The Wrong Blood
Maunel de Lope
Other Press, 2010, 288 pg
What strikes one when reading The Wrong Blood, Spanish writer Manuel de Lope’s first book to be translated into English, is the movement through time. It is a book that reveals itself if in concurrent glimpses of the past and the future, where even as the underlying story is revealed, Lope is constantly seeding the pages with little moments of the future that explain just enough lured you on. It is a difficult balancing act that can easily descend into over powered winks at the reader: you see what I know. It is a fitting style, though, for what has become the emblematic topic of Spanish writing over the last few decades—the Spanish Civil War—and the slow, confused, uncertain mystery of remembrance that often doesn’t completely explain what happened to the participants. The question for readers, though, is does the book work with the materials of history to get at something that addresses the Civil War, or does it just use the past as a backdrop for a well told story?
Most of the action of The Wrong Blood takes place in a small section of the Basque country on the border with Spain and follows two women, Maria, a poor, uneducated girl of 17 whose family owns a rural inn, and Isabel, an upper class woman who lives in a large home and is the young bride of an army captain. The story begins just as the Spanish Civil War starts and the two sides are rushing to put together armies and militias. It is a confusing time and the geography of the war is changing quickly. The young girl is abandoned at the inn when her parents run away from advancing fascist soldiers. The soldiers move into the inn and she works as a servant. Most of them are young militia men and have an ominousness presence. However, it is the sargent, separated his wife during their wedding anniversary, who rapes her. It isn’t a violent moment, he just expects her to because she understands she has no choice. The soldiers will move on and she will live the inn, but the rape, the third one in her short life, marks her with a great distrust and mixed with a rural sensibility, she is becomes a secretive woman.
Marrying on the eve of the war, Isabel has but just a brief honeymoon with her husband before the war starts. It is a moment of great hope, and like many novels that open with a wedding it is doomed from the start. From the beginning de Lope juxtaposes the wedding with the war:
It was the month of may, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway. And so it was the month of May, or the month of June, in wedding season.
It is an inauspicious moment, as one of the wedding guests has a stroke in the bathroom of Maria’s inn during a stop on the way to the wedding. From there the problems only continue. The region they live in is initially Republican (anti-fascist) but quickly falls and Hondarribia, the small town where she lives which is tantalizingly across the river from France, becomes occupied territory, filled with soldiers guarding every town, summary executions, and privation. And her husband, the only one of his army comrades to join the Republican forces, is captured and executed just months after the war begins.
But even before he describes much of the war, he moves into the future, sometime in the 1960s, when the grandson of Isabel comes to stay at the family home. Yet the house is no longer in the family. Instead, Isabel had willed in to Maria, who is now an old woman. It is unclear why an upper class woman would give a home to a poor country girl, and even more, why the country girl would let the woman’s grandson stay at the family home for a few months. It is the first of many mysteries that begin permeate the story. The above history of the war is not even clear at this point, yet de Lope leaves a feeling that something dark has happened. He is a master at revealing the mystery slowly. Even though the old doctor who lives in the house next door knows the whole story, his hesitation, his doubts about what to reveal and to who, only add to the tension.
Despite the the well written nature of the novel, the strange relationship between the doctor and the grandson, where the doctor wants to reveal all, and the grandson wants to escape the pesky only man, provides the only interesting commentary on the passage of the time and who owns the right to secrets. Is the doctor right to want to explain what happened, or does he just want to make himself feel better? These kinds of questions swirl around the doctor. De Lope is obviously interested in the way ideas are transmitted. For example, in this representative sample of his style, the kind of intra-sentence refinement that works out its ideas through constant use of counter images.
But nobody appeared to be paying any attention to this enigmatic vision, and with the passage of the years, when recalling a wedding celebrated so long ago, it may all seem grotesque, strange, or simply unread–a memory of playing with figures decked out in wedding finery amid flowers and balustrades, or ow wandering in a labyrinth of bushes, or of seeing the bust of a horseman above a garden wall as he rode by during the magic moments when twilight was galling–for real life had offered one of those sequences that would never be repeated except in the theaters where what were then still called talkies were shown. In the end, memory adopts images that originated in films.
When getting at memory he is at his best. He has a good eye for the images that make up a moment and a way of describing them that is concrete and lush at the same time. Reading this book will surely overwhelm one with images and sensations that seem to pop off the page.
Yet, I can’t help but return to the question first asked: are his ample skills at evoking the time, simply used to dress up a mystery? I ask this because the central mystery of the book, which I’m not going to spoil, doesn’t seem far fetched, but feels as if it isn’t explored as well as it could be. Instead, de Lope seems to sidestep the central issue, the real pain it would have caused. And in describing the emotions of that pain he obscures with such strong descriptions, what should by its very weight, its existence, be powerful and reveal the depths of the character’s thoughts that would bring to life the past.
The Wrong Blood is a solid book, well written, and it is not for nothing that Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende give him high praise of the book jacket. Considering how little from Spain is translated into English, it is worth a read. However, despite the perfection of the story and the writing, I think he could have reached just a little father and found something even more humanly revealing in his characters.
FTC note: The publisher sent me this book. For that I thank them.