Week Two of Spanish-Language Literature Month sees me bending the rules a little, but in a good way, I hope. You see while today’s choice hails from Spain, the language is not of the usual variety. We’re heading a little off-road in this post, far from the usual haunts of our Spanish-language literature favourites – let’s a take a short trip to the country (and yes, there will be cows…).
Manuel Rivas is a fairly well-known Spanish writer, but what most may not have realised is that he doesn’t write in Castilian Spanish but in Galician, a language closely related to Portuguese. That’s why Small Stations Press, a new publisher specialising in Galician-language fiction, are the perfect choice to bring out One Million Cows (translated by Jonathan Dunne, review copy courtesy of the publisher), an early collection of the writer’s short stories. The book contains eighteen pieces, running to just under a hundred pages, with some being rather short (the opening piece, ‘First Love’, is just under two pages long!), but all having a certain something for the reader to ponder.
Many of the stories are set in rural areas, and these discrete scenes of country life are designed to leave the reader to fit them into a bigger picture. In ‘The Lame Horse’s Road’, a man driving along a country road finds his way barred by a strange procession. He decides to join the group in their search for a merciful burial, one a local priest takes on grudgingly:
“He didn’t die at peace with God. What’s more, it will be difficult for him to enter the kingdom of heaven, since whoever denies life denies God. Life is a gift from Our Lord, and only he can decide the moment of our death. There isn’t much hope for you either. You live in sin, you’re lost creatures poisoned by temptations of the flesh. Don’t think he deserves mercy or forgiveness. What he did was an act of arrogance and selfishness in the face of Our Lord. I shall pray for you too, but I don’t suppose it will do much good.”
‘The Lame Horse’s Road’, p.33 (Small Stations Press, 2015)
We can see here the conflict between authority and the people of the region – whither mercy and compassion for our fellow humans…
This theme is evident elsewhere in the book. ‘Cotton Fields’ describes a phone call from a woman begging for her soldier son to come home to harvest the fields, one in which she’s unable to produce the social structures necessary to complete the call successfully. ‘Madonna (Christmas Story)’, the last story of the collection, is a short, melancholic tale, hinting at the depopulation of the rural area, the ‘Mad Cow disease’ epidemic hitting the region particularly hard.
Decline is not, of course, inevitable, and ‘The Englishman’ sees an attempt to remedy this, with a local returning from abroad, single-handedly improving a poor coastal town and the lives of the locals with it:
“There were lots of things waiting to be discovered in those new times. For example, the thing that attracts the most at night is illumination. In the darkness of a seaside town, neon lights are irresistible.”
‘The Englishman’, p.46
Still, you should always be careful what you wish for. As the differences between the start and the end of the story show, progress always comes at a price, one you may regret paying…
Another story looking at the return of a native is ‘Goats Don’t Cry’, in which an ex-pat worker returns to Galicia after years in Geneva. A couple of days in a car see him back on home soil, this time for good:
“He felt dizzy, as if he’d been smoking non-stop for two days. The sky here was much lower than in Switzerland. If you didn’t get down on your knees, you ran the risk of having the clouds make off with your head.”
‘Goat’s Don’t Cry’, p.54
It’s a sort of homecoming and a powerful piece which somehow creates a whole backstory in just a few pages.
Of course, city life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and there’s a fair bit of conflict displayed in the stories between the big cities and the provinces. A light take on the subject is provided by ‘A Trip to the Market’, in which a prospective councillor shudders at his trip around the market, forced to shake hands he’d rather leave untouched. ‘The Provincial Artist’, by contrast, is a far more sombre tale, where a successful local painter is persuaded to move to Madrid, with disastrous consequences…
There’s a lot to like about A Million Cows, a slender volume, but one that’s very enjoyable. It’s full of clever vignettes, superbly detailed snap-shots of regional life. Often, it’s about the scene, not the story, and Rivas approaches his homeland from several angles, describing both the coastal towns and the farms of the interior. The overwhelming feeling permeating the stories is of a region in decline and a culture slowly being suffocated by the mainstream – it certainly doesn’t feel like an area on the rise.
However, if that sounds a tad depressing, never fear – there’s a little humour too. ‘Sunday’ is a short scene, featuring a group of young men talking rubbish on a street corner. While the background emanates the same feeling of decay, there’s also a little life, vibrancy and hope in the way the youths play around. This lighter touch is also evident in the title story, whose title of ‘One Million Cows’ comes from a programme on the radio. In this one, an old woman hitchhiker is comparing Madrid and Vigo, having recently fled the capital; however, as the reader is to discover, there’s nothing withdrawn or provincial about our runaway 😉
All in all, One Million Cows is something a little different, a taste of the north-west, and if you’re looking for something a little lighter this month, you could do worse than take a trip to Galicia. Just, please, be careful out there – and watch out for the cows… 😉