Fog in Tangier (Cristina López Barrio)

Madrid, 12 December 2015

Her breath is like crystal. She has woken up in a room with red walls. It is still night. She sighs with relief. The curtains are slightly open. The light from a neon sign outside flashes on the bed, on her naked stomach. She doesn’t dare to move. She listens to the hum of late-night traffic rising up from the Gran Vía. She remembers where she is. Who she is. What she has done. He is still by her side, alive but submerged in dreams. “What time is it?” she wonders. She feels cold. Her nipples are frozen. Her legs swollen. Her stomach blue in the neon glimmer. Her loins still retain the memory of all that has happened. There can be no doubt that it was real. But she has to leave. It must be past two. What if he wakes up? Her heart is in her mouth. He is sleeping on his front, his face turned towards her. The outline of his naked male body, his skin against the sheets, bears witness to the facts. She gets up, her thighs ache, her head is dull, her lips are burning.

Trousers, shoes, jumpers, stockings are strewn across the floor. She reaches out, feeling for the items that are hers, and dresses quickly while keeping watch on him. Each time he moves or sighs, she stops and waits until he is quiet again. She finds her handbag on the desk. She checks the time on her phone; it’s already half past three. Next to the bag is a book, unseen by her a few hours earlier; she turns on the torch on her phone and flicks through the pages. Several of them are marked with sticky notes and comments in pencil, written in French. The book is titled Fog in Tangier and the author is Bella Nur. He likes reading, she thinks as she observes him. He’s lying on his back now, his groin illuminated by the flashing neon light.

A novel within a novel, sumptuous writing, a great cross-generational cast of characters – and a protagonist who is searching for meaning in her life.

Finalist: Premio Planeta. Published by Planeta, 2017. Rights: DosPassos.

When swallows migrate: a note on the effect of relocating the action of the play as part of the translation process

The following piece was written as the introduction to the bilingual edition of La Golondrina/The Swallow (Guillem Clua), published by Ediciones Antigona. The English version of the play is on at the Cervantes Theatre, London, from 8 to 26 May, 2018.

 

If you compare the original Spanish text of La Golondrina with its English translation, The Swallow, the first thing you’ll notice is that the protagonists of La Golondrina are called Ramón and Amelia, while their counterparts  in the English version are Ray and Emily. But their names are not the only thing about them that is different: Ray and Emily don’t just speak English, they are English. That might seem obvious. What else could they be? Well, they could be American or Scottish, for a start. But they aren’t. Or they could be Spanish – after all, when we watch Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, we don’t have a problem with the notion that its Spanish characters are speaking English. Or they could be from anywhere and nowhere, like the tramps in Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot in its original, French version).

So why did I transfer the action of La Golondrina from Spain to England, and what effect did this have on the translation? The first thing to realise is that La Golondrina itself is based on action that has been transferred. In this case, a real world event – an attack on a gay nightclub in which those who died were the victims  not just of a terrorist atrocity but of a homophobic hate crime – is relocated from Florida, USA, to an unspecified provincial Spanish city.

In a sense, then, the original play has two locations: it is set in Spain but also in the USA. And the effect of this shift, paradoxically, is to emphasise the universal nature of the themes explored in the play (homophobia, gay love, mother–son relationships, misunderstandings, truth and lies), because the action is at once anchored in the local setting and refers to an international event. If you transfer this play to the London stage, then, it makes sense to replace the ‘local’ setting of the original script with the local setting of the English-language production.

What impact does this decision have on the translation? We’ve already seen perhaps the most obvious effect: the protagonists’ names are changed. But the decision to relocate a play, once taken, ripples all the way through the translation. Potentially, it influences every single line of the text. Here, I will identify a few of these changes.

Despite its universal feel, La Golondrina contains plenty of references to Spanish culture. Where possible, I adapted these to make them feel more ‘British’. Amelia cooks paella and cannelloni for her son, while Emily prepares roast chicken and spaghetti bolognaise; Amelia refers to watching an episode of Masterchef, while Emily watches Great British Bake-Off; Amelia and her son dance at a Verbena (a traditional Spanish open-air festival to celebrate a local holiday), while Emily and her son attend a Summer Fair, and so on.

Some of the references are more subtle. When Ramón reveals that he studied translation and interpreting before completing a master’s or two, I decided that Ray would have a degree in Spanish. I didn’t have to change his qualification, but sticking with the original had a distractingly technical ring in English. The modification also allowed me to acknowledge the Spanish origins of the text and – perhaps most importantly of all – by introducing the idea that Ray was familiar with Spanish culture, it helped me to keep one cultural reference that I had no intention of changing, an issue to which I will return at the end.

If it is fairly obvious why relocating the play will affect how the translator deals with cultural references, another effect of the decision not just to have Emily and Ray speak in English but to make their characters English is that the translator has to strive for a fully idiomatic translation. (If our characters are ‘foreigners’ speaking English – perhaps Olga, Masha and Irina in an English-language production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters – then not only do we not expect them to speak highly idiomatic English; we might find it distracting if they did so.)

Some of these differences are reasonably easy to identify. When Ramón refers to the bar as el bar de moda (literally, the fashionable bar), Ray calls it the ‘in’ place. And I deliberately opted for contractions (it’s, I’m etc.) and colloquial words and phrases – wad of cash (rather than bundle of notes), telly (and not just TV or television) – wherever possible.

Less immediately noticeable, perhaps, but arguably more important is the effort to ensure that the translation doesn’t bear the scars of the source language. For example, Ramón and Amelia use the word nineteen times in the original script. In the translation, the equivalent word – yes – appears a mere three times. Near the start of the play, when Ramón asks Amelia if she knows the play’s title song La Golondrina, Amelia answers Me es familiar, sí. (I’m familiar with it, yes.) But when Emily is asked the same question by Ray, she simply replies I’m familiar with it. I could have kept the yes or perhaps moved it to the start of the sentence, but it felt far more natural in English to omit it altogether.

And on the subject of omissions, although I changed Amelia to Emily, you wouldn’t know unless you read the programme or the script. In the original play, Ramón addresses Amelia by name no fewer than twelve times. In the English version, Ray doesn’t use Emily’s name once. Why? Because Spanish allows Ramón to protect himself against the charge of over-familiarity by prefacing the first name with Señora. I could have had Ray address his boyfriend’s mother as Mrs Emily but it would have sounded rather stilted. The more natural choice, particularly in a one-to-one dialogue, was to drop the name altogether.

I’ve talked so far about some of the many ways in which the decision to relocate the action from Spain to England influenced my translation. However, the play is still very identifiably the same: almost every line in the English matches an equivalent line in the Spanish text, in effect if not in literal meaning. And there is also one key cultural reference that remains unchanged in both versions. Without giving too much away, a key moment in the play revolves around a volume of poetry that Ramón/Ray has given to his boyfriend Dani/Danny, some years earlier. The book is by Federico García Lorca. But Lorca is there not simply as a cultural reference point to anchor the action in Spain but also because of how he lived and how he died: a gay poet and playwright who was unable to declare his sexuality in public, he was assassinated by right-wing nationalists in the wake of the military coup that brought General Franco to power in 1936. He was, in other words, the victim not just of a political assassination but of a homophobic hate crime.

 

Potosí (Ander Izagirre)

Excerpt 1

“A woman can’t enter the mine,” Pedro Villca tells me. “Can you imagine? The woman has her period and Pachamama gets jealous. Then Pachamama hides the ore and the seam disappears.”

Villca is an old miner, an unlikely combination in Bolivia. He’s 59 and none of his comrades have made it to his age. He’s alive, he says, because he was never greedy. Most miners work for months or even years without a break. Most miners end up working 24-hour shifts, fuelled by coca leaves and liquor, a practice for which they have invented a verb, veinticuatrear: ‘to twenty-four’. Instead he would come up to the surface, go back to his parents’ village for a few months to grow potatoes and herd llamas, fill his lungs with clean air to flush the dust out of them, and then go back to the mine. But he was never there when his companions were asphyxiated by a pocket of gas or crushed by a rockfall. He knows he’s already taken too many chances with death and that he shouldn’t push his luck. So he’s decided to retire. He swears that in a few weeks’ time he’ll retire.

Excerpt 2

Alicia opens her fist and shows me three stones the colour of lead, speckled with sparkling spots: particles of silver. She has pilfered them from the mine.

She wraps the stones in newspaper, puts the package in her backpack and disappears behind the canvas sacks to change her clothes. She takes off the overalls and puts on some jeans, a blue tracksuit top and a knitted hat. She grabs the backpack, and we leave the hut and walk downhill.

She’s 14 years old, and her hands are dry and tough, bleached by the dust of the mountain.

The wind sweeps the slopes: fragments of rock scatter before it, the rubble groans. The dust of Cerro Rico gets in your eyes, between your teeth, into your lungs. It contains arsenic, which causes cancer, and it contains cadmium, zinc, chrome and lead, all of which accumulate in the blood, gradually poisoning the body until it is exhausted. The dust also contains silver: between 120 and 150 grams of silver for every ton of dust. Every visitor takes away a few particles of Potosí silver in their lungs. It’s because of these particles, the need to separate them from all the others, that Alicia lives in an adobe hut on the mountain.

In Potosí, Ander Izagirre tells the story of Alicia, a 14-year-old girl who lives on the slopes of Cerro Rico de Potosí, the mineral-rich mountain in Bolivia whose silver and other metals were a key source of wealth for the Spanish Empire from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Alicia shares an adobe-brick hut with her mother and younger sister on a windswept esplanade at the entrance to the mine which dominates their lives. The mining cooperative provides Alicia’s family with their makeshift home in exchange for her mother’s work guarding the equipment that is stored in a nearby hut; although Alicia is officially too young to be employed, she supplements the family income by working shifts in the mine, pushing a trolley full of rocks through underground tunnels for 2 euros a night. The toxic dust of the mine floats in the air they breathe and seeps into the water supply.

At the foot of the mountain, the city of Potosí, for so long a source of fabulous wealth, remains a place of immense poverty. Atlhough the rich seams of the past have all been exhausted, there are still over 10,000 people working in the mines (many of them children like Alicia) in small-scale, informal operations. They remove the rock by hand and transport it to the surface, where US and Japanese-owned multinationals grind it down and process it to extract the remaining ore. The resultant damage – both to the environment and to those who live and work in or near the mines – is devastating.

Izagirre skilfully uses this intimate portrait of a single family and the place where they live to tell a larger story: how the ‘blessing’ of mineral wealth has cursed Bolivia throughout its history, attracting the Spanish conquistadores who created a system of slave labour to extract the metal, and giving birth in the 19th century to a brutal local oligarchy that ruled over one of the poorest and most unequal countries on the planet. The country’s modern history has been marked by a series of military dictatorships, often installed with US backing with the express purpose of guaranteeing the flow of raw materials, and the economy remains extremely vulnerable to any fluctuation in the prices of tin and other minerals.

At the same time, this is a narrative that is not afraid of confronting uncomfortable truths, and Izagirre shows how the terrible working conditions and appalling safety record of the mines have not only caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of miners through the centuries, but have spawned a patriarchal social system in which the miners, brutalised and traumatised by their experiences and numbed by alcohol, pass this on to their wives and children in the form of violence and physical and sexual abuse. This system has its symbolic focus in the figure of El Tío, a diabolic subterranean male counterpart to Pachamama, the Andean earth goddess, and goes hand in hand with active attempts to exclude women from the public and political spheres.

Although the story of Alicia and her family are at the centre of Izagirre’s account, he interweaves it with accounts of the lives of several other people: Pedro Villca, at 59 an ‘improbably old’ miner who is the author’s guide in the mines; Father Gregorio, an Oblate priest from northern Spain who was sent to Bolivia in the 1960s to run a Catholic radio station, and was hounded by the authorities for siding with the poor; Che Guevara, who died in a doomed attempt to light the fuse of a peasants’ and workers’ revolution in Bolivia; and Klaus Barbie, the Nazi fugitive who took refuge in Bolivia and put his skills to use by organising death squads on behalf of the CIA-backed dictator, General Barrientos.

The result is a uniquely engaging mixture of memoir, reportage, travel writing and history that is reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuściński at his peak.

Originally published by Libros del K.O. Details of UK publisher, dates and title coming shortly…

The Swallow (Guillem Clua)

RAY

What stories did you mean?

EMILY

What?

RAY

Earlier. When I recognized Danny in the photo, you said I would have heard the stories; that everyone knew about it.

EMILY

Yes, I’m afraid so. In fact, I’m surprised you don’t.

RAY

About Danny’s accident?

EMILY

It wasn’t an accident. I don’t know why I said that – actually, I do know. It was so comforting that you didn’t know anything, that you didn’t look at me in that way everyone does–

RAY

If you don’t want to talk about it–

EMILY

At church they say talking about it is good for us. And I guess you have the right to know. You were friends, after all.

RAY

What happened?

EMILY

Danny was killed in the shooting.

The English translation of The Swallow (La Golondrina) by Catalan playwright Guillem Clua, was commissioned by London’s Cervantes Theatre for its world premiere in both English and Spanish in September 2017, and returned to open the Second Season of New Spanish Playwrighting from 30 April to 26 May 2018.

IDIOTA (Jordi Casanovas)

DOCTOR EDEL

Did you hide the letters so your wife and your daughter wouldn’t find out?

TONY

Shut up.

DOCTOR EDEL

Did you hide them?

TONY

Yes. Fuck. What else do you want? Do you want me to confess? I applied for the fucking loan to open the bar. They rolled out the red carpet, and it had always been my dream. I didn’t want to end up like my old man.

(Pause.)

Ten years ago, the streets were full of people. Everyone went out in the evening. Seven nights a week. Now, I don’t even have enough money to buy new songs. Do you want to know how I feel every night when I go into the bar to be greeted by Riley singing ‘The Lady in fucking Red’ again?

(Pause.)

Do you want to know how I feel at the end of the night, after I’ve spent ten hours on my feet and the takings don’t even cover the electricity bill? So yes, then I go over to the fucking one-armed bandit and feed it every coin I’ve fucking got.

(Pause.)

Or do you want me to tell you how scared I am? How scared I am of losing my house and my family? How scared I am that they’ll turn their backs on me when they find out? Is that what you want? Is that what you fucking want?

IDIOTA by leading Catalan playwright, Jordi Casanovas, is a dark comedy that explores the limits of morality and power. It has been staged in Barcelona, Madrid, Mexico City, Rome, Buenos Aires and Costa Rica, with productions scheduled for the Basque Country, Venezuela and Chile in 2018.

Mejor la ausencia (Edurne Portela)

Literary fiction, published in Spanish in September 2017 by Galaxia Gutenberg (Barcelona), 240 pp.

Mejor la ausencia is a compelling coming-of-age story set in 1980s Bilbao against the backdrop of domestic violence, petty crime and political conflict, told through the eyes of an absolutely engaging first-person female narrator:

 

Excerpt 1 (1979)

We reach the huts where there are men with guns. Mum turns round and tells us to be quiet. I ask why. Dad takes out the little books and shows them to the man. Another man comes up to mum’s window and pokes his gun into the car. Mum says, “Please, the kids.” The man doesn’t say anything, he just looks at us. Aitor sticks his tongue out at him and the man says something to my mum and I don’t understand but it’s a nasty word because dad insults him afterwards, he says something about a bastard but the man can’t hear him because we’ve left. Mum tells Aitor off but dad says he did the right thing. We arrive at Uncle Josu’s house and dad gets lots of things out of the boot. Uncle’s very pleased and so are his friends, the men with the beards. Uncle Josu strokes my head and tells me I get prettier every day and more grown up.

Excerpt 2 (1987)

New Year’s Day. What a pain. Gran’s coming. Aitor and Kepa are in bed. Kepa came home drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. Aitor must have got in earlier. So I have to help mum lay the table and no doubt I’ll have to tidy up afterwards. I put the king prawns on the plate. Their heads are black. The door rings. Gran’s here. She comes into the kitchen.

“Happy nineteen eighty-seven!”

She stretches out the ‘seven’. And claps, as if there was something to celebrate.

“Hi, gran.”

“Give me a kiss.”

I go over and kiss her. She has hairs on her upper lip and on her chin.

“Your brothers?”

“They’re asleep.”

“At this time of day? What about your mother?”

“She’s getting ready.”

Gran sighs.

Excerpt 3 (2009)

I haven’t been back to my mother’s house since the day she said my father was returning, after God knows how many years. Ten? Fifteen? She’s stayed in touch with him all that time and never stopped taking his money. I’ll never understand their arrangement, my mother’s need to maintain the link, my father’s presence in her life despite the abuse, the neglect, the absence. For my mother, it can’t just be about money, there must be something else; and for my father, it can’t just be about controlling her. I search through my memories, and come across scenes that seem fake: the two of them smiling and complicit as they listen to me telling my grandma that the Three Kings had visited our house, when I was five; holding each other’s hands as they walk on the beach at Biarritz; my father calling her ‘lioness’ and stroking her wild red hair. I remember stories my mother told me about when they were young and in love and my father made her laugh with his antics. Yes, those memories are there, but what use are they to me?

Synopsis

The novel is set in a town on the industrial outskirts of Bilbao during the 1980s, marked by heroin, unemployment and industrial decline, where the police fight running street battles with local youths, and the walls are covered with threatening slogans. Its narrator, Amaia, is a young child at the start, and progresses through adolescence to adulthood as the action unfolds. The youngest of four siblings, she describes the gradual destruction of her family by the violence that surrounds them.

Amaia’s father begins the novel as a supporter of Basque independence (and perhaps a petty criminal as well) but when, under duress, he is ‘turned’ by the Spanish security forces, the effects on the family’s life are devastating. Humiliated by his handlers and rejected by his former comrades, Amaia’s father turns his violence inwards on his family before abandoning them, forcing them to rely on the grudging support offered by Amaia’s maternal grandmother.

Amaia’s mother retreats into alcoholism and remains dependent on her abusive and absent husband. And each of Amaia’s brothers seeks a different way out: the eldest becomes a drug addict and dies of an overdose; the next leaves for university in Madrid and cuts his ties with home; the youngest throws himself into political violence and ends up in prison. Caught in the middle is Amaia, who has to go through adolescence with little or no support from those around her, and yet is somehow expected to maintain the fragile ties between the members of this dysfunctional family.

The final section of the book takes place in 2009, by which time Amaia is an adult and is trying to make sense of her life and how it has been shaped by violence and conflict. After an absence of 17 years, she returns to her home town and seeks to make peace with her past by understanding and writing about what she been through.

Translation issues

Edurne Portela controls Amaia’s voice brilliantly, and one of the effects is to make the reader feel as if she is accompanying Amaia, not just observing events and emotions. The main challenge for the translator is to reproduce this voice, and to ensure that the translation reflects the way that the voice evolves as Amaia progresses from early childhood through adolescence to adulthood. An additional issue is the use of occasional Basque words in the original Spanish text to convey a sense of place and to communicate the atmosphere of working class Bilbao in the 1980s. The translation sample included with this proposal show how both of these challenges can be addressed successfully.

Author data

Edurne Portela (b. Spain, 1974) has written extensively about the impact of violence and trauma on women’s lives. After a successful academic career in the United States, she returned to Spain to pursue a career as a writer. In 2016 she published El eco de los disparos (The echo of gunfire), an exploration of the culture and memory of violence in the Basque Country. Mejor la ausencia is her first novel.

Reviews and press coverage

Published in September 2017, Mejor la ausencia is already in its second edition and Edurne Portela has been widely interviewed in the Spanish national media, including TVE1, Huffington Post, El País, Radio Nacional de España and Radio Tres.

“Edurne Portela has achieved an intense, multi-layered narrative which challenges the reader’s emotions and preconceptions.” Domingo Ródenas, El Periodico, 26/09/17

“A bitter, painful and challenging tale, about a Spain that was divided between the cultural awakening of the 1980s, violent nationalist struggles, European integration and the continuing influence of Francoism…” A. López, La Razón

“A generational novel about silence, fear and literature as a weapon that helps us to imagine and examine our memories, to put a face and a body to the ghosts of the past, to unnamed fears and to unformulated intuitions.” Pilar Castro, El Cultural

“One of the most striking achievements is how the sensibility and the voice of the narrator evolve from the first pages, when she is only five years old, passing through the harsh irritation of adolescence, until she reaches adulthood, in 2009, and looks back over the past in an attempt to understand it.” Santi Pérez Isasi, Un libro al día

Las madres negras (Patricia Esteban Erlés)

Excerpt 1 (Mida):

Mida tells herself that maybe she shouldn’t take too much notice of the hazy girl (what was her name, Humility?) who told her about the wolves, because in the convent everyone invents things as they search for an explanation, just as everyone who crosses the threshold or dies eventually disappears and becomes just a shadow in the memory. Curled on the ground, she looks up without much hope. The black of the night can always become blacker. Fear is not real. She has to allow time to pass, to repeat itself, to wait until the eye of the well into which she allowed herself to fall during her flight begins to open. And then she will be able to escape. Time must pass, she insists, raising her voice slightly to convince herself that somewhere there is a place worth going to, a place other than the house surrounded by stone, with its walls and its cells and its dormitory with bricked up windows. Only a little longer, she waits.

Excerpt 2 (God):

God has just thought about her, about the fugitive girl, but only for a second. One mustn’t get one’s hopes up. God can’t dedicate much time to each of his creatures, precisely because God has all the time in the world, and that is his illness, the most serious illness of all. God suffers from time in the way that poor mortals suffer from monstrous diseases. It is a chronic condition. God sometimes asks himself what it would be like to die. To cease having time, to feel that the end of life exists, that it is precisely that certainty that makes the fleeting glimpse of beauty or love worthwhile. God is so busy thinking about all the time that stretches away ahead of him that he scarcely glances at the tiny fireflies that glow for a second in the middle of his night. God moans because he is alone. Nobody, apparently, is responsible for attending to his complaints. Each of God’s breaths lasts a century and drags hundreds of thousands of corpses in its wake. And nobody turns to him, nobody pities him for how long this is all taking. Time is a malignant disease. God looks at God, at his perfect nudity. He contemplates the veined marble arms, the huge creator’s hands, always unblemished. He looks at the ribs, the long legs, the bare feet. With interminable boredom, he caresses the long lion’s mane. He sighs again, scarcely caring about the consequences.

Excerpt 3 (Priscia):

On her way back home, she broke into a run. She could still hear their triumphant laughter, the obscene noises with which they saw her off, but she didn’t look back because she felt that part of her had been left there forever, lying at the feet of those sons of the respectable folk of the village, battered, her legs open and her eyes closed like those of a corpse. She didn’t stop, she didn’t retrace her steps to look for her grandmother’s prayer book, which was as she imagined her grandmother must have been, yellowing and marked by the wrinkles of time and prayers spent in vain. She ran until she reached the threshold of her parents’ house. She submerged herself fully clothed in the tub beneath the fig tree in the courtyard. She stayed there until night fell and somebody, her mother, her father, she couldn’t have said which for they were so alike, emerged from the shadows to find her.

After that she escaped every evening to sink into the green rainwater that smelt of rotten fruit. She entered the dark tub to wash away her guilt. She asked somebody, whoever it was that all the men prayed to, to allow her to finally die.

Excerpts from Las madres negras (Patricia Esteban Erlés), pub. Galaxia Gutenberg, 2018. Full sample available on request.

Oriente medio, oriente roto (Mikel Ayestaran)

The black Mercedes 300 parks in the middle of what was once a square. Sandbags block any further progress. It’s raining and very cold. As soon as we step out of the car, we hear the first shot in the distance. “Yalla, yalla!” shouts the driver, urging us to be quick. I follow Richard and Tim, hardly daring to look. A year after the start of protests against President Bashar al-Assad, violence has erupted on the outskirts of Damascus but nobody really knows what is happening and we want to see the situation with our own eyes. The opposition claims there have been massacres. We pass tall buildings riddled with bullet holes, badly damaged by artillery fire, some of them still belching flames. We dodge into alleyways guided by people who appear from nowhere and tell us to follow them. The gunshots are getting closer. We can’t stop. We move in single file, running from one doorway to the next. People beg us to come in and look. I don’t want to, I can’t. They’re there: bodies and more bodies stacked beneath the stairs. The entrance halls have been converted into morgues where the inhabitants of Saqba, this eastern suburb of Damascus, temporarily store their dead until they can be buried in the cemetery. The army has banned public funerals because these always end in anti-government protests, we are told.

Opening lines of Oriente medio, oriente roto (Mikel Ayestaran), pub. Ediciones Península, 2017. Full sample available on request.

Los extraños (Vicente Valero)

Whether that man whom nobody ever called grandfather or even father – despite his having been a grandfather and thus a father as well – had thin, bony hands like mine and thick, dark eyebrows, or the propensity, of which I complained so much in my youth, towards cold sores, is something I have never been able to discover, because no photograph of Lieutenant Marí Juan has yet been found: not in the family albums or in the drawers of the oldest dressers, or even in those anonymous, jumbled portraits of unknown provenance that, without anybody knowing when or why, arrive at a house and make it their home. No image of him has ever reached me, although such an image must have existed, if only in the archives of his school in Valencia or in the colonial barracks of Africa, to mention just two of the places to which he was despatched and dutifully went, and where he surely experienced both happiness and sadness with the same intensity. No image of him, I repeat, has ever reached me or anyone else who might claim him as one of their own. And the truth is that I never thought I would come to regret this absence as deeply as I do now, as I write this first page and wish I could draw his profile as accurately as possible, paint a satisfactory portrait of him, say something about his nose or his mouth, describe his arms and his legs, know how far my thinning hair might also have been his, and confirm whether one could sense in his gaze the melancholy of an abandoned adolescent, as I have always wanted to assume. All I can do, time and time again, is to observe this stranger through the memories of others until I am finally able to see in him the young man of twenty-eight that he had become by the day he died. The young man he was, the young man he has always continued to be, the young man he will never cease to be. And I must also try to see in him the father he had already become, and even the grandfather he scarcely had time to realise he would be, the grandfather whom I have decided to imagine on his behalf, recreating him in a new identity that time and amnesia have established around his elusive figure.

Opening lines of Los extraños (Vicente Valero), pub. Periférica, 2014. Full sample available on request.

Los estratos (Juan Cárdenas)

From the window I can see the pool, surrounded by houses that are identical to my own, my neighbours’ children swimming as the evening sun draws the last glimmers of light from the water. Perhaps it is the contentment of the scene – the children shouting, the swallows, the splashing – sounds which, far from disturbing the soothing calm, polish it from within; I don’t know if I am also captivated by the fact that my house is dark due to a power cut and the objects within it seem to be at ease. Whatever the reason, a memory comes into my head, one that is imprecise but which I inevitably associate with the happiness of childhood: the smell of oily water, mud, toxic waste, the smell of the sea squeezed into a dirty bay. Perhaps there is something like a port in the distant background, a city. But these impressions suddenly dissipate, if I may put it like that. If I may say it at all. This is not as serious as it seems, I’m just trying to say something, to place words in the advancing twilight. The impressions dissipate, I say, and at the same time the phone rings downstairs and nobody answers. I would shout to order somebody to answer, but shouting would definitely disturb what I will again call a soothing calm. Outside it’s still light. Inside, shadow. I remain at the window and, as darkness falls, as I try to imitate the mood of the things that surround me, I let the telephone ring and ring. It’s remarkable that the telephone still works when there’s no electricity. When there’s no power all the other appliances are left abandoned, useless. Like signs in a different alphabet. But a telephone, one of those old, black telephones with a heavy mouthpiece and a cable like a rat’s tail, one of those in the darkness is like something alive and shiny, the eye of a cow, the head of an idol.

Opening lines of Los estratos (Juan Cárdenas), pub. Periférica, 2013. Full sample available on request.