The End of Love
Marcos Giralt Torrente
Tran: Kathline Silver
McSweeny’s, 2013, 163 pg
The End of Love is Marcos Giralt Torrente’s winning entry in the 2012 Ribera del Duero prize for the short story competition. Handily translated by Kathline Silver, it is simply one of the better collections I have read in sometime. I was a little surprised since I had dismissed it initially when it had one the prize. Something about the excerpt that was printed in El Pais did not catch my eye. That was a mistake. Torrente’s writing and narrative skill make this collection shine.
The four stories, as the name implies, are about the end of love. Torrente approaches the end of relationships not through a history of the decline, but through the elements that show it in relief. It is a powerful technique and mark his stories with a subtly that reveals the collapse of the four different relationships in ways that avoid cliche’s. In the first story, We Were Surrounded By Palm Trees, he describes a couple who has gone to a small coastal village in an unnamed African country. They arrive with a German couple that they don’t known. From the beginning there is something strange with the village. The head of the village gives vague warnings about going out at night. It is unspecified what, but there is a threat of something, an area where the reader can inject their own fears. The German couple doesn’t follow the requests of the village head and the couple fight over if the husband should go out and look for them. Again what they fear is unsaid but the husband is reluctant to do the search the wife wants. It is in these arguments, none of them a blow out or relationship defining, that you see the problems with the couple. It’s what makes it so subtle and refreshing. What we are seeing is just the part of a larger story that is unsaid, much as the fear that permeates the foreigners. Even the story itself is caught midway between the relationship and the end, opening with an ellipsis:
…I remember when it started. There is one scene that comes back to me, frequently, though it seems arbitrary to focus on it.
As the story ends the reader can see why the relationship is going to fail, but the opening paragraph also makes it clear that on its own, without the context of memory, of a failed relationship, this might just be a bad weekend getaway. These subtle turns make the story haunting and leaves one asking what more was there with this couple.
In Captives we have a participant-observer as a narrator, a man who relates the strange love and marriage of his cousin. The reader, like the narrator is always kept at a distance from what is happening. Where as We Were Surrounded By Palm Trees focuses on a seemingly incidental incident to obfuscate, the narrator by his very distance is unable to know the full story. What ever it is happening between his cousin and her husband it is odd. Torrente also uses the narrator’s idolization of his cousin to miss questions that as an older, wiser adult he would like to know. If the couple are so happy together why is it she takes him out alone when he visits her in New York? Do they have private lives? It is these kind of questions that permeate the story as the narrator describes their long marriage that slowly drifts into living in separate homes on the same farm and the only thing between the couple seems to be the narrator. In his brilliant first paragraph (one of many in this erudite work) you can see the shades of mystery that Torrente weaves so well:
Guillermo Cunningham had more money, more status, and was definitely more sophisticated than any member of our family, the only strike against him being a foreign surname that conjured vague social origins, as vague as the origins of his wealth–an indeterminate amount of income from nobody knew where and that would most likely not be increasing due to his lack of interest in business, which was an even more serious concern. I don’t think, in any case, that it would have occurred to Alicia’s parents, nor to any other adult relation, to in any way hinder their engagement. The possibility of bringing into the family someone who possesses wealth is much more tempting for those who have had it and no longer do that for those who never have.
Despite the brilliance of Captives, I still think Joanna is my favorite of the four stories. The narrator is an adult looking back on when he lived in with his gradmother in El Escorial outside of Madrid. She is one of those those grandmothers who means well, but belong to a different time:
…a strong and affectionate woman who ave me everything she could, but who was shaped by a set of old-fashioned beliefs that view misfortune as a circumstance requiring even more rigorous discipline, not greater tolerance. The misfortune, of course, was mine, orphaned and abandoned as I was, and it was precisely for this reason that my grandmother kept me on such a short leash, lest I forget that life is hard, that there is no respite.
He begins a friendship with Joanna, a girl of his age and a summer resident in one of the big homes in the town. Because of his age he is permitted to be friends with her, even though his class would not normally permit it. From the beginning the Joanna’s mother is a disturbing woman preoccupied with her looks, especially in relation to Joanna. The mother tries to insert herself into to Joanna’s world and is the epitome of a woman who’s never grown up. Joanna does not like her and with the narrator there is a freedom that comes to a halt when they are with her family. When her brother shows up midway through the story there is a hint that something perverted is going on. The narrator doesn’t know what it is though. For him, Joanna disappeared when he was 18 and she returned to Madrid and a life among the well to do. What he suspects, though, is that one of his call in guests on his radio show has told him what really happened and it haunts him still. The ending which is so strong, like his other stories, plays with what the narrator truly knows as is a masterful ending that avoids the taint of epiphany.
My only criticism of the book is with the first story. It felt a little as if he were playing with exotic locals, using Africa, for his own devices and projecting on it. It certainly not egregious, but as I read it I couldn’t help but have that in mind. In part this is because the most powerful part, the mystery, also feels tinged with stereotypes.
That aside, this is a masterful collection. One in whose pages I can continually find phrase that distil the essence of a moment into something greater. I leave you with one of my favorites:
I was carrying the camera, but I did not take a single photo. I regret it. If I had, those photos would now be of what could have been.