Formas de estar lejos is the second novel by Edurne Portela, following on from Mejor la ausencia. You can read my translation of the opening chapter and short introductory essay at the online edition of The Common. Rights are handled by her publisher, Galaxia Gutenberg. Contact details available on request.
Published by Fundación José Manuel Lara/Planeta, 2017 (2nd edition, 2018), 176 pages
Águeda has just turned thirty, she’s eight months pregnant, and lives
alone in a flat furnished with cardboard boxes. She is missing one eye. She has
a perfect boyfriend, and a father she hasn’t spoken to for years. Her life is
monotonous: she works a night shift, sleeps little, talks less, and bottles up
her rage as best she can. But this routine will be shattered when she receives
a phone call. In the novel’s very first sentence, Águeda declares that she is
going to kill her father. She isn’t going to wait until she’s given birth, and
nor will she ask for anyone’s help. She’s going to do it alone, and she’s going
to do it now.
takes place over the course of little more than a day. A desperate journey from
Madrid to La Mancha – from a city whose streets are overflowing with garbage to
a small town in the harsh, arid landscape of the Castilian plateau, in search
of a past that is full of violence – will culminate in a final showdown between
father and daughter.
hostile geography of abandoned houses, empty reservoirs, out-of-hours brothels,
cemeteries that look like building sites, and stones – so many stones! – is the
setting for a powerful tale tinged with rural drama, drawing on the Spanish
tradition of grotesque realism, suffused with the aesthetic of the western, and
framed as a timeless classical tragedy.
Osa (Cuenca, Spain, 1981) graduated in Audiovisual Communication from the
Complutense University of Madrid in 2004. His creative work encompasses a range
of artistic disciplines. He has worked as a television scriptwriter and editor
since 2007, and also contributes regularly to a number of online publications
and cultural magazines. He teaches on the Master in Literary Creation at the
International University of Valencia, and has given talks at literary festivals
and led workshops for students.
he was selected to participate in the CELA Programme (Connecting Emerging
Literary Artists), a European Union project to promote some of the continent’s
most exciting new writers, and under its auspices he has attended the Pisa Book
Festival, the Hay Festival Segovia and BookFest Bucharest to publicize his
work. Osa’s first novel, Morderás el polvo, won the 36th Felipe Trigo
Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Nadal Prize, one of Spain’s
most prestigious literary awards.
Style and benchmark texts
el polvo is a contemporary novel which draws on a
literary tradition that stretches all the way back to Ancient Greece, offering
a 21st-century take on myths such as the parricide of Oedipus or the return of
Odysseus. The setting – Don Quixote’s La Mancha – provides a dusty small-town
aesthetic with hints of the American western or Juan Rulfo’s Mexican classic Pedro
Páramo, but Morderás el polvo combines this with the narrative drive
of a psychological thriller.
prose has echoes of a number of post-war European writers: the grotesque
realism of Spanish Nobel laureate, Camilo José Cela, the existentialism of
Albert Camus, the raw simplicity of exiled Hungarian, Agota Kristof, or the
tersely moving style of Austrian novelists such as Peter Handke and Elfriede
Jelinek. And he also shares a vision of the world that will be familiar to
readers of Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff and Donald Ray Pollock.
contrast between the story’s setting and the manner in which Roberto Osa tells
it is a deliberate choice. His use of language is highly visual, rapid,
brutally direct, shorn of the slightest hint of ornamentation.”
powerful image runs through Morderás el polvo, the narrative debut
of TV scriptwriter Roberto Osa: the rotund figure of the story’s protagonist,
Águeda. She is eight months pregnant, is missing her left eye and, despite the
fact that she is soon to give birth, appears more concerned with death than
with life as she returns to her roots to settle a score with the past,
determined to kill her father.”
Ortiz. Revista Mercurio
el polvo is a harrowing tale from start to finish. A story of violence
between father and daughter that takes us to the very darkest corners of the
human condition. A solid narrative voice, with a powerful rhythm, which has the
capacity to hypnotize the reader from start to finish.”
Osa’s story mixes rural drama, the western aesthetic
and classical tragedy in almost equal parts. But it is not just that. Morderás
el polvo is a skilfully written and carefully
constructed contemporary novel. The debut from an author from whom, I am sure,
we will be hearing much more in the coming years.”
Diego Álvarez. OcultaLit
Extract 1: pages 9–14
I’m going to kill my father this weekend.
It’s not a decision I’ve taken in a hurry, more a question of fixing some
things that went wrong when I was a girl.
We’ve hardly seen each other in the last twenty years.
All this time I’ve been scraping by in Madrid, all knotted up with my
memories of him, bounced from social services to support programmes that took
me from one job to another until I found this night shift on a telephone
helpline, which I’m going back to after seven days off.
My father still lives in Pedregal, the small town where I grew up, and I’d
barely heard from him until the phone rang tonight. A number flashed green and
when I took the call all I could hear was breathing, snorting almost. Nothing
else. I know it’s him because nobody else snorts like that, nobody else gives me
the shivers like the Ram. I’m going to do you in, I swear I am.
I swear, on this belly I’ve been dragging around for eight months, on my
one good eye, on all the pain we caused each other back then. I swear on the
piles of garbage that cover the city pavements, on the overflowing bins, on the
rats feasting among the boxes of rotten fruit, on the bluebottles buzzing among
the wine cartons and the dogshit. Sometimes, the pavement’s so dirty I have to
kick my way through.
I don’t mind the rubbish, the only thing that makes me feel sick is the stench
of red wine. It reminds me of my father.
When I arrive at work, I still have ten minutes before eleven o’clock
comes around and my shift starts. I take the time to wipe the sweat from my
face with my tracksuit sleeve, particularly around my eyelid; then I get my
breath back as I have a quick cigarette. I smoke facing the opaque glass that
covers the front of the building. I’m hot but I don’t remove my hood; I know
those bastards on the evening shift are about to come out and I’m not going to
show them my empty socket. To my left there’s a pile of cardboard boxes. I
touch them to check if I could use them in the flat, but they’re dripping wet
and stink of entrails. On the other side there’s a shiny black motorbike, I
don’t know how anyone could have parked it there surrounded by filth, or maybe
the bike was there before the boxes and the burst rubbish bags, before the
rotting vegetables and the smell of vinegar.
Shadows from the previous shift appear behind the glass.
I always start on a Friday. Tonight’s too hot for May, I try to
concentrate on the smoke coming out of my mouth, I have to think about how I’m
going to keep my oath but I’m distracted by pressure against my leg; a
Dalmatian has appeared from among the boxes, it’s holding something in its jaws
and is squashing it against my leg. It’s a pigeon.
I let out a scream.
The dog’s owner calls to it from the corner but it just stands in front
of me with the pigeon between its teeth. On the third call, the dog drops its
prey and runs towards the woman.
I kick the pigeon away and take another draw on my cigarette.
If you’re scared by that, just wait till you see your father.
Six beeps. Correct code. The door opens and the herd starts to stream
out. First come the mothers, hurrying back to their nests. The fat one’s cheeks
wobble as she laughs, no doubt the guy with the moustache telling her some lie
or other. Next, the ones who are my age, the hipsters as they call themselves,
each of them staring at their phone screens, looking away just long enough to
dodge the dead pigeon. Their conversations muddle up inside my ears, always the
same, I’m going to the metro, are you coming? Sorry, I’m walking, I’m meeting
someone near here. The muscly guy and the silly girl with the green stockings
walk towards the bike, waiting for me to get out of the way. I stay put. I hear
them muttering, ignore her, the sad freak. They get onto the bike and their
reproaches are drowned out by the roar of the engine, smoke from the exhaust
pipe warms my right leg, the fabric of my tracksuit caresses my ankles. The
Colombian raises his eyebrows in greeting when he knows nobody is looking, and
walks on down the street.
They all swirl around me, turning their backs on me, taking out their
cigarettes, chatting, asking for a light. A light? I’ll set light to the lot of
you. Carry on, turn your back to me, cross the road with your heads down, don’t
look at the one-eyed woman, it’s bad luck, she’s already looking at you, but I
don’t give a damn about you either: the fat girl, the muscly guy, the hipsters,
the silly girl with the green stockings, the Colombian. Not a damn.
Ernesto – that’s what the rest of them call him – is the last to leave,
with his white hair, and his gut bulging against his shirt buttons.
I can’t help remembering you, dad. I often imagine what you’ll be like
after all these years but however hard I try, I just see you as you were then,
when we skinned rabbits in the yard; a punch between the animal’s ears,
cracking its skull like a walnut, then a trickle of blood forming a puddle on
the ground. I held the hind legs while you made a slash in the rabbit’s skin
with your knife and quickly stripped it naked, pulling off the pelt as if it
was a jersey.
When I look up, the evening shift have all gone, and I see the top of
Ernesto’s head disappearing into the distance, between the mounds of garbage.
I’m alone in the street. It’s eleven o’clock at night.
The basement is gloomy, there’s just a single point of light at the
table where Tariq and me sit, next to the stairway that leads up to the
entrance hall, the other tables will remain dark all night. The room is
rectangular, at the far end are the toilets and Silvia’s office. When I arrive
at my workstation, he’s already answering a call. The first thing I do is take
off my shoes and socks. Tariq looks at me, smiling, his brown fingers keying in
text as he dictates the hours of some municipal office into his headset mic.
He’s unshaven, like he always is when we come to work after a few days off. I chuck
my bag down next to the keyboard and drop into the seat at Tariq’s side. We sit
facing the darkness, our backs to the stairs; he’s always on my right, so I can
see him and he can pretend I have two eyes.
We spend a lot of hours below the ground. There are no windows in this
place, it’s like working inside a tomb. We call it the coffin.
I punch my code into the keypad and answer the first call, Águeda
Pacheco speaking, how can I help you? Of course, just a moment please. The
closest metro station is Antón Martín, you can check this month’s events on the
website. Thank you for calling. Our terminals beep, sometimes competing or
overlapping, we spend a couple of hours answering calls; Tariq explains how to
get to the zoo, it’s very easy madam, catch line five or ten, get off at Casa
de Campo, or take a bus from Príncipe Pío, the number thirty-three drops you at
the gate. Happy to help, goodnight. After all these years, we can recite most
of the information from memory. Sometimes, as I listen to the complaints of
some pain in the ass, I feel the fingernails scratching inside my stomach and I
feel sick. That’s when I let my head fall back against the headrest and look at
the ceiling, a ceiling that is nothing more than the floor of a city covered
with filth that I have to kick my way through. I sit listening to the moron
who’s decided to do his paperwork in the middle of the night, maybe there’s no
other time but I don’t care what he’s saying, I just want him to shut up before
I vomit, and I take advantage of a short pause to unleash my advice: you have
to fill out the form, present your ID, your residence certificate, your driving
licence and pay the fee, Monday to Friday, from nine till two at the district
And I hang up.
I tear off my headset and throw it down on the desk.
I need to move, the nausea and the pain in my ankles get worse every
minute of every night that I spend buried down here with Tariq. But I sit
still, holding my bulging belly between my hands and staring at the rotten wood
of the beams above me. A few months ago, when they were making redundancies,
they decided to paint the beams blue; they sacked eighty people and they
painted the beams, the skirting boards and the corners cobalt blue, and the
walls a tone of yellow so sickly it’s best not to look, better just to sit in
the dark like vampires. That’s what Silvia calls the night shift workers.
Silvia is… How can I put it? If she was introducing herself, she’d say
she’s the coordinator but she’s just a raccoon-eyed midget, the one who kicked out
all those losers who don’t work here anymore. I escaped by the skin of my
teeth, and now she doesn’t know what excuse to come up with to get rid of the
Cyclops. There’s just four of us left on the night shift: Tariq and me work
seven days on and seven days off, when we’re replaced by two girls we never
see. A few weeks ago, Tariq heard a rumour they were going to get rid of the
night shift and he hasn’t left me in peace since then: the baby, Águeda, what
are we going to do with the baby if we’re unemployed? I don’t usually reply.
People are shouting in the streets, they want clean pavements – they want
someone to give them work. I’ve got a job.
I should feel grateful that this guy, who dreams of working in a museum,
has noticed this thing that I am, and I ought to fight for whatever it is I’m
carrying in my belly. But I don’t care about any of it. All I can think about
is my father.
Tariq takes out the potato omelette he’s so proud of. He eats it
straight from the tupperware, cutting it into tiny pieces, as if for a small
child. Sometimes he offers me the fork with a piece of omelette on the prongs,
but I always reject it and he always eats it with a smile and goes on chewing
and reading his museum studies textbook.
When he grows tired of the silence, he starts talking about all the
things his parents have bought for the baby and how they’re really looking
forward to coming back to Madrid to meet me.
They’re intrigued to know what their grandson’s mother is like, Tariq
says; it’s better they don’t find out, I tell him, and then his eyes bulge
until they’re almost touching the lenses of his glasses and he scratches his
stubble and tells me I don’t appreciate myself, that I’m very pretty with my
flaming hair and my white skin, although the truth is it’s actually yellowish.
And the eye, Tariq? What about the eye? And he wrinkles his nose and
touches his glasses and says don’t start that again, that I should love myself
a bit more.
Extract 2: chapter 7, pages 97–101
On the way out of town, the walls of the livestock pens are already
covered by evening shadow. The path to the cemetery is a deep cattle track that
would be unchanged were it not for the fact that the cypresses that once lined
it have disappeared. In their place are holes a yard deep, the jaws of a digger
have cut through the roots, which are dying inside the earth. Every four or
five paces there’s a new crater. The holes run the length of the track like
giant bitemarks in the earth until I come to an old metal sign with the word
“graveyard”. The digger is parked at the entrance to the cemetery, the engine
still running, the hazard lights flashing. Maybe Gladis wasn’t lying; to my
left, instead of the cemetery wall, I see the profile of the burials against
the reddish evening light. There are no walls or anything of the sort. The
shadows of some workmen wander among the rubble; they’re talking, laughing,
their white teeth still visible as they pile up the stones.
The digger’s engine falls silent. The driver calls the rest of the
workers, it’s time to leave. When he raises the peak of his cap, I realize it’s
the man we met at the petrol station, the one who helped the fat guy with the
coupons to get up. I avoid his eyes, losing myself among the gravestones in the
hope that he and the other workers will leave as soon as possible, but I know
he’s still looking at me. After a few seconds I hear his voice among the marble
“Hurry up, they’ve been waiting for ages.”
It’s more than ten years since I visited my mother’s grave. With so many
stone crosses, without the reference of the walls or the cypresses, the
cemetery seems endless, I struggle to locate exactly where she was buried. A
good daughter wouldn’t have this problem.
There he is, sitting on a tombstone, his feet resting on a neighbouring
grave. He’s smoking, his arms are resting on his knees. His bulging eyes
exaggerating his profile against the dim light of the reddish horizon. The
noise of the workers gathering their tools gradually fades, or maybe it’s me
who can only pay attention to this unexpected family reunion. I approach
slowly. I can feel the elastic of my two pairs of socks squeezing my ankles
with every step I take. When I’m just one grave away, he speaks. “You’ve
forgotten the knife.”
You go to kill someone and the victim reminds you about the weapon.
Typical of a daughter who’ll never live up to her father.
There we are, facing each other, separated by the tombstone that covers
my mother’s remains. He looks at the grave. He has a cigar in his mouth, takes
short puffs, allows the dense smoke to furl across his face. I should answer,
but all I can think to do is look around me: a few yards away is a pile of
empty beer bottles that the workers have left next to the statue of an angel.
“What would you know?” I say without thinking. As soon as the words have
left my mouth I regret them, it’s the reply of a snotty kid.
“You don’t know how to hide. You can’t hide from me, however much you
He talks without looking at me as he rubs the sole of his shoe against
the marble to get rid of the earth.
“I came. I’m here,” I say, opening my arms idiotically.
I’d like to be able to tell him that my life isn’t like he thinks it is;
that I fall straight to sleep, that I don’t work in a basement answering phone
calls from insomniacs or have a respectable boyfriend who irons his shirts
while listening to some bloke called Bach or wealthy, cultured in-laws capable
of indulging every last whim of their future granddaughter. I don’t know why
everyone talks about it in the feminine, I’ve never said it was a girl, as far
as I’m concerned it’s nothing right now. I’d like to have been strong enough
not to answer your call.
The red line of the horizon has almost disappeared but I can clearly see
his half-unbuttoned shirt and the disappointment on his deeply lined face.
He carries on smoking, lost in thought.
We stay silent, like before. Woodpigeons coo in the distance, perhaps
they’re in the cork oaks on the other side of the road. The roar of a lorry
helps me not to think. My father strokes the cigar with his fingertips, he paws
it, returns it to his mouth, and a flame from his lighter causes the
smouldering cigar stump to glow orange, illuminating his face. I remain
standing. The cross on my mother’s grave can barely be made out against the
black sky. I take out the pack of cigarettes I stole from Gladis. There are
still three left. We both smoke in the stillness of my mother’s grave.
“What have they done to the walls?” I ask.
He glances around listlessly.
“Like this, there’s more of a breeze,” he says, blowing out some smoke.
“It would have made more sense to remove the remains before knocking
down the walls,” I say.
“It’s not as if the dead are going to run away.”
He takes another draw, opening his eyes wide so they show very white in
“The other day they took the cypresses away,” he says after a while.
“How would I know? They took them away,” he points at the path to the
town. “They didn’t even fill in the holes. They’ll make another cemetery. This
“What do you want?”
Don’t use empty words with me, dad. Not you.
“Did you get married? You need to get married,” he says, looking at my
Pain shoots through my brain, from my false eye to the nape of my neck.
I want to tell him that I’ll get married far away from this sick land.
“I should pick up a rock and dash your brains out.”
“Who’s stopping you?” He spreads his arms as if he wants to be shot. His
chest shows through his shirt, open almost down to his belly button. “Do it,
and we’ll all be at peace.”
“I’m going to be a mother.”
“I can see that. You should have told me when I called.”
“You’ve got enough with your whores.”
He laughs, the cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.
I hear his back creak as he stands up.
“Do you see how smart the girl is, Tránsito?” He’s looking at the marble
slab as he talks. “I told you she’d go far.”
“It was you.”
“It was both of us. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now, she isn’t coming back
to life.” He stubs out the cigar on the white marble. “That’s the last thing we
My head is spinning. I can feel the elastic of my socks like shackles
round my ankles. Don’t fall over and don’t start crying. Press your fingers
hard against your belly. Don’t give in. I’d like to hurl myself at your throat
but my arms are too heavy, and a few seconds later I’m sitting on the grave,
trying not to collapse as I watch his feet approach.
“Help me die, Jara.”
His voice is so hoarse that I’m not sure if it’s a plea or a threat. I
can’t look at you, I’m tired of pretending, I can’t take any more, dad. I’m
going to fall.
“Cut your throat, then, you’ve had plenty of experience of that.”
He rests his paws on the grave, his face next to my ear, I feel his
breath wheezing against my hair, he’s talking very close to me, as if he was
going to swallow me. “It has to be you, Jara.”
I try not to move while he pants.
“Just die and let me live in peace.”
“Help me,” he pants. “Come to the Lagarto with me, I’ve got my car just
on the edge of town. But don’t say anything to the Moor, you shouldn’t have
brought anyone, this is just between me and you, Jara. It’s our business.”
You bring me to this pigsty so everyone can see my face when I give in.
“For me, you’re already dead.”
His fingers brush my face, the same face his hands hit this afternoon; a
coarse hand that smells of rust strokes the swollen cheek, then he runs his
fingers roughly through my hair, awkwardly, as if for the first time. I close
my eyes. I feel weak.
He takes a lock of my hair between his fingers, pulls it tight, feels
the roots pulling inside my scalp. I’m in his hands. Then he lets me go. I hear
him disappear among the gravestones, the ground disappears beneath my feet and
I fall, I fall, I fall and I burst into tears with my belly between my hands, all
of the darkness of the world is here, in this cemetery without gates, with no
beginning and no end, that extends into the night and mixes with life under the
gloomy song of the woodpigeons, who laugh at me because I don’t know, I’ve
never known, how to cry in front of anybody.
Published by Periférica (Cáceres, Spain). 272 pages.
The process by which some books make it into English and others don’t has always struck me as a bit of a mystery. I’ve read a lot of great novels in Spanish over the last year and I’m reluctant to choose favourites but if you allowed me to choose one text that I think really ought to be translated into English, then La desaparición del paisaje by Maximiliano Barrientos would be my selection.
I spoke to Maximiliano about his work, and also about translation and writing in general. The interview is followed by a synopsis of the novel and a brief sample translation. A longer sample is available on request.
TG: La desaparición del paisaje is one of those books that seems fairly straightforward: the story of a 32-year-old man who returns to Bolivia after 12 years in the United States. But whenever I try to describe it to friends and colleagues, I get tongue-tied. I realize that – although it’s fairly short (270 pages) and doesn’t have a particularly complicated plot – it touches on a lot of different issues. Could you sum it up in a few words?
MB: Perhaps the clearest theme is return: what it means to go back to the site where one’s formative experiences occurred, the place from which the character has escaped – and this escape forms the starting point for the novel, even though it is not actually recounted. Returning is always problematic, because the person who has left comes back to a physical location but cannot return to the mental and emotional space where these events took place. You can return to a place but you can’t return to the past (and it is this past that haunts the entire novel). So the past is another of my novel’s key themes. The third major theme, in my view, is the family and, in particular, the relationship between fathers and sons, and the struggle that sons embark upon when they are threatened by their fathers’ demons. This struggle is one of the sites where masculinity is constructed: or rather, a particular type of masculinity, one that processes loss through a prism of rage and violence.
TG: One of the things I love when I sit down to translate a text – which, in this case, is just a short sample so far – is that I am forced to read much more closely. I have to admit that I’m not a particularly attentive reader by nature (to be blunt, I’m lazy!), but when I translate I suddenly notice everything: the punctuation, the ambiguity, little silences, the rhythm of the dialogues. It’s as if I’d been magically transformed into some kind of super-reader. When I translated the first 15 pages of La desaparición del paisaje, I realized that your style – which at first impression might strike the reader as quite plain – is actually full of idiosyncrasies. Can you tell me about your style, what characterizes it?
MB: You’re right. The way that translating a text forces you to become a more attentive reader is interesting. I’ve experienced this even as an amateur, translating short stories by authors such as Peter Orner, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill and Rick Bass for a series of creative writing workshops that I’ve been running for a number of years. I wanted to discuss some structural aspects of several short stories, but they hadn’t been translated into Spanish, so I gave participants the original text along with my own translation.
I don’t think style is something you choose. I’d agree with the great Flannery O’Connor who described it as a gift, something innate, something you eventually discover after countless failures, after countless readings in which you intuit the existence of places that you don’t wish to explore as a narrator. To be honest, it’s more helpful to identify what it is you loathe about some writers than to identify things that you love. A literary education is a battlefield, one where you have to choose sides, where there’s no such thing as neutrality.
Style is something you discover, but if you never learn your craft then your style remains baggy and shapeless. You strengthen it as you practise. I guess you can think of it as an apprenticeship that writers need to serve. I’m interested in how language can produce the illusion of experience, so that the reader feels they have actually lived it, and to achieve this the language has to become invisible, to convert itself into a cadence, a rhythm, a breath which is at the service of certain key images. For me, the image is what comes first, what’s most important: language seeks to translate it.
TG: As far as I know, before I read La desaparición del paisaje I’d only ever read one Bolivian novel in my life: Los afectos, by Rodrigo Hasbún (translated into English with the title Affections, by Sophie Hughes, and published by Pushkin Press). Would you place yourself within a Bolivian literary tradition or within something wider: Latin American literature, for example, or simply literature written in Spanish? Are there any individual writers who’ve influenced you heavily as an author?
MB: I don’t think we can really talk of a Bolivian tradition – or even a Latin American one, in fact, because that’s a label which is applied to writers who really have nothing in common, whose style and poetics are very different, diametrically opposed even. I owe a debt to certain writers, whether they are Bolivian, Latin American, North American or European. If I had to identify with a particular tradition, it would be with poets such as Jaime Saenz, Viel Temperley and Zbigniew Herbert. Novelists like William Faulkner, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Sorokin, Cormac McCarthy and Juan José Saer. Short story writers such as Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and Mariana Enríquez.
You can’t map a strictly literary tradition geographically; instead, such traditions are based on affinities around imagery and sensibilities, so we’re not talking about solid structures but ones that are in constant flux. Because a writer doesn’t belong to a single lineage: over time, the line breaks.
And if we look at it in geographical terms, then tradition really operates more like a lobby. If a Mexican writer or an Argentine writer publishes a novel, it will be a thousand times easier for them than it would be for an Ecuadorian or a Bolivian writer, because of the production system and the infrastructure. Does a novel written by a Paraguayan arouse the same expectations as one written by a Colombian? It would be ridiculous to think that was the case. The whole system is constructed to favour strong traditions.
La desaparición del paisaje (The Disappearance of the Landscape) is set in the city of Santa Cruz, and is narrated by Vitor Flanagan, recently returned to Bolivia at the age of 32, having left his homeland when he was 20. Vitor’s mother died when he was still a child, and as he grew older Vitor gradually realized that leaving was the only way to avoid turning into his father, a violent alcoholic who was overwhelmed by his wife’s death.
However, by the time Vitor returns to Bolivia, after 12 erratic years in the United States, he has lost contact with everyone who loved him: María, his father’s widow, a kind of substitute mother, and a silent witness to the family’s gradual disintegration; Fabia, Vitor’s sister, who harbours a profound resentment towards her brother for disappearing from her life, for having forgotten about the rest of them; Laura, his former girlfriend, who is married to another man; and Alberto, his best friend at school.
Upon returning to Bolivia, Vitor seeks to undo the effects of the past: taking justice into his own hands and exacting vengeance on a rapist whose attack he failed to prevent many years earlier; reviving an old affair only to be abandoned, in turn, by his former lover; and trying to care for the ageing alcoholic uncle who was in love with Vitor’s mother. But the past can never simply be forgotten or undone, emotions cannot simply be overcome, wounds may heal but the scars remain.
Maximiliano Barrientos was born in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in 1979. His short story collection, Diario (2009), received the Santa Cruz National Literature Prize. His first two books – Los daños and Hoteles – were subsequently edited, revised and transformed into the short story collection Fotos tuyas cuando empiezas a envejecer and the novel Hoteles. Both titles were published by Periférica in 2011.
In 2015 he published La desaparición del paisaje, also with Periférica, as well as the collection of short stories titled Una casa en llamas, published by El Cuervo in Bolivia and by Eterna Cadencia in the rest of Latin America and in Spain. His most recent novel is En el cuerpo una voz, a dystopic fable set in a post-civil war Bolivia that has collapsed into chaos and violence. He lives in Santa Cruz. Maximiliano Barrientos is represented by Indent Literary Agency.
I hugged María and looked at the armchairs and I realized that it was in one of these that she had found my father dead one morning in 2003.
Your room’s just the same, take your things through and then come and we’ll have something to eat, she said.
I don’t want you to tell Fabia I’m back.
Leave your things and come through here, I’ll cook you up some jerky with rice, you can’t have had majao for years.
I’ll go and see my sister, I said, just not right now.
There’s no hurry, get yourself settled in and then we’ll have some lunch. You must be starving.
I took my bags and went through to the room that had been mine as a kid. The house was in good condition, there were no damp stains on the walls, no peeling paint falling off at the slightest touch, no termites in the timber. Lying on the single bed I listened to María coughing and moving things about, getting the plates out and cooking, doing what she always did, as if this day was no different from any other. I closed my eyes and wished for sleep to come, to blot out everything for a few hours.
The first afternoon following my return to Santa Cruz, when María was out doing the weekly shopping, I let myself into her room and looked through my father’s things. She had kept his clothes on the wardrobe shelves, she hadn’t given them away. There were also bottles with dregs of whisky in his old hiding places. I opened them and sniffed. They smelled of my father. He died of a heart attack. María called me in Chicago to give me the news, I hadn’t spoken to him for two years because of a stupid argument. She said she’d found him dead one morning in the living room. She said my father looked like he was asleep but when she saw him she knew he was dead. I was twenty-one and I’d arrived in the Windy City fifteen months earlier. I didn’t go to the funeral. Instead, I stayed in the States and didn’t talk about his death to anyone. I didn’t speak to María again until a week before I returned, almost ten years after I’d heard the news of my father’s demise.
I lay on the bed and stayed there for a few hours until María found me asleep. She was carrying bags from the supermarket. She said my name. I stood up and apologized.
It doesn’t matter, she said.
I saw his clothes, you didn’t give them away.
I don’t have to, it doesn’t bother me.
And the bottles.
It doesn’t matter, she repeated.
Did he carry on drinking so much, right to the end?
He drank but he didn’t fight anymore. He was old.
When I didn’t reply she said:
Why don’t you try on the clothes? I’m sure they’ll fit, you’re the same size.
His clothes and his bottles were still there. The shoes he wore, his wallets, his cigarette lighters, his old razor. Things that could be piled up, collected, put away in a chest. The same thing happened when my mother died in 1989, when I was nine and Fabia was six.
Please contact me if you would like to see an extended sample of this translation.
If you’re interested in reading about how I approached the challenge of trying to reflect Barrientos’ distinctive style in my English translation, please take a look at my blogpost – This is not a beauty contest: some thoughts on the challenge of translating style.
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.
“Give me a kiss.”
I go over and kiss her. She has hairs on her upper lip and on her chin.
“At this time of day? What about your mother?”
“She’s getting ready.”
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Children of the Nile, the prizewinning Spanish journalist Xavier Aldekoa sets off on a journey to trace the Nile from its source at Lake Victoria all the way to the Mediterranean. However, this is not some modern boys’ own adventure following in the footsteps of European explorers of the 19th century. Instead, as the title suggests, Aldekoa’s real interest is in the people that live along the banks of the river, the diversity and versatility of their culture, and the conflicts that occur as rising populations and political tensions spill over into violence and war.
His journey begins in Uganda, where his original plan had been to meet up with Grace, a South Sudanese girl who has been forced to flee the violence in her own country. However, Aldekoa’s aim of reuniting Grace with her mother is thwarted when renewed conflict breaks out in South Sudan.
Instead, Aldekoa travels – sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others – from the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, down the White Nile and across South Sudan as far as the border. He then takes a detour to Ethiopia, where he visits the source of the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands. The next stage of his journey takes him to Khartoum, where the White and the Blue Nile merge before the river starts its crossing of the Sahara Desert. In the final section of his journey, Aldekoa visits Egypt, travelling by boat and train from Abu Simbel, near the Sudanese border, to Rashid, a port on the Nile Delta.
Aldekoa’s journey takes us through a region that is wracked by poverty, war, and ethnic and political conflict, and the true protagonists of the book are not the writer himself or the landscape through which he travels, but the people he meets and the stories they tell. These include:
- a former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, who was kidnapped and inducted into the LRA, committed unimaginable atrocities, rose up through the ranks, and finally escaped, leaving behind his former comrades but carrying his memories with him
- a family of South Sudanese refugees who, with the help of an anonymous benefactor, have managed to rebuild their lives and now pin their hopes on the academic prowess of a studious 18-year-old
- the people of the northern highlands of Ethiopia, a police state where a careless comment can land the speaker in prison (or worse) and where almost everyone has a friend, a relative, a neighbour or a colleague who has been arrested and tortured by the security forces
- a Khartoum journalist who runs one of the few independent newspapers in a country where any sign of dissent is quickly squashed
- the crew of a fishing boat, members of the marginalised Nubian minority in southern Egypt, who struggle to maintain their dignity despite the disdain with which the government and its officials treat them.
The overall picture is one both of despair and of hope. Many of the countries through which Aldekoa travels have recently been at war, while the precarious peace that currently prevails often coexists with low-level conflict and is only enforced by pervasive repression. But there is hope, too, in the people of the region, many of whom have refused to be drawn into the violence, and cleave instead to traditions of hospitality, dreaming of freedom as they quietly pursue their goal of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
Hijos del Nilo has been extremely well received in Spain. It is currently on its fourth print run (in less than two months), has topped the non-fiction bestseller charts, and has received wide coverage both in the mainstream print press and the broadcast media:
A full list of clippings (in Spanish) is available here:
The original Spanish text contains a mixture of different styles: first person reportage, flashback, direct speech, more contemplative descriptive writing, and analysis of political and historical contexts. The challenge for the translator is to reproduce this range of styles in English without losing the energy and range of the original text.
Xavier Aldekoa (b. Barcelona, Spain, 1981) is a writer and journalist who has written extensively on Africa. He is the Africa correspondent of La Vanguardia (one of Spain’s leading newspapers), is a co-founder of the groundbreaking current affairs magazine Revista 5W, has made several TV documentaries, and is the winner of numerous prizes. In 2014 he published Océano África, a collection of articles and other pieces.
“One thing led to another, and that was only the beginning. I am referring to the head resting on the plate of cannelloni. Heavy and still and deaf, and attached to Pedro Akira’s stocky body by a strong, manly neck.”
When the opposition presidential candidate is brutally assassinated in the fictional Latin American country of Miranda, an unlikely hero – an obese social misfit with a groundless superiority complex – is drafted in to ensure that the country’s dictatorial ruler will not go unchallenged. What ensues is a satirical thriller, a black comedy and a political tragedy, told in the unforgottable voice of its first person narrator, the oddly endearing José Cantona
A bizarre thriller in which the antisocial protagonist is forced to take on the identity of the leader of the opposition party and undergo unbearable adventures in order to bring down the totalitarian regime of a fictional Latin American country that bears more than a passing resemblance to Colombia. Within this structure, the novel grows, wildly and unpredictably gushing forth in the protagonist’s voice. Excessive, mentally unbalanced, hilarious, the narrator uses his words to question, ridicule and destroy reality.
Accompanying him on his adventures are an idealistic bodyguard and a reluctant nurse. Ceaselessly pursued by the regime and betrayed by their supposed allies, the characters are finally hunted down and defeated. The two men disappear. The woman manages to escape.
The adventure seems to have come to an end when the woman, living in exile, receives a manuscript that recounts their experiences, written by the protagonist. She reads it, believing the two men to be dead. Her reading, however, becomes a frantic revision of all she has experienced and helps her find a resolution.
The novel is told almost entirely in the first person by a narrator with a very distinctive voice, which constantly subverts linguistic convention for both surreal and comic effect. The main challenge for the translator is to convey this voice without either flattening it (by replacing unconventional source language phrasings with more conventional equivalents in English) or carelessly transforming the unusual wordings of the source into clumsy translationese. I believe that my sample translation (see attached) shows that these are issues that can be resolved, producing an English text that is true to the spirit of the original, retaining both its surreal mood and dark humour.
Antonio Ungar (b. Bogotá, Colombia, 1974) is a novelist and journalist, who won the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolivar for his journalism in 2005. He has published three collections of three stories, three novels and one piece of fiction for children. His second novel (Las orejas del lobo) was the runner-up for the Courier International Prize for the best foreign-language book published in France in 2008.
He currently lives in Jaffa (Palestine-Israel), where he continues to work as a journalist for a number of publications and is also preparing his next novel:
First published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain). 284 pages. Winner of the Premio Herralde de la Novela 2010.
Translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew and Greek.
“a political satire that keeps the reader on tenterhooks – laughing in nervous disbelief, cringing in fear – until the last haunted sentence” (Brendan Riley, Review of Contemporary Fiction)
“a work that loses none of its political power for its resemblance to a prose poem” (Ollie Brock, Times Literary Supplement)
“a grotesque, satirical thriller, which signals the beginning of a literary career that should be followed with interest” (Ricardo Baixeras, El Periódico)
“Its success is to combine parody with the enormous sadness that the story generates” (J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia, El País)
“Stylistically brilliant, bitingly ironic, the book becomes a vertiginous story of violent events that tumble upon each other. But it is also the delicate story of an impossible love, which is counterpoised with the river of blood where the protagonist finds himself” (Arturo García Ramos, Abc).
“a grotesque comic fresco of Latin American tyranny, a stunning satire on political violence… But it is impossible not to recognise certain mechanisms of corruption and lies that also affect Europe and the rest of the developed world” (Iñaki Ezkerra, El Correo)