Any thought of escaping home and summer in London for sun, sea and al fresco lunches – paella, gelato, freshly grilled octopus – has been scuppered by the recent global lockdown. The world is at a standstill as we are besieged by Covid-19. Travel plans and holidays have been either postponed or cancelled. A trickle of pictures of lunches by turquoise seas and sun-kissed legs keeping cool under striped umbrellas have only very recently begun to sneak back onto my social media feeds from the lucky few who have managed to get away.
So reading Heaven, Manuel Vilas’s latest collection of poetry and short fiction published by Carcanet Press, translated from the Spanish by poet and Cambridge don, James Womack, abated my craving for the Hispanic sun, cool cobbled church squares and ocean swims. Complex, rich, melancholy, beautiful, biblical and profane, this is one of the finest and most powerful collections of contemporary poetry I’ve read in recent years. Violence, beauty, tenderness, sex and death coexist and have a momentum all of their own, at times even eclipsing the author.
Vilas is exceptionally skilled at capturing the misery and ecstasy that can coincide and enmesh in a single moment. In Costa Dorada the speaker asks, “What do you have against God, against life, against happiness, against the body, against pleasure, against beauty?” This is a central question that Vilas explores through his writing. In Blood Alcohol the speaker says, “The world is my poison, and the world gives me earthly life. The world is fire in my mouth, I believe in the world. Rise up. Burn it all. Don’t take too long. I’d like to see it. Wonderful.” He alternates between seeing the world as a giver and destroyer of life, and this unresolved conflict runs through the entire collection. The melancholy, anguish and restlessness of the speaker’s feelings are superbly evoked in the short lyrical sentences and swooping highs and lows of emotion.
A Poor Man’s Biarritz begins with the speaker, “crazy happy, high as a white cloud,” but he then berates himself for his elation; “For the love of God, why am I so happy if all I have / is death riding my back and this fistful of coins for my salary?” As Andrew Marvell did centuries before him, so too does Vilas feel time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; the preoccupations of man do not change over the time. Vilas equally moves from tragic to comic in the blink of an eye. After a visceral moment when the speaker realises that his existence is “no more than the midday sun, the sea and the heat, / July heat, August heat, high season heat,” he ends on a wry and comic note, saying to a policeman – in defence of owning a flick-knife – “I have only come here to play in the sand / with your girlfriend and all her friends, and your mother, and your sister.”
Playfulness ripples across the surface of the poems and through the speaker’s fluctuating perceptions, but a melancholy world-weariness prevails which Vilas conveys with a flair for memorable phrasing. “I went out into the city, wet sad and in love with nothing,” is reformulated a few lines later: “In love with nobody, damp, suddenly sober.” The re-ordering of the words creates a nuanced heaviness and sadness of feeling that wasn’t quite present before. The reader, like the speaker, feels a crashing sobriety take hold and eradicate a romanticised and elegiac outlook.
In Trainee Vampire, the speaker’s alienation causes him to “think I’m a kind of vampire, / unworthy of the moral rigour of underworld beasts” as his conflicted, flinty and jaded view of life disconnect him from his surroundings. “I am nothing and I want it like that, because there has never been anything.” In The Swimmer, he proclaims “all the institutions / of the earth are an annoying lie.” But even worse than that, “it doesn’t matter, because the whole world / believes absolutely in the lie.” Unlike others, Vilas doesn’t “believe in anything,” yet there is a sense of freedom suggested in this faithlessness. Ten lines later Vilas ends the poem: “Let’s hope no one loves us, and we can carry on swimming / because it is good to swim, because to swim in the sea / in July, is something very beautiful.” This is a prime example of what Vilas does again and again in these poems, with ease and a lightness of touch: he brings you back from the brink of utter despair about the state of the world to shine a light on the simplest of pleasures and the understated things of beauty encountered on a daily basis.
At times the collection feels intensely personal, almost voyeuristic, as Vilas makes multiple journeys. With precision and immediacy, scenes are remembered in hotel rooms and cities all around Europe. “I took a trip to Lourdes in France, in July ’98; that radiant time” ; “This morning I got on the ferry that runs to La Gomera / from Santa Cruz de Tenerife” ; “Sitting on a summer terrace in Mallorca, I said to a friend . . .” There are multiple sexual encounters – on a boat with a Scottish woman, or else with a “perfect” woman who is “naked, smoking, reading a magazine” on the sofa in his room – Vilas and the speaker conflate and you are sucked into his world. As a line in the collection’s eponymous poem states: “All men are one man”.
Vilas moves smoothly between the quotidian and the sublime. The biblical imagery is another highlight and one of the most memorable aspects of the collection. The poet’s sense of the world is profoundly informed by growing up in Catholic Spain, evident through both the omnipresence of God and references to the sacred and the profane. God is everywhere: “At the end of a very long corridor you will see God” ; “Once again I find it hard to stand up, and I ask God to give me a second / chance” ; “Let the Lord God number me among the saints”. The proximity of a holy essence or presence in the everyday – which Vilas renders with a visceral punch – is evident, for example in a description of the speaker waking up in a Pyrenean village one morning: “The whole atmosphere was muggy and delirious, / filled with wild gestures and tragic inhalations, / just as I was, ten years ago, and the hand of God / covered the mountain-peaks.”
Although religion and notions of wickedness are threaded through the collection, the underlying sentiment is that of a man struggling with having lost his faith and belief and comfort in God. You sense that he still wants to believe; he longs to find the comfort in God that he found as a young man, but experience and time have worn him down and implanted a nihilistic hopelessness. He flits between seeing the beauty and the violence in the world and humanity; both the effervescence of life and omnipresence of death. This is articulated beautifully in Costa Dorada, as the speaker proclaims: “I do not forget the works of God, but rather I observe them from out of my temptation and my pleasure, my promiscuity and my nightmare, / from my instinct and the flower of sainthood, / from violence, from out of holy violence.”
While questions of belief and the meaning of life are central themes, Vilas also addresses the increasingly problematic twenty-first century world. A couple of poems touch on climate change and the overheating planet; others on the dark side of tourism; another hauntingly depicts the Iraq War and American soldiers returning home with symptoms of PTSD; “Maybe they start going to a shrink in 2006 . . . and in 2017 they are shadow-ghosts in the Brooklyn parks, / 2018 they throw themselves into the Hudson.” His piercing imagery and the ability to philosophize and describe bleak situations with dark humour make for a bittersweet read.
“My whole life has been done on the cheap, but I loved it like you said / we should love all that flows from us / in a constant exhalation.”
Emotional depth and layers of meaning shine through Womack’s rhythmic translation and his use of extraordinary vocabulary. The complexity of some of the more nuanced lines is linguistically stark. As in all great poetry, ordinary and unsuspecting moments are suddenly infused by a subliminal energy that transforms a mundane thought or event into a profound and valid realisation. We could all do with more of those out-of-body experiences that remind us of the bigger things in life – things that we can’t control or prevent – helping us to live in the moment and enjoy the precious time we have.
Heaven by Manuel Vilas | Translated by James Womack | PB 112 pp ISBN: 978 1784108861 | Carcanet Press
Manuel Vilas is the author of several books, including fourteen collections of poetry, seven books of essays, and seven novels. His most recent novel, Alegría, was the 2019 Premio Planeta Finalista, and its predecessor, Ordesa, was a bestseller in Spain, winning the French Prix Femina Étranger in 2019; it is forthcoming in English with Canongate in November 2020. Vilas divides his time between Spain and the United States, where he teaches at the University of Iowa.
The BookBlast® Podcast
James Womack reveals how he ended up in Spain and translating Manuel Vilas in Ep. 5 of the Bridging the Divide series for The BookBlast® Podcast, while publisher and co-founder of Carcanet Press, Michael Schmidt, explores the highways and byways of a life in books and translation with Georgia de Chamberet in Ep. 6 of the series.
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