acquisitions. That had changed by the time UT Press reassessed its LiT program in 2010. They found a vibrant if small industry that was bringing important work into English and publicizing and distributing these books through traditional publishing channels.

UT Press looked back at the decades of translated books they had published, many of which had gone out of print and were no longer available except for used copies, if copies could be found at all. As part of a press-wide effort to bring back into print  hundreds of out-of-print books that UT Press had the rights to, 39 titles were reintroduced as part of the Clásicos/Clássicos Latin American Masterpieces in English Series. UT Press sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell says “Almost every title also has an ebook edition for the first time, a major effort to make these titles as accessible to readers as possible. Some ebook editions are now outselling the print versions.”

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