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.