Hispabooks, a Madrid-based press specialising in translations of literary fiction from the four official languages of Spain, has been around for a few years now and has introduced several interesting Spanish writers to Anglophone readers. However, as important as breadth is, depth is also necessary, which is why I was pleased to see two writers whose work I enjoyed, Andrés Barba and Luisgé Martín featured for a second time in the Hispabooks catalogue. Having received review copies of both, I thought it would be nice to look at them together, even if they’re (longish) novellas with very different settings and themes – let’s see which one I liked better 🙂
Luisgé Martín’s The Same City (translated by Tomasz Dukanovich) has the writer recounting the story of Brandon Moy, an American poet he used to know. A man of the world, the American has lived in several countries, done a lot of crazy things and slept with dozens of women along the way – which makes it difficult for the writer to believe Moy when he adds one more detail to the story. Apparently, the catalyst for all this was the attacks on the World Trade Center – when Moy (in truth a lawyer) realised that everyone thought he was at work in one of the buildings, he decided to take the opportunity to run away in search of an elusive freedom he thought had gone forever.
With his last doubts decided by the failure of the call to his wife to go through, Moy leaves New York to start a new life, deciding to pursue all the interests he was forced to give up once his wife, family and work came along. Starting from the bottom, he manages to create a different life for himself from scratch, living in a way he could previously only have dreamed of. However, a sense of doubt lingers, eventually clouding over his happiness, a feeling which is crystallised in a poem by Constantine Cavafy which he is introduced to by one of new lovers:
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
p.79 (Hispabooks, 2015)
Sadly, in his pursuit of lost ambitions, the realisation comes too late; the truth is that he was probably happy where he was.
The Same City is an interesting slant on the mid-life crisis (indeed this idea crops up on the first page), one where the reader vicariously experiences the thrill of leaving everything behind. The writer telling the story is, like the reader, half in awe of Moy and half shocked by his ability to shake off the dust of his old life, but Martín’s account of the American’s experiences, including how he begins to lie, cheat, steal and sleep around, pulls no punches. Gradually, we see that no matter how free Moy feels, in truth, the grass is rarely greener elsewhere, no matter how jaded you’ve become. Wherever you run to in search of new experiences, you’ll end up in the same city you left.
There’s a lot to like about The Same City, but I’d have to say that I preferred his last book in English, Woman in Darkness, much more. The main issue I had with it was that it dragged a little in places, and while the repetitive nature of Moy’s actions may have been intended to emphasise how he repeatedly becomes trapped by his life, it also had me wanting to skip ahead at times. I think this is because The Same City is a short story which has been extended beyond its limits; I suspect that the same tale could have been told, and just as well, in thirty to forty pages. It’s certainly interesting, but you do wonder if it needs to be as long as it is.
However, that’s certainly not the case for the second of today’s books, Andrés Barba’s August, October (translated by Lisa Dillman). Rain Over Madrid featured four extended stories, and this second work in English pushes the range a little further, with a two-part novella running to almost 150 pages. The story looks at a fourteen-year-old Spanish boy on the annual family holiday to the coastal town where his aunt lives. Where previous years were full of fun and sun, puberty has wrought changes upon Tomás, and this August is to be very different from those of the past.
August, October is a book I enjoyed greatly, recognisably by the writer of Rain Over Madrid, but with a slightly harder, grittier feel. Tomás has entered a difficult period in his life, and everything seems old and faded, leaving him empty and unable to enjoy himself as he used to. Even the annual visit to the fair has lost its appeal:
The first fair, though, the one from the early days, seemed to have been switched off, and it was no longer a luminous highway but a thinly lit stream, slightly asphyxiating – the charcoal-grilled seafood had a burned smell, and its thick smoke was off-putting…
p.53 (Hispabooks, 2015)
When you add to this teenage angst the discovery that his aunt is terminally ill, it’s no wonder that he is about to go off the rails.
The twist in the tale comes when he falls in with a group of local youths, boys he’d never normally hang around with, and comes into the orbit of their female equivalents, more sexually aware and forthright than the girls Tomás is accustomed to. Mix in some drink, drugs and sexual frustration, and the scene is set for a dramatic end to his holiday, a rather disturbing encounter which leaves him guilt-ridden and desperate. Haunted by the memory of what happened even back in the comfort of his own home, it’s inevitable that he’ll return to the coast to try to make things right.
Portraying Tomás in a sympathetic manner is no easy task, but Barba manages it, thanks in part in this version to Dillman, whose translation reads beautifully, capturing the swing between the melancholy lows and the tension-filled highs of the teenager’s experiences. In places, August, October even reminded me a little of Camus’ The Stranger; quite apart from the nihilistic air pervading many parts of the novel, there’s a tense first encounter with the local youths on the beach, a slow walk under a burning sun. Throw in the rather abrupt ending to the first part of the story, and you could almost be in North Africa…
However, unlike Camus, Barba is here to redeem his ‘hero’, not bury him, and the second part of August, October moves towards a happier climax. Tomás’ quest for absolution turns into a voyage of discovery as he learns a little more about himself and questions what he wants from life. The themes, and the narrative arc, make this a Bildungsroman, even verging on YA at times, but there’s a lot more to the story than this. Where The Same City unfortunately outstayed its welcome a little, August, October ends at just the right spot, allowing the reader to imagine its hero at a crossroads. Whichever path he takes, though, we sense that he’ll be moving in the right direction.