A man in tumult returns to Ordesa, the small mountain town where he was born and where his parents have recently died. He sits down to write.
Newly sober, his career on the wane, his relationship with his own children strained, what he produces is a dizzying chronicle of his childhood and an unsparing account of his life’s trials, failures and triumphs. He reckons with the ghosts of his parents and the pain of loss. What is a person without a family? What is a person when faced with memories alone?
In what’s described by the publisher as an ‘autobiographical novel’, the narrator lays bare his life, his regrets, his failings, his fears and his criticisms of, and disappointment with, the state of his country. He’s writing in 2015, the year following his mother’s death, and ten years after his father’s and the rawness of his grief is palpable from the opening sentences of the first chapter. As he begins reflecting on his relationships with his grandparents, his parents, his ex-wife, his children, other family members and his friends, as well as his infidelities, his alcoholism, his career etc, it soon becomes clear that most of his memories are tinged with a deep-seated melancholy. He is full of guilt and regret, not only about the things he has done, but also about what he hasn’t, about his thoughtless neglect of people he loves. Although he can do nothing to change the past, he ponders what he can learn from it and whether he can now reach out to those who are still alive and, in some way, atone for the past. Woven through his personal reflections are observations about Spanish politics, the country’s complex history during the twentieth century and the long-lasting impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the lives of its citizens.
From the start, the narrator’s reflections move backwards and forwards in time and place, with memories being triggered by word associations or by looking at photographs, which appear at intervals throughout the book. This free-flowing, frequently repetitive narrative is almost unremittingly morose, pessimistic and filled with the pain of loss and regret. However, I found that one of the powerful effects of being party to this almost self-flagellating soul-searching was the sense of intimacy it engendered. For most of the time I was reading I was able to appreciate feeling so engaged with the minutiae of the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, but about three quarters of the way through the book this started to feel a bit too repetitious and depressing. The narrator’s father had been a salesman and, when commission from his sales became less than what his trips were costing him, he could no longer see any point in continuing. The narrator, an author who is not selling many books, reflects that he shares these ‘doldrums of energy’, that his father’s ‘why sell’ becomes his own ‘why write’ – when I read this I was tempted to add ‘why carry on reading’! However, I did continue and, as I turned the final page, was pleased that I’d done so.
It would be wrong to say that there are no lighter moments in this autobiographical novel because there are some occasional flashes of a rather wry humour. One example being when the narrator was at an exhibition, looking at the manuscripts of Saint Teresa of Ávila: ‘a frenzy of delirious ink, handwriting from hell itself.’ This made him reflect on the ‘materiality of writing’, suggesting that she wrote that way because her hand became tired after dipping her quill in and out of the ink … he ponders, ‘If she’d had a Bic ballpoint, she’d have written very differently.’ This led to a reflection that Moses could probably have written many more commandments but that ‘sweaty exhaustion’ caused him to stop at ten because ‘his hand got tired of chiselling stone’. Continuing with his musings, he reflects that had Saint Teresa lived five hundred years later, instead of founding convents she would have been a pop star and appeared on album covers, or maybe even founded football teams. I also enjoyed that he called many of his characters after composers, for example, his father Bach, his mother Wagner, his sons Brahms and Vivaldi, the King of Spain Beethoven. Against the background of the gloomier reflections on the themes mentioned earlier, I must say that I definitely appreciated these lighter moments!
This is an eloquently written and memorable story, although perhaps not an ideal choice for anyone experiencing any ‘doldrums of energy’! I think it would probably hold limited appeal for most book groups. I do hope that writing it was a cathartic experience for the author – by the time I reached the end I got the impression that it probably had been.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 4*
Group read: 3*
Canongate Books Ltd.
ISBN: 978-1-78689-731-2 Hardback (The edition I read was an uncorrected proof.)