In translating the novel Forty Lost Years into English, Fum d’Estampa Press and Peter Bush have gifted Anglophone readers a forgotten gem of twentieth century fiction that not only offers us a fresh view on the effects of the Spanish Civil War, the ensuing exile many were forced into and Franco’s dictatorship, but also a text which remains strikingly relevant and present.
First published in Catalan as Quaranta anys perduts in 1971, and enjoying a second wind when republished in 2016, Forty Lost Years is narrated by Laura Vidal and covers forty years of her life, starting in the 1930s when she is a young adolescent.
In the Company of Men – The Ebola Tales by Véronqiue Tadjo is a beautifully written and translated, stark collection of concise narratives about the Ebola epidemic of 2014. A short but unforgettable novel, it offers a poetic vision of sustained horror, fear, and excruciating pain. It questions the blindness of humanity in the face of potential catastrophic collapse as rampant greed, willful ignorance and avoidable self-destruction threaten to decimate planet earth.
Originally published in France in 2017, there is something prophetic about these tales in light of today’s coronavirus pandemic, and the grim topicality of potential or ongoing infectious disease threats.
Anne Serre is a remarkable and unusual writer; her pen a scalpel dissecting the human condition with painful precision. The Fool & Other Moral Tales – three novellas – is lyrical and disturbing, wonderful and terrible, arousing and devastating. The hallucinatory, and at times nightmarish quality, is beautifully rendered by translator Mark Hutchinson.
All three tales adventure through the multiple guises and meanings of The Fool. Is he a fallen angel, a grotesque carrier of vice and folly bringing wisdom in his wake as a consequence of blind faith, hopeless romance and reckless desire, or is he an abortive saint, a mistaken revolutionary? The ultimate shapeshifter, he can lead you to Heaven or Hell or, if you get stuck, into the abyss.
“He stood at the edge of the pavement, exactly on the corner, a full head higher than those around him. Olivia waited for him to dip his head as a sign of respect, but he stood there, very still, his hard blue eyes fixed on the oak coffin. Then he stepped forward and it seemed for a moment that he wanted to touch the coffin, to make the last contact with her grandmother before she was buried. Slowly, he lifted his head back, looking to the sky, then he jerked forward and spat a long stream down the window of the hearse.”
When all else fails and no peaceful solution can be found to end a struggle to control a country or a region, to achieve independence, or to force a change in government policy, warring camps form, families and communities are divided, and the killings and atrocities begin. The time and place and context might vary but the root cause for people taking up arms against each other is always the same: the pernicious polarisation of hate.
The Others is an irreverent yet poignant novel by Raül Garrigasait, excellently translated from the Catalan by Tiago Miller. Its central character is a young Prussian man who crosses Europe to fight for the Carlists in Spain. Though set largely during a war in the early nineteenth century, The Others shines in its ruminations on humanity which echo as true today as ever.
“Wielemann threw himself head first into the pandemonium once again.” (p.99)
Although he is pushed towards the Iberian Peninsula by his family’s expectations, Rudolf von Wielemann believes in the Carlist cause, or at least in what he believes it represents. Over the course of his adventures in Catalonia, his preconceptions and principles will be challenged, and so, too, perhaps, will the reader’s.
When the serendipities of war send him to the small town of Solsona, his war experience turns out to have little to with principles or, indeed, war. Sidelined from the action, Wielemann finds himself a foreigner in a strange land filled with eccentric characters, most of whom he struggles to communicate with. It is no coincidence that the author himself is a translator, something mentioned in the book, with themes of identity, language and belonging explored.
“When the wind blows, I think about all the grains of sand it’s carrying from the deserts of Africa and the steppes of Russia, and about all the creatures that have seen those grains and ingested and excreted them.” (p.98)
In the commotion of chance and happenstance, infused with the monotony of war away from the frontline, the Prussian’s experience is often like he has stepped into a delirious nightmare where things happen to him, if they happen at all, and his agency is stripped of him, along with the lifeline of a letter from his uncle.
Wielemann went to Catalonia to fight for the ‘Order’, for the supremacy of Catholic doctrine and an absolute monarchy. This novel is set in the midst of the First Carlist War, when conservative Carlists fought for the right of Charles Maria Isidre de Borbó to the throne, while the more progressive Liberals fought for the regent Maria Christina, who acted for the deceased king’s daughter, Isabella II.
In Solsona, however, these divisions and the very foundations of the war become blurred for Wielemann and perhaps the only person he can relate to in the town is Miquel Foraster, a Liberal doctor. Despite diverging on certain nuances of ideology or theology, the doctor is someone Wielemann can have a conversation with in this strange land he has ended up in by the whims of fate, and his company is a refuge.
“Why, saints carved out of wood have done more in this world than any real-life saint ever has. And tell me, why shouldn’t we find that marvellous?” (p.79)
The dialogues that Wielemann and Foraster share are some of the book’s best moments and highlight the stupidity of man, the futility of war and just how little humans have really changed in almost two centuries.
While Foraster is an intellectual equal, many of the others Wielemann encounters on his travels are not and translator Tiago Miller handles these shifts in register, while conveying the linguistic barriers the protagonist faces, with aplomb.
More so than being a war novel, for Wielemann sees little fighting for much of the book, this work speaks to travel, the condition of being an outsider, the nature of conflict and the root of ideologies and power.
“Sometimes I think that’s all the Carlists were: a group of friends defending their collective memories through the use of arms.” (p.49)
The Spanish Inquisition also makes a sneaky appearance or two in the book as we see characters wrestle with the malleable concepts of faith, cynicism, tradition and modernity.
Once more, the triumph of Garrigasait’s novel is in making nineteenth century material feel so relevant. Many of the debates of the day, with words changed here and there, are not so different from the questions society still faces.
The narrative is also pulled back to the modern day in the short auto-fictional chapters inserted here and there detailing Garrigasait’s experiences researching the source material, which he came upon by chance, which seems appropriate given Wielemann’s tale.
“The students standing at the back stifled yawns, as impervious to the rhetoric of angels as to that of the devil.”(p.107)
The Others is a witty, pensive novel that finds sincerity in absurdity and vice versa. It evokes a time and a place that is oddly relatable, at once lost and still all around us.
Interview with the author and translator
Translator Tiago Miller reading an excerpt from The Others by Raül Garrigasait
The Others by Raül Garrigasait| Translated by Tiago Miller | Fum d’Estampa Press PB 200 pages 15 May 2021 ISBN 978-1913744007
ANDREW MCDOUGALL was born in Glasgow and studied Portuguese and English literature at the University of Edinburgh. He has also lived in Sussex, Lisbon, Coimbra, Logroño, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Norwich, where he completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. His work has included co-translating a book by José Eduardo Agualusa and translating a chapter by Ana Cristina Silva as part of the Escape Goat project, on which he also collaborated as an editor. Other published translations include short fiction by Clodie Vasli, Decio Zylbersztajn and Gabriela Ruivo Trindade. He translates from Portuguese and Spanish.
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