Small Stations Fiction

Listing Ship, winner of the prestigious Xerais Prize for Novels, is a rare insight into the life of rural Galicia in the last days of the Second Spanish Republic, before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. We are introduced to the life of the local community centred around the village of Sernanselle (actual Manselle), southwest of Santiago de Compostela and close to the majestic Ulla river as it leaves Padrón and heads toward the Arousa estuary. There is María, who writes letters for her mother to Ramón, the son who has emigrated and whose help would be a boon around the house. Then there is Roiz Bustelo, an emigrant who has returned from Buenos Aires and is keen to invest his money in a dairy factory. Amaro, Roiz’s son, who catalogues prehistoric remains that are to be found in the municipality. Camoiras, who seems to have most of his attention placed on María’s pitch-black, defiant eyes. And the Master, Don Antonio, the local doctor who struggles to keep up with the latest advances in medicine. Other projects include buying a threshing machine for the entire village. But such advances will come up against the rise of fascism, the shadow of the Spanish Civil War, which threatens to spill over into violence. The novel stands as a monument to the possibilities humankind has to work together for the common good and as a lament for the self-inflicted tragedy of bigotry and antagonism. Whatever people’s aspirations may be, however they may be formulated, working together, mutual understanding, has to be preferred over sticks and stones.

Ramón Lamote, a living representation of the city he inhabits, aged sixty-one, gives private lessons in a local dialect, Terra Chá, and augments his income by taking on commissions to draw dreams. He is a keen observer of the life that goes on around him, unfailingly polite and ever willing to lend a helping hand. On a visit to a large important house in the city centre, he comes across a book that warns of the imminent arrival of a dragon-like creature called a Noticer, which awakens every 696 years, and he hurries to inform the Lord Mayor (though getting in to see him requires all his ingenuity). On another occasion, a fat woman is blocking the stairs, and Ramón Lamote is unable to find a way past her to make it to his lesson on time. He is invited to give a lecture on a kind of domestic animal and chooses the Endomodelph, an egg-laying mammal that sings and whistles through its behind. An enormous pipe appears one day in front of his house, which seems to serve no purpose until the local children come up with a use for it, which quickly catches on. After his lessons, the teacher and drawer of dreams likes to visit the local railway station and to play at guessing people’s destinations. And in July he places an advertisement in the newspaper for the first ever Cloud Race, with marmolubles for prizes, an idea that draws the Lord Mayor’s attention and soon has everybody talking about it. In The Things of Ramón Lamote, a modern classic of Galician literature and one of the first works in Galician to win the Spanish National Book Award, we are invited to witness the sublime and ordinary, the comic and absurd features of life in a provincial city.

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.

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