Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)

Born in 1918, Juan Rulfo was considered an esteemed figure in the world of Spanish literature, and his novella Pedro Páramo, particularly, appears to have influenced the writing of many authors including Gabriel García Márquez who provides an introduction for this Serpent’s Tail edition. That’s not surprising because I thought this was a remarkable book.

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance.

It’s a tad difficult to articulate my thoughts on this novella, its vivid imagery is striking and still etched in my mind, but there’s a slippery feel to the story that’s hard to capture.

In the opening pages, Juan Preciado makes a promise to his dying mother that he will make the journey to Comala to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he has never met before. Complying with her dying wish (“Make him pay, Son, for all those years he put us out of his mind”), Preciado sets off for Comala (“you can see Comala, turning the earth white, and lighting it at night”); a town that both he and the reader soon realise is haunted by the dead.

The Comala of the present is a ghost town – deserted, barren, almost dystopian (“In the shimmering sunlight the plain was a transparent lake dissolving in mists that veiled a grey horizon. Farther in the distance, a range of mountains. And farther still, faint remoteness”).

Most people that Preciado encounters are probably ghosts, a town where the dead outnumber the living with every likelihood that Pedro Páramo is dead too.

“What happens with these corpses that have been dead a long time is that when the damp reaches them they begin to stir. They wake up.”

As he traverses these empty streets craving for the company of real people but is instead assailed by sounds or voices, Preciado meets several people along the way, but alas, they are probably apparitions or a figment of his imagination; indeed, Preciado himself is tormented by dreams and illusions, overwhelmed by fears and sometimes claustrophobia. Frequent references are made to purgatory and hell; many of Comala’s dead have not been forgiven for their sins, the doors to heaven are forever closed.

Interspersed with the present are flashbacks to Comala’s past, a period that seems more grounded in reality simply because it was a robust town of the living then. And yet, it’s a tortured place, simmering with violence, and driven by revenge, where boundaries – both physical and personal – are often encroached not only by Pedro Páramo but also by his illegitimate son Miguel. The timeline of these dramatic forays into the past is non-linear, fragments that when pieced together give a broader picture of the doomed fate of the town and its inhabitants.

Various characters are fleshed out as the novella progresses. We are told about Lucas Páramo, Pedro’s father who died a gruesome death and had a low opinion of his son; we learn of Pedro Páramo’s indifference towards his wife Dolores (Juan Preciado’s mother) who abandons him to settle in another town and his yearnings for Susanna who leaves Comala with her dad at a very young age.

The day you went away I knew I would never see you again. You were stained red by the late afternoon sun, by the dusk filling the sky with blood.

To Pedro, Susanna is the love of his life, the woman he desperately wants. Thirty years later, Susana returns with her father since reports of armed rebellion compel the pair to leave their remote hut on the site of the abandoned La Andromeda mines and head for Comala. Pedro’s happiness knows no bounds, although hints emerge about Susana’s madness, the true nature of which becomes clearer later on, and forms the kernel of Pedro Páramo’s desire to wreak havoc (“And all of it was don Pedro’s doing, because of the turmoil of his soul”).

“Don’t you believe it. He loved her. I’m here to tell you that he never loved a woman like he loved that one. By the time they brought her to him, she was already suffering – maybe crazy. He loved her so much that after she died he spent the rest of his days slumped in a chair, staring down the road where they’d carried her to holy ground. He lost interest in everything. He let his lands lie fallow, and gave orders for the tools that worked it to be destroyed. Some say it was because he was worn out; others said it was despair. The one sure thing is that he threw everyone off his land and sat himself down in his chair to stare down that road.”

Pedro wields a considerable influence over Comala (“He is, I haven’t a doubt of it, unmitigated evil”), a town he rules through frequent recourse to violence, a warped legacy he passes on to Miguel, who unsurprisingly given his brash personality, meets an untimely death in a freak accident. Despite his longing for Susana, Pedro also seems to be a chronic womanizer having fathered many children; at the very beginning Preciado comes across a tone-deaf man called Abundio Martinez who informs him that “Pedro Páramo’s my father too.”

So potent is Pedro’s power in Comala that even the priest, Father Rentaria, is compelled to pardon Miguel at his funeral, even when he internally revolts at the idea (Miguel had killed his brother and raped his niece).

“I know you hated him, Father. And with reason. Rumour has it that your brother was murdered by my son, and you believe that your niece Ana was raped by him. Then there were his insults, and his lack of respect. Those are all reasons anyone could understand. But forget all that now, Father. Weigh him and forgive him, as perhaps God has forgiven him.”

He placed a handful of gold coins on the prie-dieu and to his feet: “Take this as a gift for your church.”

Tired, defeated and burdened by the knowledge that he had set in motion a chain of events that got out of control, Father Rentaria seeks salvation himself from a fellow priest, but is refused. Salvation is not always forthcoming to Comala’s people. Father Rentaria, on his part, refuses to pardon a destitute woman called Dorotea who confesses to having brought girls to Miguel, this is revealed to us in her conversation with Juan Preciado in their graves…

“I don’t know, Juan Preciado. After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just knowing where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest after padre Rentaría told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance… It was because of my sins, but he didn’t have to tell me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you’ll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door to you and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you’re better off not being born. For me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here.”

Pedro Páramo, then, is a novella about dashed hopes, twisted love and boundless tragedy, the fates of its characters inextricably linked to the senseless actions of a mercurial, brutal man. There’s a trancelike, hallucinatory quality to the storytelling that flits between past and present, where the boundaries between dreams and reality are often blurred. It’s an enthralling mood piece; prose that has a filmic texture to it, an amalgam of non-chronological snapshots patched together to form a rich reel of an ill-fated town. Not to mention the limpid, poetic sentences pulsating with haunting sensory images.

Green pastures. Watching the horizon rise and fall as the wind swirled through the wheat, an afternoon rippling with curling lines of rain. The colour of the earth, the smell of alfalfa and bread. A town that smelled like spilled honey…

Pedro Páramo is a vessel of collective voices and whispers as it effortlessly moves between the realms of the living and dead; the narrative switches between the first person in the present (Preciado is the narrator to be joined in the second half by Dorotea as the two begin conversing) and a third person point of view when the focus shifts to events of the past. Cinematic in scope, strange and unique, Pedro Páramo can be a disorienting experience in the beginning but then transforms into something magical as it coasts along. Highly recommended!

The Waiting Years – Fumiko Enchi (tr. John Bester)

Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years is my contribution to #JanuaryinJapan and Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge, and what a terrific read it turned out to be!

Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.

Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. But while the Shirakawas are a symbol of respectability when it comes to outward appearances, privately within the confines of the family the scenario could not have been more different.

In the very first chapter, Tomo is tasked with a heartbreaking mission, a matter which causes her much anguish. Now that her husband has risen the ranks in his career, bowing down to expectations from certain quarters that he can allow himself a mistress, Yukitomo entrusts Tomo with the job of finding a suitable concubine for him, the younger the better and preferably untouched. Yukitomo has granted funds to Tomo for this purpose with permission to take her time in finding a suitable woman.

The very idea that a husband is asking a wife to find him a mistress is detestable, but Tomo is aware that she hardly has much choice in this matter. She could refuse, but that would not stop Yukitomo from finding a mistress himself and Tomo takes some solace (if one could call it that) in the fact that if the matter of a permanent mistress for Yukitomo is a given, then at least she can have full control of who will set foot in the house.

The earlier chapters focus on the turmoil raging within Tomo, her love for Yukitomo when she married him, a man she still desires, which is why this task is so much harder. Yukitomo’s waywardness is nothing new to Tomo, she is aware of his womanizing ways but officially installing a mistress in the house is a different matter altogether. If Yukitomo has risen in his career, so has Tomo in her position as a government official’s wife – despite her country roots and lack of sophistication, she adapts to the demands of maintaining a respectable household, ensures that the Shirakawa name is held high, and effectively manages all property, land and sundry matters commensurate with the wealth and status of her husband.  

When the novel opens, Tomo and her young daughter Etsuko make the journey to Tokyo from the provincial town of Fukushima. Her destination is the Kusumi house by the Sumida River, the residence of a woman called Kin who Tomo decides to enlist to help her find the right mistress. This job is all the more cumbersome because of its very nature – all forms of enquiries must be discreet and the people consulted must be trustworthy.  Tomo, along with Kin, visits a slew of geisha houses, where even the proprietors are struck by the strangeness of the situation – a man having mistresses hardly raises eyebrows, but a man asking a wife to find a mistress seems bizarre.

Three months pass by without yielding any results until finally, Tomo finds the girl she is looking for. Through a reference, Tomo and Kin visit a school where they watch girls practicing for a dance and her attention is brought to Suga, an innocent girl barely fifteen years of age. Suga is strikingly good-looking, a baleful beauty that is particularly captivating. Suga’s family is in dire circumstances financially, the family business has gone under, and under sheer desperation, they agree to send off Suga to the Shirakawa family. The guilt in Suga’s mother is palpable for having literally ‘sold’ her daughter, and she privately requests Tomo to take upon herself the responsibility of caring for her.

Suga has been vaguely told by her family to respect the master’s wishes without really conveying their true nature. Thus, when ensconced in the Shirakawa household at the very beginning, Suga seems carefree and happy. She is barely older than Etsuko and the two hit it off immediately. But after a few days when reality hits her hard, Suga slowly begins to sink into despondency.

As the novel progresses, in a timespan encompassing several years, various developments take place in the Shirakawa household that only heighten how dysfunctional the family is, particularly its male members – another young woman called Yumi is installed as Yukitomo’s mistress, Tomo and Yukitomo’s emotionally distant and unstable son Michimasa is married off to Miya who comes from a trading family and whose easygoing, coquettish manner results in her embarking on a highly forbidden affair with her father-in-law.

Where Enchi excels is to offer a window into these women’s inner lives. She beautifully captures the internal drama of Tomo, Suga and even Yumi – the anguish of their narrowed existence, catering to the whims of a morally irresponsible man, and given the times they lived in, a feeling of having their hands tied and their dreams and desires squashed.

Right from the time she is entrusted with the burdensome task of searching for a suitable concubine, we are privy to the range of emotions that flit through Tomo’s mind; the knowledge that she is no longer desired and that her rightful place in the marital bed is upended by a young girl.

Her mind that under the pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having publicly to hand over her husband to another gnawed at her within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than that creed. Tormented by the one-sided love that gave and gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.

The idea of leaving Yukitomo and moving back to her parent’s place does occur to her, but she senses the futility of this. Tomo’s upbringing has been as per old-fashioned moral codes and for her to simply abandon them is not easy. She realises she has her children to care for and a wife’s standing to maintain, and she decides to take these developments in her stride. Of course, over the years, Yukitomo’s irresponsible behaviour hardly recedes, and Tomo treads on eggshells, left with the thankless, difficult job of keeping the household together and preventing it from falling apart, which not surprisingly begins to take a toll on her. Although she no longer shares Yukitomo’s bed, her position as his wife remains secure, and yet at the beginning, a flicker of fear passes through her that this might not be so. And yet despite it all, there is an inner strength that is inherent in Tomo, a will of steel palpable that enables her to perform her duties, however unpleasant they may be.  

If Tomo’s standing is not something to be envious of, Suga’s circumstances are even worse (“Pity welled up at the sorry fate of the girl fluttering before her like a great butterfly”). At the very beginning when the reality of placement in the Shirakawa household dawns on her, Suga is beset by a growing sense of disillusionment and sadness. Although her material comforts are taken care of and she no longer has to worry about money, she is struck by the hopelessness of her situation, the loss of freedom that it entails, the feeling of her wings being clipped. Suga’s position is particularly cruel because she is trapped in no-man’s land – she might be Yukitomo’s favourite but does not enjoy the privilege of being the official, respectable mistress of the house, that status irrefutably belongs to Tomo. Suga also lacks Tomo’s managerial skills when it comes to matters relating to handling Yukitomo’s plethora of estates and other business matters.

As the years pile on and Suga grows older, her sense of claustrophobia only heightens and along with it her resentment for being answerable to Tomo. Nor can Suga marry another man, set up her own home as a respectable wife and start a family. To make matters worse, Suga’s worries only deepen when Yukitomo begins to have an affair with his daughter-in-law, a development that only increases her sense of peril.

There’s also the delicate, complex relationship between Suga and Yumi, the latter installed in the Shirakawa household initially as a maid, only to move on to become another of Yukitomo’s concubines. Suga’s family on hearing this, worry about the rivalry that is likely to arise between the two women, but interestingly rather than become sworn enemies, Suga and Yumi bond as sisters, probably Suga broadly identifies with the grimness of their situation, a spider’s web in which Yumi is as much trapped as Suga.

Yukitomo is the quintessential, tyrannical man, ruling the household with an iron fist, disrespectful of women, compelling them to kowtow to his demands and find a way to adjust to his increasingly untenable loose behaviour. The less said about him the better.

The book also subtly explores the transition of Japan to the Meiji era which is visible in the way Yukitomo’s career plays out. Yukitomo espouses conservative values and along with his boss strongly opposes liberal thinking and the stance of the liberal movement. But he is increasingly aware of the frailty of their seemingly invisible seat of power.

General Kawashima, a man not easily daunted, had said, his large heavy-lidded eyes creasing in a grim frown:  “If we don’t get complete control within the next year or two, it’s all up with us. Personally, I don’t want to live to see that day come.”

Could it be that the demon superintendent, the man who had devoted all his energies to suppressing the popular campaign for civil rights, had come to realize that the new age rolling towards them like the sea at full tide was something against which resistance was possible? Shirakawa could not avoid a sense of disheartenment at the crack he saw appearing in the disposition of this obdurate man who had once so blithely seized people’s homes in what amounted to daylight robbery, and pulled them down in order to make way for a prefectural road – the man who had happily tolerated the poisoning by mineral wastes of a whole area along the banks of the Watarase river so that the copper mine at Ashio might prosper – all this done in the name of loyalty to the state. 

As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time.

It is a quietly devastating tale of the plight of women who are compelled to be subservient to the unreasonable demands of men in a patriarchal society. Enchi’s prose is suffused with an elegiac, haunting power; her writing is sensitive and perceptive, finely attuned to the turmoil that seethes within her female characters. The way she delves deep into the complexity of their emotions and depicts the impossibility of their situation is particularly striking. This is an emotionally wrought tale and yet there is no melodrama, which also in a way lends the story an atmosphere of sadness. The novel also simmers with tension, a sense of foreboding about how the events are likely to unravel, not to mention an ending that throws a punch to the gut.

The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. Highly recommended!

Salka Valka – Haldór Laxness (tr. Philip Roughton)

It was the Mookse and Gripes podcast in December 2022 that finally gave me the impetus to pick up Salka Valka; it was featured in Trevor’s Top Five of the year. It’s the first Haldór Laxness novel I’ve read and based on how wonderful it was, won’t be my last. This is also my contribution to #NordicFINDS23 hosted by AnnaBookBel.

THAT HAUNTING OPENING SCENE…

In the opening pages of Salka Valka, a coastal steamer stops at the port of a small, remote fishing village called Oseyri. Surrounded by looming mountains and fjords, the village is now in the throes of deepening winter, relentlessly hounded by driving snow. Oseyri is such a nondescript, isolated village (“you get the impression that nothing in the world could be more insignificant and meaningless than such a small village under such high mountains”), that a couple of idle tourists aboard the steamer at the time of its docking, can’t help wondering about it – “How do people live in such a place? And how do they die?”

Nobody can envisage a life here, but on that cold, bleak winter’s night two figures emerge from the steamer – a woman called Sigurlina and her 11-year old daughter Salvor (Salka Valka). Sigurlina and Salka Valka have made this journey from the North, certain circumstances having driven them away, and while Reykjavik seems to be their final destination, Sigurlina, reduced to a state of penury, cannot afford the cost of the trip further.

Oseyri, then, becomes her destination for the time being, she hopes to find a job that will help her make enough money to embark on the journey south. However, fate as we shall see has other plans…

Thus begins this wondrous, 552-paged, ambitious novel of Salka Valka, an immersive, brilliant, often harrowing tale of a beleaguered fishing community and the indomitable spirit of a woman who prides on her independence and strives to improve their lot.

ESSENCE OF PLOT & STRUCTURE

Salka Valka is divided into four sections, each section comprising two parts. In the first section, we meet Salka when she is an 11-year old girl, defiant and spirited even at that young age. She accompanies Sigurlina when she knocks at several doors, desperate to find work and in this way, along with her the reader is also introduced to some of the prominent inhabitants of the village. The foremost is Jóhann Bogesen, a wealthy merchant who has a monopoly on the village’s fishing operations (the community’s primary source of livelihood), while also managing the store; the villagers’ employment status is defined by the opening of an account with Bogesen. Sigurlina fails to find employment there as a maid and her subsequent visits to the church Dean and the village doctor also yield no results. Mostly viewed as strangers, the dean and the doctor remain suspicious of her background, it is alleged that Salka is an illegitimate child (which is true), and consequently turn both mother and daughter away.

Little wonder then that Sigurlina finds some solace in the Salvation Army, its religious teachings and chanting re-ignite her faith in Christianity. The village church looks down upon the Salvation Army branding it a heathen place, but it is perhaps a tad ironic that while both espouse the tenets of Christianity, it is the Salvation Army that welcomes Sigurlina in a way that the formal church does not.

Meanwhile, Salka Valka’s fiery persona is evident right from the very beginning as she hurls insults at Argantyr, Bogesen’s son, while at their palatial home (when Sigurlina is looking for work). In a village whose personality is largely shaped by fish and fishing, it is Salka who boldly approaches Jóhann Bogesen for the purpose of opening an account with him and demands to be given a job washing fish. Concerned that she is too young, the villagers are, nevertheless, struck by her will of steel, and she soon begins working with them because all said and done extra hands are needed for the job.

It’s also in the first section that we encounter two men who will have an important bearing on how the story unfolds and will play a pivotal role in how Salka’s destiny shapes up. First is the creepy sailor Steinþor, a raging alcoholic prone to destructive fits of anger. Steinþor helps Sigurlina find lodgings when no one else does and immediately begins an affair with her much to Salka’s chagrin. Salka also meets Arnaldur, a dreamy man, hired as her tutor for a brief period. Arnaldur lives with his irascible grandfather and an upright aunt; his mother has abandoned the family and his father is now a cultivated man settled abroad. Arnaldur is tormented by dreams of his mother which he confides to Salka, and regales her with visions of alternate worlds more captivating to him than his current circumstances.  

Part Two forwards to several years later, and Salka is now a young woman, self-reliant, living in her own house with a share in a fishing boat. She is also instrumental in forming a fisherman’s union successful in negotiating a wage hike. Despite her loathing for Steinþor Steinsson, Salka is not averse to the lure of money and there are rumors that payments received from America (notably from Steinþor) have helped fund the purchase of her home. In that sense, she is reasonably well-off in a village, where most others still struggle financially in their daily lives.

Politics, revolutionary ideals, and socio-economic issues make up for a bulk of the second section as the largely ignorant working class of Oseyri begins to get a whiff of the scent of Bolshevism, while the capitalists in the village resist its growing influence.

RICHLY DRAWN, COMPLEX CENTRAL CHARACTERS

Salka Valka, the titular character, is a remarkable heroine and a force to reckon with in Oseyri. Bold and enterprising, she is fiercely independent right from an early age, and a source of financial support to her mother who gradually sinks into despondency as her relationships fail. During her teenage years, Salka is treated like an outsider in Oseyri, often left out, and constantly humiliated by the jeers and insults of peers but she soldiers on. She is ugly when measured against the standards of conventional beauty, tall and strong, awkward even and often naïve when it comes to relationships, but sharp and intelligent in matters relating to business and money. Salka has a fraught, complex relationship with Steinþor, a man she abhors who nearly rapes her in the first section, yet she has no qualms about accepting money from him, because she understands the value of currency.

Then there’s Sigurlina who cuts a sorrowful figure, succumbing to men especially in her yearnings for love and support, and Steinþor who has a towering, disturbing presence in the lives of both women, Sigurlina wishes to marry him despite their abusive relationship. Increasingly moody and violent particularly when sozzled with drink, Steinþor desires Salka, and often disappears for long periods on sea when things get too hot for him in the village. Steinpor has grand ambitions of uprooting Bogesen’s unshakeable position but no one takes him seriously when he is so regularly drunk.

Arnaldur Björnsson casts a spell over Salka with his “face shining out of the darkness of the night, radiant with belief in another world.” Hired as Salka’s tutor, the two share a close bond which waxes and wanes over the course of the novel. Educated and immersed in books, a passionate revolutionary and an effective orator, Arnaldur’s communistic fervor awakens the interest of the Oseyri workers to the tenets of communism, but while his intensity as a rabble rouser is electrifying, he does not seem to be cut out for the execution of his ideology or the grunt work that it involves. Salka often wonders whether Arnaldur’s interest in communism is fuelled by his need to always argue and fight his enemies, only to lose interest once there’s nothing left to fight for.  

And last but not the least is Jóhann Bogesen, the wealthy merchant, who runs the show, and pretty much controls the economic pulse of the village. The Oseyri residents need him for their survival and at the same time despise him because they are at his mercy.

PANOPLY OF THEMES

One of the core themes that the novel addresses is the ugly side of abject poverty and the struggles of the working class. This is represented by the pathetic living conditions of Oseyri’s inhabitants – steeped in debt and dirt, riddled with illness and death, often at the mercy of natural calamities and the indifference of humanity. This is a deeply religious community, but the burden and worries of day to day living, not surprisingly, also fuel a wavering of faith and a hopeless resignation towards their doomed fate which God and the church does nothing to alleviate.  

Part Two of the novel assumes political overtones; the plight of the working class becomes the foundation for politics bringing in its wake sharp contrast in viewpoints. At the time when the novel is set, Iceland was part of the Kingdom of Denmark, while at the same time Russia was riding on the wave of communism and Bolshevism, the winds of this ideology blowing across the rest of Europe as well. In Salka Valka, these varying ideologies are epitomized by its central characters – Bogesen is the capitalist and a proponent of individual initiative, Arnaldur is the passionate Bolshevist and a budding revolutionary, while there are others who believe in self-determination and express a wish to break away from Denmark as well.

This novel was originally published in the early 1930s but Laxness’ stellar rendering of the intricate working of Iceland’s economy and the various cogs in the wheel (Oseyri being the hub) that support it has striking parallels with the financial crisis that crippled the nation in 2008. The rippling effects of union strikes, the ceasing of production, bad debts piling up with banks highlights a capitalist system where the fortunes of the wealthy are dented but pale in comparison to the plight of the poor, who caught between a rock and hard place, suffer the hardest.

Through debates and arguments between the principal characters, Laxness brings to the fore the complexity of myriad philosophies at play, always highlighting both sides of the coin – Bolshevism Vs Capitalism, independent initiative Vs mass production and community living, and so on.

Salka Valka is also in many ways a feminist tale. Salka’s zeal to lead her life on her own terms is strong not only because of her inherent personality but also because deep down she abhors her mother’s dependence on men to survive. That women have to bear the brunt of misogyny and grapple with shame and ostracization from the misdeeds of men is also explored.   

The novel also lays bare the widening gulf between the rich and poor in terms of money and opportunities. The Bogesens live in lavish comfort in Oseyri, and the merchant’s children enjoy the privilege of education in Copenhagen giving them an air of elegance and sophistication if not empathy, while Salka and her lot remains ignorant of the world outside, inhabiting a narrow space where nothing much happens and the only preoccupations centre around daily fishing activities.

STARK WEATHER – A FORCE IN ITS OWN RIGHT

In a novel replete with fully realised characters, Salka Valka also pulsates with a vivid sense of place – the mountains and fjords among which Oseyri is nestled, lends it a remote, distant quality; a place whose fate is determined by the vagaries of nature, the relentless brunt of thunderstorms and stark, severe winters.

AN EPIC NOVEL, EXPANSIVE IN SCOPE

Salka Valka, then, is a big, beautiful novel, expansive in its scope and incredibly absorbing. The first section is particularly haunting when depicting the plight of Oseyri’s villagers and workers crushed by poverty and barely making ends meet. The unraveling of Sigurlina’s fate is also imminently sad as she is engulfed by hopelessness and unbearable disappointment from the men she falls in love with.

Salka’s forceful spirit combined with her awkwardness and heightened sense of isolation during her early years in Oseyri are also strikingly depicted, as are the gamut of emotions she experiences with Arnaldur that oscillate between friendship and kinship to scorn and jealousy. Not to mention the increasing hatred she feels for Steinþor who lusts for her and bewilders her with his poetic fervor.

Part One is intense in the way the dynamics between the central characters play out and is in that sense more personal, while in Part Two that intensity takes a different path as the focus becomes more political.

This is entirely a third person narrative and one can’t help get a feeling that Laxness is an omniscient narrator particularly when he makes certain observations about his characters, his views subtly disguised in wit and comedy.

IN A NUTSHELL…

Epic in scope and ahead of its times, Salka Valka, then, is a simmering cauldron of various delectable ingredients – a coming-of-age tale, a statement on world politics, a strange beguiling love story, and an unforgettable female lead. Highly recommended!

After Rain – William Trevor

I haven’t read much William Trevor – only his novel Felicia’s Journey and his short story collection Last Stories – and I don’t know why because those books were brilliant and clearly I should be reading more. But I was keen to participate in Cathy and Kim’s A Year With William Trevor (#williamtrevor2023) and thus chose his collection of stories called After Rain, which turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a really stunning work.

As is the case with short story collections, I don’t intend to write on each of the twelve stories in the book, but will dwell on a few instead that I really loved and which give an overall flavour of the collection.

The first in the collection, The Piano Tuner’s Wives, is an achingly poignant, richly layered and sensitively written story about the passage of time on two marriages – two women married to the same man at different points in his life and the bitterness that engulfs the second wife who is unable to emerge from the shadow of the first. Owen Dromgould is the piano tuner of the title and in the opening pages we witness his second marriage to Belle, two years after the death of his first wife Violet.

We soon learn that both Violet and Belle were in love with Owen all those years ago, but Owen chose Violet, a fact that caused Belle much heartache then and resentment in the subsequent years. What particularly irked Belle was that by all measures she definitely had many advantages over Violet – Belle was five years younger and also beautiful, while Violet was plainer, even drab.

But the quality of beauty, always an asset for woman, did nothing to elevate Belle’s position because Owen was blind.

Since the time of her rejection Belle had been unable to shake off her jealousy, resentful because she had looks and Violet hadn’t, bitter because it seemed to her that the punishment of blindness was a punishment for her too.

Violet may not have been blessed in the looks department but she and Owen shared a strong bond and a good marriage. She was in many ways Owen’s “eyes”, his primary source of vision, patiently describing their immediate surroundings both inside their home and on their travels; a kind of a guiding light in his career and shaping up his life, instrumental in helping him set up his piano tuning business and driving him to various appointments thereafter.

Now, several years later, Belle’s wish has been granted, she finally marries the man she’s always loved, and yet something rankles her – Violet’s influence continues to haunt the house. Violet was Owen’s wife, manager, friend and confidante, and her presence in the home is so vivid even after her death that Belle feels stifled. She begins to introduce minor changes into the house to stamp her personality on her newly married home, but it often seems a futile exercise.

Every time she did anything in the house that had been Violet’s she felt it had been done by Violet before her. When she cut up meat for a stew, standing with the light falling on the board that Violet had used, and on the knife, she felt herself a follower. She diced carrots, hoping that Violet had sliced them. She bought new wooden spots because Violet’s had shriveled away so.

There was always this dichotomy: what to keep up, what to change. Was she giving in to Violet when she tended her flowerbeds? Was she giving in to pettiness when she threw away a frying-pan and three wooden spoons?

Owen senses the discomfort in Belle and makes attempts to quell Belle’s unease by assuring her of his love and encouraging her to make changes she deems fit, until Belle chooses that one crucial weapon in her arsenal to change the way Owen sees the world in her final attempt to snuff out Violet.

A Friendship is a fine, beautifully rendered tale of female friendship, marriage and an extra marital affair that threatens to ruin both. Margy and Francesca have been good friends since childhood, a friendship that has remained strong even after Francesca’s marriage to Philip – a dull, stuffy man but a brilliant, respected lawyer – and the birth of her sons, Jason and Ben. Francesca and Margy are as different as chalk and cheese but their friendship has endured for a reason…

Margy brought mild adventure into Francesca’s life, and Francesca recognized that Margy would never suffer the loneliness she feared herself, the vacuum she was certain there would be if her children had not been born.

Philip does not care much for Margy but tolerates her without making it obvious, although the ever perceptive Margy senses this. Margy does sometimes wonder how Francesca managed to marry Philip – his position and its consequent demands of a social life and impeccable household management skills often stresses Francesca, who is much more easygoing.

One day, a quarrel erupts between Philip and Francesca over a prank played by their boys; a development that causes Francesca much distress, and Margy to ease her burden sets in motion a plan that has serious consequences she may have not foreseen.

Child’s Play is a subtle story of the breakdown of a marriage and its repercussions seen through the eyes of the children involved. Rebecca becomes Gerard’s half-sister when Rebecca’s father and Gerard’s mother marry. We soon learn that theirs was an extra-marital affair that resulted in each of their respective marriages falling apart. Gerard’s father and Rebecca’s mother, each now alone, must move on in their own way, with Sunday visits from Gerard and Rebecca respectively to look forward to. For their part, Gerard and Rebecca quickly get along, and the one thread that binds them is the similarity of their circumstances; they come from broken families having witnessed the fights, resentment, bitter recriminations between their parents. The two often indulge in games of play-acting and make-believe, enacting those distressing scenes that only reinforce how deeply their parents’ divorce has affected them.

The titular story After Rain is a beautiful, melancholic tale of lost love and finding the strength to heal and carry on. Set in Italy, Harriet chooses to spend her holidays all by herself in an Italian pensione when the latest of her love affairs ends. The end of this relationship is particularly hard having occurred before the couple’s planned holiday on a Greek island, now cancelled. Wishing to spend some time alone to reflect, Harriet chooses to come to the same Italian hotel of which she has fond memories from childhood; it was where she often stayed with her parents as a child, those flashbacks all the more poignant, because her parents have separated since. However, Harriett’s sense of isolation only heightens during her stay at the hotel; it has moved along with the times, and is markedly different in various aspects from her first impressions of it as a child, and she begins to wonder whether this holiday like all her previous love affairs was just another mistake. Until a stroll in the quaint village, after a particularly heavy spell of rain, and a painting of the Annunciation offers Harriett that singular moment of epiphany.

There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.

Widows is a brilliantly written piece on the relationship between two sisters and the undercurrent of jealousy running underneath, hidden at first only for the crack to finally widen. Catherine and Alicia are sisters in their fifties; Alice is elder and beautiful of the two who moves in with Catherine and her husband Matthew when she becomes a widow. The story opens with Matthew’s death, Catherine is now a widow like her sister Alicia and deeply grieving. Alicia was the one blessed with beauty, the popular one, but unlucky in marriage, her husband’s death in many ways a relief. Catherine is the plainer sister but her marriage with Matthew was a very happy one. Alicia hopes that with Matthew’s death her relationship with Catherine will go back to the way it once was (“Why should she not fairly have hoped that in widowhood they would again be sisters first of all”), but the matter of an unpaid bill brought forward by a confidence trickster sparks a fight between the sisters and only highlights Catherine’s loyalty and her love towards her late husband.

Widows were widows first. Catherine would mourn, and feel in solitude the warmth of love. For Alicia there was the memory of her beauty.

Gilbert’s Mother is a masterclass of creeping dread and suspense – a mother paralysed by a sense of entrapment by her possibly wayward son. The story begins with the murder of a 19-year old girl, Carol Dickson, somewhere between ten and midnight, her body being discovered the next day. With no forthcoming suspects, her murderer remains large and the police seem defeated by the lack of progress in the case. The story then zooms to Rosalie Mannion and her twenty-five year old son Gilbert. We learn that there’s something not quite right about him for which he spent some time a few years ago in a psychiatric centre so that his behavioral traits could be observed. Gilbert is employed in an architect’s office and tasked with menial jobs, but his intensity is unnerving and way he meticulously narrates details often taxes Rosalie but she humours him because she senses that no one else does. Gilbert’s erratic behaviour in the past – unexplained disappearances, items missing from the house – often suspiciously coincide with incidents of thefts, arson and so on in the neighbourhood and Rosalie often wonders whether Gilbert is at the centre of it although there is never any proof. Is he then in any way involved in Carol Dickson’s murder?

The Potato Dealer is another wonderful story that examines some of the same themes seen in Felicia’s Journey – an unwed mother and the shame and guilt that follow in its wake. Having lost her father at a young age, Ellie and her mother move in with Ellie’s uncle Mr Larrissey (her mother’s brother) at their family farmhouse. When Ellie is pregnant out of wedlock, the unborn child being the product of a summer love affair with a priest, the sense of shame felt by the family knows no bounds. Despite being Catholics, Ellie’s mother and uncle favour abortion there being no other choice, but Ellie wishes to keep the baby as the symbol of her love for a man who she knows can never marry her. An arrangement is then reached with a potato dealer called Mulreavy – a sum offered to him in exchange for his marriage to Ellie with other forthcoming benefits such as the prospect of owning the land and house once the uncle dies provided he helps with the day’s work in the fields. Mulreavy settles down in his new abode, the child is born and things seemingly progress along smoothly until a growing sense of guilt in Ellie threatens to disrupt their fragile tranquil state and shared arrangement of compromise.

The tales in After Rain, then, are incredibly nuanced, quiet, artfully crafted with a lingering, haunting power that leaves a deep impression. The set-ups are brilliantly presented and the characters depicted are ordinary people struggling to navigate pivotal moments or periods in their lives; Trevor’s masterful portrayal of the small dramas of everyday life come vividly alive on these pages.

Failed relationships, impact of broken marriages on children, extra-marital affairs, children disappointing parents, waywardness of youth, female friendships, betrayal, death, sibling jealousy, and consequences of sex outside marriage are some of the myriad themes uniquely explored in this rich, sumptuous collection. Trevor focuses his unflinching lens on parents and children, friends and lovers, widows, husbands and wives as much as he does on petty thieves and confidence tricksters capturing their innermost turmoil beautifully. His characters experience a gamut of emotions – loss, guilt, shame, mounting unease, despair, jealousy, moments of revelation and even joy.

Tender and exquisite, After Rain, then is a finely chiseled collection of stories that is truly a joy to savour. Highly recommended!

The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington

Originally published in 1974 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2020, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet had been languishing on my shelf for more than a year (I could say that for most of the books that keep streaming into the house endlessly) and it was Kim McNeill on Twitter and her excellent #NYRBWomen23 reading challenge (there are many gems on that list) that finally prompted me to pick it up.

If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.

The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. It soon becomes clear that Marian is not welcome in that house; the family considers her an embarrassment. Marian has been allotted a room that opens into a little garden and she pretty much keeps to herself for larger parts of the day hardly venturing into the main house. She seems content in her own little world with a couple of cats, a red hen and her fanciful daydreaming to occupy her time. She also enjoys the company of her spirited and loquacious friend Carmella with her penchant for conjuring up unrealistic and improbable schemes and ideas.

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

One day, Carmella in a considerable state of excitement gifts Marian a hearing trumpet she purchased in a market.

When Carmella gave me the present of a hearing trumpet she may have foreseen some of the consequences. Carmella is not what I would call malicious, she just happens to have a curious sense of humour. 

It’s a thing of beauty (“encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn”), and with its aid Marian’s hearing is now amplified to such a degree that she can hear conversations hitherto inaccessible to those with normal hearing. Until one day, she inadvertently chances upon a conversation between Galahad, Muriel and Robert plotting to dislodge her from their house and park her in an old age home much against her true wishes.

Marian internally seethes but realises that resistance is futile and resigns to her fate. When the family finally arrives at the old age home, Marian is completely taken by surprise; the institution (the building itself and the area around) run by the overly pious Gambit couple gives the impression of an enchanting medieval castle quite unlike the bleak, cheerless structure she had envisaged.

First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards, cloisters, stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets, railway carriages, one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation. 

Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. Indeed, in the middle of the book, the story goes back several centuries in time to a convent where this Abbess takes centrestage, an iron-willed woman with her proclivity for unimaginable luxuries and riches, an unconventional way of life and her daring quest to restore the Holy Grail back to the Goddess of Venus. Also enmeshed in the story are Marian’s reminisces, her carefree childhood spent in the company of her mother “who had lived a constant round of dizzy pleasure” that involved trips to Paris, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Sicily and so on.

Murder and mystery, cross-dressing, hunger strikes, rebellion, midnight dancing and revelries, poetic riddles and the spectre of a looming frozen apocalypse are only a few of the smorgasbord of ingredients that spice up everyday life at the old age home.

How will this all end? In a deliciously unexpected way in what is a highly original story in the first place, reveling in taking the reader down surprising paths right from the very beginning.

There are so many facets to The Hearing Trumpet that makes it such a captivating read, the first and foremost being the characters. Marian Leatherby is a terrific creation; she may be hard of hearing but has lost none of her zest for life.

Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still a useful member of society and I believe still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit.

She is, of course, distressed at the prospect of spending the rest of her days in an old age home, uprooted from the life she had grown used to, separated from her pets and her friend Carmella, but she takes it in her stride, and keeps her mind open to new experiences at the institution, even to new adventures of which there are plenty. Then there’s Georgina Sykes, an elegantly dressed woman (at least to Marian), irreverent and opinionated who has caught Mr Gambit’s fancy much to the chagrin of Mrs Gambit and is often involved in a hilarious slinging match with the grating, phony and self-righteous Natacha Gonzalez.

“Georgina Sykes is an obscene old woman,” said Natacha with unction. “She is a sex maniac and ought not to be allowed to mix with the other members of the community. She warps their minds.”

“I shall have to talk to her at once,” said Gambit in extreme agitation. “This might ruin the reputation of the whole Institution!”

“That is not all,” added Natacha. “She insulted me outrageously. Naturally I hurried to her bungalow to transmit the Message, with all the purity of mind I have cultivated for my Mission. Georgina,’ I said gently, ‘I have a message for you.’ She replied very rudely, saying: ‘If it’s a message from Heaven stuff it up your something or other.’ 

Mrs Gambit leads a self-improvement cult at the institution, bizarre as hell, with its emphasis on dodgy principles of Christianity and goodness. Other characters include the meek Maude Wilkins who unwittingly finds herself at the centre of a sinister plot, the imposing Vera Van Tocht, the overburdened Anna Wertz with her propensity to chatter away, the painter Veronica Adams who practices her art on reams of toilet paper and the Marquise with her tales of war and the battlefield. Last but not the least is the fiery Abbess whose tale wonderfully leaps off the pages for both Marian and the reader.

Yet despite its leanings towards fantasy, humour and banter, there are a variety of timeless themes that form the nucleus of the book. Growing old is, of course, one of them, and the way Marian is considered a burden to her son and daughter-in-law reflected in the cold manner in which she is treated is a grim reminder of the heartaches of old age. The Abbess is a symbol of feminism – her leadership skills and daring exploits, however dubious, is a breath of fresh air in a world and time largely dominated by men. The book also explores politics – the powerplay, hierarchy, scheming and favouritism rampant in the old age home is akin to the deceptively simple environment children experience in school (they say old age is like second childhood, don’t say?) and palpable even in the complex world of adults.

The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Indeed, Carrington’s creative vision is laced with its own interior logic – daydreams blend with reality in a sort of homage to Surrealism; historical fiction, comedy, fantasy and an embedded narrative (the literary equivalent of a Russian doll) effortlessly co-exist within the seemingly limitless boundaries of the author’s vivid imagination. A hearing trumpet, a painting of a derisive winking nun, a magic elixir that facilitates levitation to name a few are the hallmarks of Carrington’s delightful flights of fancy; much of the humour comes from Marian’s keen observations on her surroundings and its people as well as the interaction between the oddball residents of the institution; we have a book within a book that transports the reader to the 17th century replete with a maverick, cross-dressing Abbess, plots and intrigues that involve the cultish Knights Templar, Goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.

But that’s not all! The icing on the cake and a lovely surprise are the illustrations peppered throughout the book (her son Pablo Weisz Carrington is the artist) – quirky and playful that perfectly capture the mood and eccentricity of this heady, surreal concoction.

The Hearing Trumpet, then, is a triumph; a novel that radiates charm, joie de vivre and a forceful personality of its own that makes it utterly singular. Highly recommended!

Source: NYRB