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.
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)