Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest – El interior del bosque (1999)

El Interior del Bosque

In a guardian article on best crime fiction in English translation Ann Cleeves mentioned Eugenio Fuentes’ novel The Depths of the Forest – El interior del bosque. Since Stu‘s and Richard‘s Spanish Literature Month was upcoming and I’ve never read a Spanish crime novel before, I thought it would be an excellent choice.

The book starts chillingly with the POV of the first victim. Gloria, a beautiful painter, is hiking alone in Paternóster, a remote nature reserve, in Spain. She feels dread but since she’s all alone, there doesn’t seem to be any reason. A few minutes later she’s murdered brutally. This isn’t a spoiler. Her murder is revealed on the bokk cover and happens in the first few pages. The next POV is quite unusual. A rat finds Gloria’s body. The following paragraphs are written from the point of view of a group of young boys who torture scorpions and discover Gloria’s body. The POV switches again, this time we are in the head of Richard Cupido, the PI hired by Marcos, Gloria’s fiancé. Marcos is sure that the Guardia Civil, the local police, are not going to investigate thoroughly and hopes Cupido will find the murderer.

Most of the story is written from Cupido’s perspective but many chapters are told from the point of view of the many suspects. When a second woman is murdered there are even more suspects. In spite of these many different perspectives, the book didn’t feel disjointed.

Most of the men who came in contact with Gloria fell in love with her. And it seems that she had affairs with most of them. Was it a crime of passion? Or has it something to do with an ongoing lawsuit? El Paternóster used to belong to a rich widow who has been fighting to get it back for years. Did she take drastic measures to discourage the public from visiting?

Cupido turns in circles for a long time. He gathers information but it’s leading nowhere. And he becomes obsessed with Gloria himself.

Having finished the novel, I’m facing a huge dilemma. I want to be fair to a novel, which is clearly on the literary side of the crime spectrum, and would most certainly delight many readers, but at the same time I have to admit that this wasn’t for me. Not because it wasn’t good but because it contained a recurring scene of an act of cruelty against an animal (a deer) that made me sick. I skipped most of the parts but still read too much for my own liking. It wasn’t a gratuitous scene but nevertheless, I wonder why an author chooses to include scenes like this. I think this is too bad because if those scenes hadn’t been included I would have liked this book. I thought that all the aspects about nature and how people value it in different ways was thought-provoking and topical. From the nature theme we’re lead to think about human nature. Clearly, the cruelty is part of these explorations. Cupido is a complex character and most of the other character studies were quite fascinating too. The way Fuentes captured this nature reserve and its remoteness, was very well done. Fascinating and eerie at the same time. And I really wanted to find out who killed those women. But overall the novel was too pessimistic for my own liking. While I agree that humans are the most cruel animals in this world, I don’t want to read about it in this way. Or Nnot if illustrating this point includes scenes with cruelty against animals. If this doesn’t bother you and you like your crime novels unusual, literary and very bleak – don’t miss this.

This is my first contribution to Spanish Literature Month hosted by Stu and Richard.

The Depths of the Forest

 

Maria Àngels Anglada: The Auschwitz Violin – El violi’ d’Auschwitz (1994) Literature and War Readalong October 2012

Is there anything that would make life in a concentration camp bearable? Anything that could make it worth living? Is it justified that talent will help you survive? And if you do, how can you go on living? Maria Àngels Anglada’s short and powerful novel The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz asks precisely these questions.

When Climent, a famous violinist, is invited to Krakow in 1991 for a concert, he meets the elderly Polish violinist Regina who plays on an exquisite violin. He is intrigued, he thinks he should know the luthier but, as he is told, he doesn’t. He is curious and she is keen to share the story of the beautiful instrument. The violin has been made by Daniel, Regina’s uncle, a luthier who was sent to Auschwitz. Regina was only a small girl then. She had lost her parents in the ghetto but was saved and spent the war with a non-Jewish family who let her pass as their daughter.

Daniel who is still a young man, is only saved and not exterminated right away with many others because he pretends to be a carpenter. He helps to build a greenhouse for the sadistic and despotic camp Commander and later, when the commander finds out that he is a luthier, he is ordered to build a violin for him. Another captive, Bronislaw, will have to play on it during one of the dinners the Commander gives for other Nazis. Both their lives depend on Daniel’s success. If he wasn’t such a talented and passionate luthier, he wouldn’t stand a chance to make such a delicate instrument, with hands that are rough and split from the cold and material that is far from perfect.

Working on the violin changes everything for Daniel. It isn’t only a means to survive, like helping with the greenhouse was, but it gives sense to his days, makes a human being out of him again.

The way his workshop in Poland  is described and how he makes the new violin, with so much care and love, infuses this book with beauty, despite the horrors which are evoked as well.

Every chapter begins with a quote from a historical official document in which life in the camp is rendered in a statistical and factual manner. There are reports about shootings, about medical experiments and other atrocities. This adds another layer to the book, echoes the horrors Daniel has to endure and stands in stark contrast to the beauty he experiences while remembering his old life and crafting the violin.

When the instrument is finished, Bronislaw, the violinist, plays Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” on it. Schindler, a passing figure in the novel, tells someone about Bronislaw and he is freed and brought to Sweden.

It’s a beautifully written book but a bit light at times. I don’t know if working on an instrument would really have transformed the days at the camp like this.

The idea that two people can better their lives, maybe even save it, because of their talents struck me as cruel but realistic. It’s certainly true that those with special talents had a higher chance to live longer or even survive. What does that say about us humans.? Do we always need a reason to help? Talent, looks, frailty, illness, as long as there is something different and special. The thought made me shudder because it’s at the core of so much injustice in this world, not only in the concentration camps.

Since Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” is so important in the book, I attached a recording. It’s a very haunting piece.

The Auschwitz Violin manages to capture the horror’s of the concentration camps without being horrifying. I think Anglada wanted to tell us that there can be beauty in the most horrible places. I hope that’s true.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

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The Auschwitz Violin was the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Gert Ledig’s The Stalin FrontDie Stalinorgel. Discussion starts on Friday  30 November, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong October 2012: The Auschwitz Violin – El Violi` d`Auschwitz by Maria Àngels Anglada

Maria Àngels Anglada who died in 1999 was considered to be one of the most important Catalan writers of the 20th Century. She won many prizes and was widely read. The Auschwitz Violin – El Violi`d`Auschwitz was translated a year ago and when I saw it in a book shop I thought it’s a perfect choice. It’s slim, seems well written and tells the story of a musician and his struggle to stay human during his imprisonment in Auschwitz.

Here are the first sentences

December 1991

I always have trouble falling asleep after I perform at a concert. It keeps playing in my mind, like a tape going round and round. I was more keyed up than usual because this concert had been special: it marked the two hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s death. The recital was held in Krakow, a city of wonderful musicians, in a makeshift auditorium in the bellissima Casa Veneciana.

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The discussion starts on Monday, 29 October 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Carmen Laforet: Nada (1945) A Classic of Spanish Existentialism

One of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain, Nada is the semiautobiographical story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona. Edith Grossman’s vital new translation captures Carmen Laforet’s feverish energy, powerful imagery, and subtle humor. Nada, which includes an illuminating Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, is one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe

I  had read an article about Carmen Laforet’s book when the re-translated German version came out in 2006 and although I was interested I forgot all about it until I read Richard’s intriguing review a couple of weeks ago. After having read what he wrote I had to get it immediately.

What a fantastic book! One of the best I read so far this year which is saying a lot as there were quite a few wonderful books already.

I can only agree with Richard,  Nada deserves to be called a classic. However, as he correctly stated, it isn’t a classic because of the plot which can be summarized in a few sentences but because of the style. This is a young writer’s book who manages to capture the intensity of living typical for the very young and passionate.

Set in post Civil War Spain, Nada (Nothing) tells the story of a young orphan, Andrea, who leaves the country for Barcelona where she wants to study literature. Young, enthusiastic and full of hopes she arrives in the middle of the night to find that no one is waiting for her at the train station. She is going to live with her family but since she missed the earlier train, they didn’t bother to wait for her.

Andrea is too happy to be in the big city to think much about it and enjoys the ride in a horse-drawn carriage in the middle of the night. When she arrives at the apartment of her relatives, they are sleeping. What awaits her reads almost like a scene from a horror movie.

In front of me was a foyer illuminated by a single weak light bulb in one of the arms of the magnificent lamp, dirty with cobwebs that hung from the ceiling. A dark background of articles of furniture piled one on top of the other as if the household were in the middle of moving. And in the foreground the black-white blotch of a decrepit old woman in a nightgown, a shawl thrown around her shoulders, I wanted to believe I’d come to the wrong flat but the good-natured woman wore a smile of such sweet kindness that I was certain she was my grandmother.

The flat has clearly seen better times. It used to be a big and elegant apartment once but after the death of the grandfather, the apartment was halved and the family continued to live in one part, keeping all the furniture. Apart from being messy, the flat is, as we soon will see, also very dirty. Not unlike his inhabitants who are all displaying various states of squalidness. The grandmother is not the only one who lives here in those narrow crowded rooms. Her two sons, Juan and Román, one of her daughters, Angustias, Juan’s wife Gloria and their son, and Antonia the housekeeper plus the dog Trueno, all share this sordid abode.

There was something agonising in the entire scene, and in the flat the heat was suffocating as if the air was stagnant and rotting. When I looked up I saw that several ghostly women had appeared. I almost felt my skin crawl when I caught a glimpse of one of them in a black dress that had the look of a nightgown. Everything about that woman seemed awful, wretched, even the greenish teeth she showed  when she smiled at me. A dog followed her, yawning noisily, and the animal was so black like an extension of her mourning. Then they told me she was the maid, but no other creature has made a more disagreeable impression on me.

As surprised and alienated she is, Andrea hasn’t seen it all. The more she enters the apartment, the more it gets squalid.

The bathroom seemed like a witches’ house. The stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they ‘d hung a macabre still-life pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.

Andrea’s family is a family on the verge of madness and total poverty. Juan is a brutal man who hits his wife, Román seems deluded, the old grandmother is half-demented and Angustias is a Catholic zealot who follows Andrea’s every step, lecturing her every minute. They fight constantly over one thing or the other and there is not one moment of peace to be had.

At the university Andrea doesn’t fit in at first. There is a rift between her and most of the students who come from rich families.  But then she makes a friend, Ena, a charismatic girl whom she loves fiercely. Ena will take care of her, invite her into her family and spend a lot of time with her.

Nada is as much the story of a young girl as a novel about Barcelona. It reminded me of an extended stay in this mysteriously beautiful city. Andrea is a loner and she loves to go for walks. We follow her on her ramblings through the nocturnal city.

Andrea is such an endearing narrator, she must have been given the writer’s voice, as Carmen Laforet was only in her early twenties when she wrote Nada. This is the story of a young woman who experiences everything with an intensity that is often lost in later years. Sorrow and joy are very close. And loneliness, a loneliness that makes her sad but that also permits her to explore states of mind she otherwise might not have explored. And there is the hunger. Andrea is constantly hungry, hungry to an extent that makes her almost hallucinate. She is poor and the family is poor. They are all skinny and starving. Andrea has a little allowance but she prefers to spend it on presents for Ena or cigarettes.

I was really touched by this story and curious what the outcome would be as it was obvious that the family wasn’t improving, on the contrary, they acted crazier and crazier, the violence intensified from page to page.

Nada has quite a surprising finale to offer and an ending that was not foreseeable.

The book is also very interesting as it paints an accurate picture of Spain after the Civil War. The rift between the rich and the poor is getting bigger and bigger and families that were well off before the war, loose everything and slide towards poverty.

Despite many gloomy descriptions, highly dysfunctional characters and a lot of sadness and loneliness this is not a depressing novel at all. Andrea is still joyful and her curiosity and intelligence are uplifting.

I read the German translation (not the brightest idea but it would have taken too long to receive the Spanish book), you can see the cover below.

I have read a lot of Latin American and Carribbean novels but, apart from a few, I don’t know a lot of Spanish books. Do you have any recommendations?