Small Stations Fiction

Private Detective Frank Soutelo has left behind the stress and strain of Los Angeles, California, to take a break in his ancestral home of Galicia in northwest Spain, but on his arrival at Lavacolla Airport he is distressed to find that a forest fire has taken hold of the outskirts of the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela, making visibility difficult. It is August 2006, and temperatures have risen to almost unbearable levels. There are those who believe that the blaze has been started deliberately, a way of clearing land in order to build houses, despite the fact there is supposed to be a moratorium in such cases. One property developer in particular, Marcial Dalama, nicknamed The Terminator because of his fondness for all things Arnold Schwarzenegger, is under scrutiny, but there are those who maintain the fires are started by environmental activists such as Comando Pola Terra or Earth Command. Frank may have been hoping to settle at his aunt’s house in Muros on the west coast and to enjoy her homemade dishes – hake casserole, or sole with mussels – while visiting the local bar run by Poncio, an ex-explosives expert in the Civil Guard, but it seems destiny has other plans. His cousin’s school friend has lost her son to an alleged overdose of heroin; the parents refuse to accept the autopsy results and want Frank to investigate, which he will do, being drawn into a world of big-money stakes, grassroots activism, attractive women, and there will even be a cameo role for his old friend, Sugar Jones the Mortician.

Xavier Queipo’s novel Kite follows the life of Francis, a Galician-born emigrant in the United States, who lives in the city of San Rafael, north of San Francisco, and works as a freelance translator and editor. At a showing of Apocalypse Now in the cinema, he meets Rose, a liberal and career-minded Irishwoman, and they start a passionate relationship. But their carefree and hedonistic relationship is threatened when Francis, who has been asked by his publisher, Martin, to complete a translation into English of the Portuguese writer José Saramago’s Essay on Blindness in record time, owing to the predictions that Saramago might win the Nobel Prize, is himself diagnosed with the onset of blindness. How will Rose react? How will Francis cope with this descent into darkness? And will he be able to finish his translation of Saramago’s work in time? Kite takes us on a journey into the lives of emigrants in the United States whose traditional upbringing is often in conflict with the permissive, liberal society they inhabit. Then there is Andy, Francis’s ex-lover and a loyal friend, for whom he still harbours intense feelings, and a return to the Galicia of his birth, an experience Francis hopes will be balsamic, but which may prove catastrophic. We are left with the image of a Chinese boy on the beach in San Rafael, trying to fly his kite, the symbol of something (or someone) at the mercy of the wind. The boy is grateful for the help Francis offers, but unsure whether to accept. There is the gesture; we are left with the time and space to interpret it.

The four stories in When There’s a Knock on the Door at Night showcase the best of Galician storytelling in which elements of the everyday intersect with elements of the supernatural. Often the scene is a storm in the dark during which the traveller is forced to seek shelter for the night in a house where the story is told to him or he experiences the events himself. In ‘The Traveller’s Mirror’, a man on his way to reclaim his parents’ estate is caught in a storm and attracted by the light of a forge, which he deduces is not a ghost because it remains still. On entering the blacksmith’s house, he is struck by the similarity in their appearance – their faces are identical except for one detail. In ‘The Oven Man’, an old woman in the village constantly plays tricks on or spreads rumours about her neighbours, reprehensible behaviour that leads three men to set out one night to teach her a lesson that goes badly wrong. In ‘The She-Wolf’, a dandy who has never done a proper day’s work in his life and who devotes himself to hunting and the pursuit of pleasure fails to fulfil a promise he has made, thereby provoking the injured party’s fury and bringing down unfortunate consequences for all concerned. And in ‘Happy Death Day’, a man receives cards, letters and other gifts in celebration not of the day he was born, but of the day he will die. He does everything in his power to escape this destiny before seemingly accepting his fate and succumbing to the inevitable. When There’s a Knock on the Door at Night is a modern classic of Galician literature and received the Spanish National Book Award in 1995.

The ten stories in this magnificent collection “all talk of the importance of love, that feeling that can transform us more deeply than any other, and also of its absence, the void it leaves in people when the twists and turns of life make it impossible.” So the author, Agustín Fernández Paz, writes in his afterword. A banker who, bored of the company of other directors, frequents a bookshop and is introduced to works she has never read before; a young man who falls in love with the daughter of the owner of the garage where he works; a man and a dog who continue to seek out the company of the Woman he loved; a couple who endure a freak accident, but only one survives; a woman who recalls her first, anxious physical contact with her boyfriend; a man who is proud of his collection of matchboxes; another who finds passport photos of the woman of his dreams on the pavement; the country house and its long-kept secrets; a woman whose life could have been so different had she followed the inclinations of her heart; and the man who comes up with the ingenious idea of advertising not services, but the openings of books that have transformed his life. There is in this work an analysis of the power of love over our lives, love that is requited and love that is left behind. There is also, as the author points out, a celebration of the positive impact that reading can have in our lives. Nothing Really Matters in Life More Than Love received the 2008 Spanish National Book Award and is beautifully illustrated in colour by Pablo Auladell.

Einés Andrade is a doctoral student whose studies center on the figure of the French philosopher René Descartes. But when she is only seven or eight, she is sent to the attic for calling her great-grandmother a monkey, and there she discovers a hutch, a large chest, from which emanate the scents of various herbs and fruits. She also discovers private papers belonging to Queen Christina of Sweden and a certain Hélène Jans, a herbalist and healer of Amsterdam. Digging deeper, she discovers that the two women shared a common passion. In 1649, Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to her court to give her lessons in philosophy, but he was reputed to have caught pneumonia and died in February, 1650. Before that, he had an affair—only once, as he claimed—with the maid of the bookseller in whose house he was staying in Amsterdam, Hélène Jans. She became pregnant and gave birth to their daughter, Francine, who died at the age of five in 1640. Fifteen years later, Queen Christina and Hélène meet to exchange impressions and ease their nostalgia. They strike up a correspondence in which Christina urges Hélène to continue her work on an artificial language. Hélène also puts together a recipe book, called Book of Women, in which she gives various remedies that can be used to alleviate pain in childbirth, to improve one’s appearance, to attract a lover… Before she dies, she hands down her knowledge, the recipe book and her private papers, to her adopted daughter, Agnes, a distant ancestor of Einés’s. Einés decides to abandon all research on rationalism and to devote her time to writing an account of these women whom Time has forgotten.

A young woman, who has left Galicia to go and study marine biology in Mexico (Baja California), is recalled to Galicia when it is found out that her mother is very sick. Her aunt would like her to sign some papers agreeing to take over the family business and renouncing her Mexican studies and emotional ties that she has forged in her new life. However, returning to Galicia and renewing her family ties is not exactly what the woman wants. Her mother has shut herself in her room for the last year, and relations between them have always been strained. She received more affection from a nanny, Felisa, and better advice from her uncle, Cándido. There is also an older brother, Ramón, a larger-than-life figure who has left an indelible mark in the lives of those around him, and an absent father. Will the woman’s visit to see her sick mother turn out to be permanent, and will it soothe any of the festering wounds in her psyche, wounds that she has buried beneath her marine studies and a relationship with her one-time tutor? That’s How Whales Are Born is a return to our origins, a search into the usefulness of stirring up past memories and seeking reconciliation.

Inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, The Book of Imaginary Journeys by Xabier P. DoCampo follows in the tradition of great travel literature that began with Homer’s Odyssey. It purports to be the transcription of two travel journals written by a certain X.B.R., in which the Traveller gives as objective a description as he can of the cities and kingdoms he visits. So it is he comes to a city you can only visit for three days or where you cannot fall asleep, a city balanced on the fine point of a diamond or rotating on a water wheel, a city whose inhabitants are all tree-dwelling women or descended from birds, a city where the tombstones are inscribed not with the names of the deceased but with the titles of their favourite books, a city where money is only valid for a year, where none of its inhabitants can go fishing because all the rods have been turned into soldiers’ lances, whose ministers are made to wear nooses as a warning to stay clean… The Traveller records songs, proverbs and remedies he hears along the way and describes some of the people he meets – a woman who conducts imaginary orchestras, a man who loves the earth so much he would like to plough it with a pair of unicorns, another searching for a treasure guarded by seven keys… Like translation, travel is a return to the source, the point of departure. What the Traveller takes away from the experience is what he has learned.

In An Animal Called Mist, a book of six short stories, the Galician author Ledicia Costas (Winner of the 2015 Spanish National Book Award) walks the tightrope between fiction and reality in a superb and sometimes shocking narrative. She bases herself on real events in and after the Second World War – the Siege of Leningrad, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the interrogation of Italian partisans by the Banda Koch, the sexual exploitation of women internees in Nazi concentration camps, the trials of high-ranking Nazi officials – and then recreates them, changing and inventing biographical details, giving free rein to her writer’s imagination in order to produce a sequence of stories that look not so much at historical fact as at the essence of barbarism, the capacity of the human mind to conceive ways of torturing and tormenting fellow human beings. This is not a historical account of the Second World War – for that, the reader should consult works of history – but a book of fiction that focuses on the shadow projected by the events, their essence, the granulated content of their darkness. Ledicia Costas is one of Galicia’s best-known writers who, in the tradition of writers such as Manuel Rivas and Agustín Fernández Paz, magnifies the voice of the persecuted in her narrative. An Animal Called Mist won the Losada Diéguez Prize for Literary Creation in 2016.

Fools for Christ are men and women who live outside the social norms, whose behavior is considered shocking or unusual. But in a time of dictatorship, when these stories were first published, “foolish” behavior can be a form of protest. So, a child who is unable to access the forbidden fruits of a pastry shop, out of protest, refuses to eat the chickpeas that are offered to him; another child, who cannot pay for a ride on the merry-go-round, slips under the tarpaulin when the ride is not working and creates his own ride out of his own fantasy. A fat child, who is bullied and made fun of by the town’s more respectable children, makes friends with a paschal lamb, which then, to his shock and horror, is served up for dinner. Another boy takes to setting the corner of a whitewashed house on fire with his coloring pencils. It is the children who throw away their toys or who torture animals that are somehow considered normal. The Foolish Children contains twenty-one micro-fiction stories by Ana María Matute in Spanish and in English translation. The original was first published in Spain during Franco’s dictatorship. It was rated by the Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela as “the most important work written in Spanish by a woman since the Countess Emilia Pardo Bazán.” Ana María Matute, along with Camilo José Cela and Miguel Delibes, is widely considered one of Spain’s most distinguished writers of fiction in the twentieth century. She was awarded the National Prize for Literature twice and, in 2010, received the Spanish-speaking world’s most prestigious literary award, the Cervantes.

‘Possibly the most impressive novel ever written in the Galician language’. With these words, the eminent critic Basilio Losada describes Suso de Toro’s novel Tick-Tock in a letter to the author. Suso de Toro is alternative in everything he does, he rearranges the boundaries, surprises the reader, does the unexpected, persons, tenses change, and what could be construed as an atheistic, chaotic novel acquires hints of religiosity. Nano, the narrator, is a man of uncertain age who has never made it in the world, but who likes to hold forth all the same, to fill notebooks with his thoughts on fishing in the Gran Sol, on controlling his libido, on inventing machines that serve no purpose. The novel centres on his experiences, and on the lives of those around him: his mother, his father and half-brother, the people who occupy the building where his mother cleans. Tick-Tock, a sequel to Polaroid, received the Spanish Critics’ Prize for its unconventionality and narrative expertise, and is the author’s most popular work.

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