‘Umami’ by Laia Jufresa (Review)

IMG_5472Richard, from Caravana de Recuerdos, and Stu, from Winstonsdad’s Blog, have once again declared July to be Spanish-Language Literature Month, and as I’m not one to argue with gentlemen of such esteem, I’ll be doing my little bit over the next few weeks.  My contribution will consist of one review each #TranslationThurs, resulting in at least four examinations of Spanish-language literature from a variety of angles.  One thing that has become clear is that this year’s selections focus very much on Mexico, and today’s first choice sees us heading to the capital to hear from several voices, a collection of neighbours you might even describe as family…

Laia Jufresa’s Umami (translated by Sophie Hughes, review copy courtesy of Oneworld Publications) is a polyphonic tale centred on life in a small collection of houses in Mexico City.  The five main characters, each talking from a different year, tell their stories, and as they do, the reader pieces together a little more of the lives the various families lead in the five houses of Belldrop Mews – Bitter, Sour, Sweet, Salty and Umami (the names are the idea of Doctor Alfonso Semetiel, an anthropologist who owns the buildings).

Initially, there is little to connect the stories other than the fact that the speakers all live in the same complex.  First, there’s Ana, a bright bookish twelve-year-old wanting to make something of her family’s small garden; then, we have artist Marina and the widowed Alfonso (or Alf).  The fifth voice belongs to Pina, Ana’s best friend, a girl upset about her parents’ divorce, but it’s the penultimate strand which is perhaps the most intriguing, belonging as it does to Ana’s little sister Luz – who died several years before the story began…

That’s a lot of information to take in, and Umami uses a structure which also takes time to get your head around.  We start in 2005 and go back a year with each chapter until the end of the section; then we return to 2005 and repeat the process.  It all makes for an ambitious work that is less plot-driven than constructed using overlapping ideas and stories, with Jufresa providing a drip-feed of information for the reader.

As the story progresses, more of the residents’ suffering is revealed, but while there are plenty of secrets, Jufresa is in no hurry to reveal them all.  For example, there’s the mystery of Pina’s mother’s departure, somehow linked to an argument between Marina and Linda, Ana’s mother.  There’s also a growing connection between the residents of the Mews, with Alf and Linda catching up secretly at a bar for daytime drinks, and Marina meeting up with Pina’s mother, Chela, one rainy night.

One of the major themes running through Umami is grief, and how we deal with it.  The death of poor Luz leaves an enormous hole in her family’s life, but in truth it’s in the sections narrated by Alf, mourning the death of his wife Noelia, that the topic is examined in most detail:

Nobody warns you about this, but the dead, or at least some of them, take customs, decades, whole neighborhoods with them.  Things you thought you shared but which turned out to be theirs.  When death does you part, it’s also the end of what’s mine is yours.
pp.34/5 (Oneworld Publications, 2016)

Without his work to distract him, he decides to work his way through his trauma with the help of his new laptop, using the text that develops as a means to express views he’s kept inside for decades.

Jufresa also uses her novel to explore what it means to be a family.  One of the major decisions in Alf’s life was not having children, and now that he’s left alone, he wonders if it was the right one.  Ana’s large family appears to be happy in its own chaotic way, yet with a girl-sized gap in its midst, all are aware that life can’t go on as normal.  Meanwhile, Pina is still pining for her mother, wondering why she left and hoping for her return.  However, what they all slowly come to realise is that the five houses of the Mews have brought the residents closer together, and that you don’t necessarily need to be related by blood to be part of a family.

While not quite as foregrounded as the other themes, the city where Umami takes place is also an important part of the story.  The Mews acts as a microcosm of Mexico City, with the residents often getting caught up in their own lives, unaware of the clouds hovering above them – just like the city itself:

Mexico City sits waiting under the scum.  Mexico City lives under the scum.  Sometimes a few towers or roofs might poke out from under it, but in general, when day is barely dawning, the scum is sealed: like something you could bounce up and down on.  But the scum does let you in.  It swallows you and makes sure you forget all about it.  This is its chief characteristic: as soon as you enter the scum, you stop seeing it. (p.218)

This can all be seen only from the outside – once you’ve passed through the smog, it is no longer visible.  It’s a telling allegory for the metaphorical pollution surrounding the five small houses…

One of the features of Jufresa’s writing is the use of language, including a range of different voices, from wry, educated Alf, to cute Luz and the slightly spaced-out Marina.  This last character has her own way with words, inventing new colours (whozac, redsentful, yellowoeful, darktric) to suit her mood and the surrounding environment, even coming up with her own version of the Lord’s Prayer:

‘Our Father, who art in Devon, halloweened be they name.  Your whisky gone, you will be prone to bursts of laughter and rage.  Give us this day our daily taste of fasting, and forgive us our thefts as we forgive your bad taste…’ (p.92)

Hughes manages to bring this across into English nicely, and I’m sure she enjoyed the challenges this wordplay entailed 🙂

There’s a lot to like about Umami, but I wouldn’t say the book is a complete success.  It takes some getting into, and the lack of a real plot means it relies overly on the quality of the individual sections.  In addition, like several other books I’ve read which utilise the technique of reverse chronology (e.g. Eka Kurniawan’s Man TigerInga Ābele’s High Tide), Umami reaches a high point in the middle of the book, with the story unfortunately petering out a little towards the end.  I certainly felt that the last few chapters sagged a little in comparison with what came before.

On the whole, though, it’s an enjoyable read, with the multiple voices allowing us to see each character from a variety of angles.  While it’s not a book for people who need a plot and a resolution, there’s certainly a lot in Umami for readers prepared to find their own way into Jufresa’s world, and I’m sure a lot of readers out there will appreciate it. One for Women in Translation Month, perhaps?  I’ll leave that up to you 🙂

9 thoughts on “‘Umami’ by Laia Jufresa (Review)

  1. Another talented Mexicansl writer they keep turning the reverse chronological thing seems a fashion in recent translated works I have a few books up my sleeve hopefully time permitting


  2. The chronology is not only reversed but it’s also chunked along lines of character and year. For instance, only Ana’s story is told in 2004 and she only shares in 2004. Hers is the 2004 story, if you will. Marina gets 2003, Alf 2002, Luz 2001 and Pina 2000. We see Marina answer the door in Part 2 and the woman walk in in Part 3 – both 2003. I’d love to reread this but .. (I’ll likely nominate it for a reading group somewhere – lol.)


    1. Becky – It’s interesting, but I’m not sure there’s enough there to tempt me into a reread in hurry. As mentioned in the review, some parts were stronger than others, and I wouldn’t mind skimming few of those at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

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