El corazón de los caballos is the Spanish short story writer Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s first novel. A refreshingly short novel, it is a continuation of a story that first appeared in his collection Quédate donde estás (Stay Where You Are), called El reino químico and which was my favorite of the collection when I reviewed it a year or two ago. As in the short story, the novel opens with unspoken tension between the narrator’s father and grandfather. It is a tension that has populates the world of the grandson, Victor, who doesn’t understand why his father does not like his grandfather. It is a relation that in the novel is distant and still remains unexplained, but it sets the tone of the novel. What seemed like the eccentric behaviors of a loving grandfather in the El reino químico, are actually the foundations of Victor’s problems.
Victor’s life hasn’t quite worked out as he wanted. He was a promising mathematics student but when he fails to get a scholarship after years of graduate study, he loses his patience and attacks the professor. He loses everything and on his journey to his final court date he goes to a Pyrenean town with his boyfriend Andrés, who is going to receive a literary award. It is a journey that begins to trigger a series of memories that he has if not suppressed, avoided. The first is of Eva, his former student, an anorexic and troubled girl who intrigued him. It isn’t so much as sexual, although there is some sort of tension, but one of shock, fear, confusion or even disappointment. When he does discover that she binges at night he is angry and like the mystery of his father and grandfather, she disappears and he hears nothing of her again. The second, darker memory is of a drug addict who likes to climb from balcony to balcony. Scared, a knife in his trembling hand, he watches as the man loses his balance on his porch and falls to his death without doing anything. He’s accused of pushing him, but he’s released because the man was a druggie known for that dangerous game.
With those incidents in the background, Victor and Andrés enter the Pyrenees. The awards ceremony is really just a chance for the town to feel important, but they meet two people of interest: the previous winner, Ines, a mysterious woman who has not let her photo appear on the cover of her books since her first book; and an old man and his granddaughter. Each has a story that Andrés, a man who lives to gather stories and rewrite them as he sees fit, as if he is reconstructing the reality of those he has stolen from. And it is a form of theft, because he is unrepentant in his using of other people’s lives. The old man talks about a Portuguese man he met during the Spanish Civil War and who had been wrongly accused by the old man’s comrades of being a traitor. The story captivates both Andrés and Victor, and the old man promises they can see a photo of him the next day. From then on Victor’s life begins to get worse and over the next few hours he descends into darkness and violence as Andrés dumps him, and Victor begins a search for the photo the old man promised. Ultimately, ending in a desperate moment of hate.
What makes the novel interesting is the interplay between the stories that the characters tell, and the way Andrés uses them to recreate Victor’s existence. A week man, Victor is at the mercy of Andrés ability to rewrite his own story, and when that story has ceased to be interesting, he leaves him; thus, rewriting his life again. It is that interweaving of Andrés power to draw a story from a character that creates Victor’s experience. It is as if, Andrés were actually the author of the book. It is a nice play on the journey narrative, and takes the reader deeper into the layers of story than just the Heart of Darkness references (in Spanish it is translated as El corazon de las tinieblas). Muñoz is an author who is very interested in the interplay of story, reality, and how they construct each other and that playfulness is what makes him an interesting story teller and El corazón de los caballos a book worth reading.
You can read the first chapter here (pdf).