As I’m sure you all know, the choice of name for this month’s Spanish-Language Literature Month is a deliberate one, as there’s far more to the subject than just books from Spain. However, a slightly less well-known fact is that this Spanish-Language descriptor actually refers to more than just the Castilian variety of the language that dominates Spain, with several other languages having official status. Today’s post looks at a work from one of these languages, Galician, and it’s a novel that shows why it’s so important to keep looking further afield for our reading pleasure 🙂
Xurxo Borrazás’ Vicious (translated by Carys Evans-Corrales, review copy courtesy of Small Stations Press) is a clever work based around a terrible crime, the murder of a hard-working family in the Galician countryside, and we begin with a view from one of the recently deceased:
I’m still here, lying at the entrance to the threshing floor, looking up at the sky with closed eyes, my arms spread open and a leg stretched out, sprawled over the damp grass.
Nothing hurts. Nothing at all. True, the pain had its moment, but now all I feel is nothing.
p.9 (Small Stations Press, 2015)
As Daniel Monteiro lies in the grass, his body gradually growing cold, the murderer is making his way across the countryside in the hope of reaching the regional centre of Coruña, where he hopes to escape on a merchant vessel.
While this may sound like the set-up for a thriller, it’s anything but. There’s little tension in Vicious (as regards the identity of the killer, or the police pursuit, anyway); instead, the writer starts with the words of the victim and then radiates outwards, examining what’s happening in the village, in Coruña and overseas. As the story unfolds, Borrazás even takes us back in time, allowing readers to catch a glimpse of two brothers in their younger days, the time when the seeds of the crime were sown.
I wasn’t quite sure how Vicious would unfold when I started it, and half suspected that we would spend the majority of the book racing after the murderer, Daniel’s elder brother Xesús, (or Chucho), but it soon became clear that this was a rather different kind of book. It takes a while for the exact details of the crime to become clear as the mix of first-person accounts, descriptive sections and even newspaper articles initially confuse the reader rather than clarifying the events. Gradually, though, we are able to sort through this confusion, dividing the accounts into several strands dealing with the brothers’ past, the night of the murder, the immediate aftermath and Chucho’s flight abroad.
Borrazás cleverly provides a drip-feed of information for the impatient reader, using a variety of eye witnesses to construct a fuller picture not only of the crime but also of the reaction of the village and wider region. We see a full church of mourners, with a hypocritical (drunk) priest ready to swing into action; a squad of hopelessly ill-equipped policemen combing the fields in the hope of finding traces of Chucho’s trail; the people in the ‘big city’ of Coruña, suspicious of the scruffy, dirty country man trying his best to remain inconspicuous. All of this combines to show us the full effects of the crime on the small community.
It isn’t always easy to follow what’s happening in Vicious, and this is partly due to the great number of voices the writer makes use of. Quite apart from Daniel Monteiro’s corpse, we hear from his wife Lola, whose past is an integral part of the story, the policemen searching for the murderer, locals looking to steal wood from the empty estate, and even Daniel’s dog, Moino. If it sounds gimmicky, it’s not, as each of the voices helps provide a different angle on the crime and its effects.
As you can imagine, in this type of text the writing is fairly important, and on the whole Borrazás and Evans-Corrrales do an excellent job. While I’m not a huge fan of the dialogue in parts (which can be a little clumsy and grating), the text is generally excellent, with a huge variety in the different voices, ranging from Daniel’s resigned description of what he sees from his position flat-out on his back, to Chucho’s confused, angry revelations – and even Moino’s confused panting:
I don’t want him to go. I want his eyes to speak. These eyes don’t speak. Ever. the hands don’t love. They’re going far away. Me too. Far away, in front, far away behind.
Far away the eyes sleep.
nnff! nnff! nnff!
I stop and look behind.
The man’s going and doesn’t speak.
The eyes! Moino thinks. The eyes that loved me! (p.39)
Occasionally, the dog’s voice seems like one of the more straight-forward sections, with Borrazás using multiple voices in some parts and stream-of-consciousness sections where the identity of the narrator is unclear – and there’s even a hint that the writer himself wants to get involved:
And all these things happen one after another on a sheet of paper. And all those men are a single face, a single name that appears in the newspapers and says ‘Xesús Monteiro’. And, sheltered by distance, it is I who am saying these things. I, who have neither a name nor a face. Who am no more than an implied author at the expense of an ordinary narrator, not overly wise and certainly unreliable, filtered through abnormal viewpoints that put emptiness, disorder and words that don’t exist into the mouths of characters with no memory and no personhood. Unconscious characters, like myself at this moment. (pp.66.7)
No, this is certainly no ordinary crime novel…
A clever variation on the thriller and an excellent examination of how jealousy can have fatal consequences, Vicious is a great read, a novel many of you out there would enjoy. I sped through this much more quickly than I’d expected, not because of any superficiality or ease of comprehension but because the short chapters drew me in, leading me to finish the book almost before I’d realised. Borrazás might not be one of the biggest of names in Spanish literature, but he’s certainly worth looking out for on the basis of this work – this is another big tick from me for Galician literature 🙂