Doña Perfecta by Benito Pérez Galdós – A Review

20190907_164851For a country whose most famous literary work is a novel, Doña Perfecta has the appearance of an early novel, a novel whose shifts in style and the occasional lacuna in the plot, suggest a nascent form, one that hasn’t quite come into shape. This, of course, is an error.  Benito Pérez Galdós’ 1877 novel is a brilliant work whose structure, style, and themes all seem quite modern, and underscore the struggle between the modern, industrial world of the cities and the conservative, inflexible one of the rural provinces. It is a story, though written nearly 25 years before the start of the twentieth century, presages the internecine battles of the next hundred years.

The titular Doña Perfecta is the matriarch of an upper class family that comes from a rural provincial capital. It is an isolated place. The journey from the modern train station takes several hours by horse back through land that rife with bandits. It is ringed with with shanties and the town has been in decline for some time. None of this stops Doña Perfecta and her circle of friends, which includes a high church official, from looking suspiciously at anything that comes from the Capital, Madrid. When her nephew Pepe comes to town to marry her daughter and claim his ancestral lands, the conflict between these two worlds collide.

Galdós does not make it clear what Pepe exactly does to set off the ire of Perfecta and her friends. He lets the inhabitants relate what they’ve heard, leaving the reader in a game of telephone where what one hears about the young man might be upsetting, but is it true? The accusations are, naturally, all of a religious nature, but essentially are reducible to one idea: he has used his scientific thinking to disrespect the traditions of the city. Pepe, a good engineer more interested in building a physical future, one built on reason, cannot see what harm it is to walk through a church and look at the art. In the age of over tourism, it is hard to take this as a great crime, but it does show an inflexibility, an unwillingness to even listen to Pepe defend himself. Pepe doesn’t do that very well for he speaks in modern terms, ones that they are unable to understand.

Galdós’ characterizations are one of the true strong points of the novel. While he does employ a narrator that gives local color, or pushes the plot along with details from larger events, particularly the revolts of the 1870’s, it is in exploration of the voices of the narrow minded inhabitants of the province that the novel comes alive. Doña Perfecta is a particularly exasperating one, but one of those dark characters who sparkle in fiction. Her ultimate fate, dark and just as it is, is also tragic, and given her moral rectitude one she is completely unable to see.

Ultimately, Doña Perfecta reveals a Spain unable to shake itself of a lethargy and embrace the modern world. It is a failing with tragic consequences for both the characters of the novel, and the country as a whole.

Interview With Patricio Pron At Words Without Borders – If you like Madrid Don’t Read It

Words Without Borders has a very funny and caustic interview with Patricio Pron a man who despises Madrid. One might think he was from a different province by the sound of his voice. A must read if you a Madrid fan boy.

Can you describe the mood of Madrid as you feel/see it?

Madrid is a singularly ugly city. Its most representative buildings are grotesque, its river is negligible and rotten, its parks are dusty and full of petty criminals and its squares are tiny and uncomfortable. In addition, the city is terribly cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, and its people are the most ignorant and stupid I’ve met in my life (a good example of this, is their belief that speaking in English consists of shouting and making gestures, as any unfortunate person knows if he or she has ever had the unpleasant experience of coming to Madrid without speaking Spanish). It is not unusual for discussions in bars to escalate into exchanges of insults and that women and children are verbally abused by screaming men and alcoholics. In fact, only the dogs seem to have a good time in this city, as they can shit wherever they want (mostly in front of my house) and are very spoiled by their masters. None of these reasons explain why I still live here, though: sometimes I wonder, but the answer is so difficult to find as it is difficult to leave or forget this city once you’ve had the opportunity to live in it, which is great I think.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Shortly after arriving in Madrid from Germany, where I was studying, a young local writer said to me: “Don’t feel embarrassed by your difficulties trying to be like us. The fact is, you can never be like us because unfortunately, you have a degree.”

El último libro de Sergi Pámies (Sergi Pámies’ Last Book) by Sergi Pámies – A Review

El último libro de Sergi Pámies (Sergi Pámies’ Last Book)
Version del autor
Sergi Pámies
Anagrama, 2000, pg 139

Sergi Pámies is a Catalan short story writer, novelist and journalist whose work has been widely translated in Europe but has yet to have a collection come out in English yet. He’s probably as well known in Spain and Cataluña for his essays in La Vanguardia, a Spanish language daily in Barcelona. El último libro de Sergi Pámies is the Spanish translation of L’últim llibre de Sergi Pámies, originally written in Catalan and apparently translated by the author. (Typically I don’t read translations into Spanish, but this is the only way to get access to his books, which I’ve been interested in reading every since I saw an interview with him in 2010.)

Pámies work does have some similarities to the Catalan author Quim Monzo in that there is a humor, always a little dark, and an interest in parable like stories that push the characters to desperate paradoxes. While Pámies tends towards the fantastical, the collection opens with the wrenching El precio. One breakfast a son endures his father’s assault of tired and over used sayings all of which culminates in the phrase, everyone has his price. Later when the son calls his father to check on how he is, the son hears the father talking to his wife who has died years before. The son realizes as he is surrounded by the people passing through the train station living seemingly normal lives, that his price is falling and that his next step, that of playing along with his father, diminishes his price. It is an astute story, whose brevity captures the changing roles of father and son: from the adversarial when the son was young and striking out on his own and the father his own powerful figure; to that of the caretaker relationship that requires him to become something different, something that goes against his nature and diminishes his self worth.

La máquina de hacer cosquillas also has the same touch of melancholy loss as a father returns to the same book store he has frequented with his young daughter. He hopes to get in and buy something quickly without the old clerk noticing him. He fails and she sees him. Her greeting is warm, and her gift of the sweet for the girl would normally be accepted with happily, but it only brings back the memories of a tragedy and the quick journey to the little book shop is anything but quick.

In a funnier vein is El océano Pacifico which makes up half the book. It follows “the man” who has bought a new Audi A6 and discovers that every time he plays a CD in it the musician dies shortly after. First there is Barbara, then Stephan Grapelli, and finally Sonny Bono. He flees to Paris for the Christmas break to avoid the celebrations at home, noting

Una corona de muérdago convierte la puerta en una especie de atud en posición vertical

A crown of mistletoe made the door into a kind of vertical coffin.

Paris is not a particularly festive city for him. It is a gray city of mourning and as he walks the streets and endures the rain Pámies turns Paris into one of those dark places of noir or French new wave where only isolation and darkness exist. Taking the metro he sees a street musician playing a clarinet. She is beautiful and he falls in love with her enough that he buys her CD. At his hotel he opens the case with trepidation, afraid his curse will kill her, but it’s empty. He searches through every metro station looking for her and when he finds her, they make a bargain. If she can survive 12 hours after playing her CD, he will give her 10,000 franks. She takes the offer and the man and the clarinetist play a game of waiting, she not trusting him, he limiting his desires for a woman he desperately wants but cannot have and is afraid he will kill. Ultimately, when he is returning home he takes pride in his ability to fall out of love. It was something, like Paris, that was a passing infatuation. What does it say though, that everything he loves dies (although the fate of the clarinetist is left open). Instead we are left with the death of Carl Perkins. It is a strange tale whose insights about Paris are colored with a loneliness and quiet desperation that is chilling and comedic.

Perhaps in his most fantastical and paradoxical, a man who can see into the near future sees himself in a hospital and has no idea how sick he is or what will happen. Even though he has the power to see into the future, he is powerless to see beyond the room. What he finds himself wanting to know is what will he know when he is actually in that moment in the hospital. Even for those with the power to see the future, the future is not enough. He needs to be in the future to see the future. It is his most Borgesian story whose brief pages belie a paradox.

Sergi Pámies’ work is an excellent mix of the satirical, fantastical, and humorous, bridging social satire, to political cometary, to family stories of loss. An astute observer, especially in his descriptions of Paris, his stories are filled with observations on modern life. For those interested in Catalan literature, perhaps one day he will be translated.

Carmen Martín Gaite’s American Success

El Paishad an article on the success of Carmen Martín Gaite in the academic world. For an author without translations and who died in 2000, she has a surprisingly large number of followers. She is probably the best known of the generation of the 50s, partly because she outlived many, but also because her work still resonates.

¡Miranfú! Carmen Martín Gaite dijo la palabra mágica de su Caperucita en Manhattan, se abrió la alcantarilla y una corriente gustosa de aire tibio la ascendió hasta la corona de la estatua de la Libertad. Allí sigue, reinando como si no hubiera muerto. En Estados Unidos, donde aman a los reyes con vehemencia republicana, la han entronizado como el gran clásico de la literatura española contemporánea. El único autor de España presente en 56 universidades al norte del Río Grande.

Ni Benet, encumbrado entre la élite como el más singular de su generación y amadrinado por la escritora —como evidencia la correspondencia entre ambos editada recientemente por el profesor José Teruel—, ni Sánchez Ferlosio, su exmarido, han permanecido indemnes al paso del tiempo. “Ella es imprescindible. El cuarto de atrás es una novela canónica. Nadie puede doctorarse en Estados Unidos sin haberla leído, sin embargo ya casi nadie enseña a Benet ni El Jarama”, explica la catedrática de la Universidad de Delaware Joan L. Brown.

Y Brown no le dice por admiración —escribió en los setenta la primera tesis sobre Carmiña de su país— ni nostalgia —lo anterior, desde 1974, las convirtió en grandes amigas—. Esta catedrática ha dedicado dos estudios (1998 y 2008) a fijar el canon académico de la literatura española a partir de la investigación del programa de 56 universidades. Después de un complicado proceso de recopilación de datos, descubrió con placer el lugar que ocupaba su amiga escritora. Ni entre visillos, ni envuelta en nubosidad variable, Carmen Martín Gaite (Salamanca, 1925-Madrid, 2000) presidía el frontispicio, a la cabeza de los programas de estudio.

8 Untranslated Spanish Authors at Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders has a great edition this month featuring 8 untranslated Spanish authors. This is an exciting edition because it features one of my favorites, Cristina Fernández Cubas. It has several I don’t know well, but Juan Eduardo Zúñiga is someone I’ve been looking forward to for some time and will be reading this year. I think they missed a few which you can read about here.
This month we present poetry and prose by twelve Spanish masters whose dazzling work has been unavailable to the English-language world. Exploring scenes ranging from the devastating Madrid subway bombing to the idyllic coastline of Greece, in rhapsodic poetry and anguished prose, these writers provide new insight into Spanish literature today. Read Fernando Aramburu, Cristina Fernández Cubas, Miquel de Palol, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Antonio Gamoneda, Pere Gimferrer, Berta Vias Mahou, César Antonio Molina, Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas, Olvido Garcia Valdés, Pedro Zarraluki, and Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, and discover the breadth and depth of contemporary Spanish writing. This issue is part of the SPAIN arts & culture program and was made possible thanks to a charitable contribution from the Spain-USA Foundation. We thank the Foundation for its generous support, and our guest editors, Javier Aparicio, Aurelio Major, and Mercedes Monmany, for their excellent work in selecting the authors and pieces presented here.

Elsewhere, we present writing from Syria, as Zakariya Tamer tells tales of djinns and talking walls, Abdelkader al-Hosni reflects on friendship, Golan Haji considers magic and loss, and Lukman Derky mourns a history of war.

Antonio Muñoz Molina Wins the Jerusalem Prize

The Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina has won the Jerusalem Prize:. According to El Pais:

El jurado ha seleccionado a Muñoz Molina “porque es un autor excelente, pero también porque su obra expresa la libertad del individuo”, explica Joel Makov, director del festival literario en conversación telefónica. Makov detalla que el autor de Sefarad o El jinete polaco ha confirmado que viajará a Jerusalén para recibir el premio a principios de febrero.

El jurado ha considerado que los libros de Muñoz Molina reflejan además “los grandes cambios que han tenido lugar en España durante su transición de la dictadura a la democracia y han expuesto la traumática memoria colectiva”. Los jueces destacaron también al dar a conocer su elección “la simpatía que Molina expresa por los exiliados y los que sufren. Aquellos víctimas de las revoluciones históricas”. “Es uno de los autores más importantes de nuestro tiempo”, añadieron.

Javier Cercas: On His Novel and the Nationalism of Spanish Language Fiction

Revista Ñ has an interview with Javier Cercas about his new novel Las leyes de la frontera, which returns to his themes of how a history is constructed. But as a provocateur he also notes that the literature of the Spanish world is isolated between countries. Readers in one country don’t read works from another and vica versa. But he lays his heaviest criticism on Spain, noting that partly for historical reasons and partly for a kind of navel gazing and narcissism of the newly rich. (via Moleskine)

–¿Por qué casi siempre los escritores españoles están aislados de sus pares latinoamericanos?

–Mi impresión es que ése es un tema general de la literatura en español: hay una atomización. Es decir, los escritores y los lectores argentinos leen poca literatura española; los españoles, poca literatura argentina y los mexicanos, poca peruana; por ejemplo. Hay una especie de impermeabilización, hay muy pocos escritores que traspasan esas fronteras, que no son fronteras. Es un drama. Por otra parte, la literatura española es menos cosmopolita que muchas literaturas latinoamericanas. La literatura española, con excepciones, se ha encerrado, primero por causas históricas, pero también por una especie de ombliguismo, narcisismo estúpido y también por esta cosa que hemos tenido de nuevos ricos los últimos 30 años. El nacionalismo es la peste, pero en literatura es el horror. Pertenecemos a una tradición muy amplia, aunque nuestra tradición literaria sea muy inferior a las grandes tradiciones –la del inglés, el francés, el alemán– ahora es más potente quizás que muchas, hay que beneficiarse de eso.

You can also see an interview with him at Canal-L