‘The Happy City’ by Elvira Navarro (Review)

January’s over, and it’s time to put away the J-Lit and return to the wider world of translated literature.  We’re making a start with that today, courtesy of a novel I received for review a while back from Hispabooks.  It’s off to Spain then, with just a hint of the Orient too…

Elvira Navarro’s The Happy City (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is a book in two halves, with two related stories making up one whole novel.  Both stories are tales of kids growing up in a Spanish city – two Hispanic coming-of-age tales, if you will.

The first is called Story of the Chinese Restaurant “Happy City“, and it’s all about Chi-Huei, a young Chinese boy who finally arrives in Spain after a couple of years living away from his family.  After his time with his aunt, he has a doubly difficult task ahead.  Not only does he have to adjust to a new country and language, he also has to readjust to life with his mum and dad…

The reader is shown life as a migrant, and it’s not all about the delights of the modern world.  While the family has a decent standard of living, it’s tough, and they work all hours to keep their heads above water and feel like they’re making progress.  For Chi-Huei, there’s also the added pressure of school, with his parents pressuring him to focus on his education (when he’s not helping out at his parents’ restaurant…).

As a young arrival, picking up the language isn’t such a big deal, and there is an unexpected benefit when his father begins to express himself more confidently in the new tongue with his two sons.  As with any nascent bilingual though, there are some issues to overcome – and this even extends to his native tongue:

“He could sense himself short-circuiting when, for example, he chatted to his aunt and then carried on using the same accent to speak to his mother, which made him feel strange and become abruptly aware, thanks to a feeling of slight embarrassment, of some sudden inappropriateness, of a subtle variation in his identity.  All at once he sounded false and felt ridiculous when he changed, as if inexplicably taking off his clothes in front of everyone and then putting on new ones that didn’t suit him either.”
p.32 (Hispabooks, 2013)

It’s all part of the challenge of adjusting to a new environment, be it cultural or linguistic.

The second story, The Edge, focuses on Chi-Huei’s friend Sara, and this story takes a very different approach.  Sara is an only child, with very clear boundaries set by her parents, and when she one day decides to cross those boundaries, an encounter with a homeless man throws her life into turmoil:

“He is a young homeless man, sitting on the steps with his legs stretched out, his body leaning lazily backwards.  Walking until I come to a halt at the edge of the sidewalk, I am horrified and fascinated; I suddenly recognize myself in the skinny body, the torn clothes, the dirty hair hanging to either side of the face … for the vision of decay is drawing me toward something I know nothing of.” (p.101)

Leaving her permitted path for the first time brings confusion and knowledge of a wider world, one which she isn’t really ready to cope with.

In a sense, her decision to cross the line is a move towards the end of childhood, one which leads into a downward spiral of behaviour.  She hides her actions from her parents and invents lies to cover her tracks, something which soon leads to trouble with the law.  Sara is rebelling against home pressures, and she becomes determined to find the homeless man (who seems to be following her) and find out what he wants…

In addition to the friendship between the characters, the main connection between the stories is the theme of relationships between parents and their kids.  Chi-Huei can’t see why his parents are working so much; it’s not really a means to an end, he sees it as getting rich for the sake of being rich.  In addition to his anger at initially being left behind in China, he gradually becomes aware of a dim future full of responsibility, a future he would rather avoid.

Sara’s parents have a very different problem.  Terrified of making a mistake, they’re unable to decide between freedom and smothering.  Sara’s adventures are simply the curiosity of the unknown, but the more her parents dither, the greater the danger that she will do something stupid.  Her conversations with her new friend have soured her outlook, and, like Chi-Huei, she is pessimistic about the future. 

The Happy City has two interesting stories of growing up, but for me there was no real bite to the book.  I felt it was missing something, and I wasn’t convinced that the two stories really made a novel.  It was very easy to read, perhaps a little too easy at times – in fact, I’m a little tempted to describe it as a YA novel (which might actually make many of you more interested in it…).

While it’s not really my kind of book, there’s definitely a lot there about the problems of moving into a new stage of life, and I’m sure that many people will enjoy it.  Certainly, if you’re looking for an international coming-of-age story, you could do worse than give Navarro’s book a go 🙂

2 thoughts on “‘The Happy City’ by Elvira Navarro (Review)

  1. Hello, Mr. Tony!

    Elvira Navarro has been on my radar since I read her piece in Granta- that one was crackling, although 'Happy City' sounds more like, as you described, a YA novel, which makes me a little wary. Add to it the immigrant life stuff and you have me off the list. Anyways, I am glad that Hispabooks are publishing interesting Spanish authors (especially 'The Hotel Life' by Javier Montes, do post a review if you happen to read it).

    Thanks for the review! 🙂



  2. Atharva – I haven't read the Montes book, but I'll be sure to review it if I do 🙂 The first Hispabooks title I read was 'Uppsala Woods', and that was much more to my liking.


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