SmallStations - Jonathan Dunne

In this third and final instalment of Leo’s travelling adventures, Leo has been travelling for four months, but an amorous snub received while she is in Paris makes her want to call it a day and go straight home without completing the planned six months of her trip. Her aunt’s insistence and a surprise visit help Leo reconsider her hasty decision and, just as she was expecting to return to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where she is from, she finds herself on a transatlantic flight to Buenos Aires. When she was planning this trip with her friends, who ended up pulling out, she had never envisaged travelling to South America, but now she will be swallowed up by the infinite grid of Argentina’s capital city, she will be pursued by the shadow of Argentina’s first serial killer as far as the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, she will be entranced by the magical beauty of the famous Perito Moreno Glacier with all its shades of blue, she will finally fulfil her dream of visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, she will be unimpressed by the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, be doused in sugar in the white city of Arequipa and walk under the grey Lima sky. Back in Buenos Aires, at the end of six months, she will face a critical decision, which may lead her to the author of all those messages that have appeared in front of most of the monuments she has visited: ‘I Love You Leo A.’ Who has been painting these messages wherever she goes? And having once set out on her travels, will Leo ever manage to return back home?

When Guiomar Brelivete, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl who lives in Audierna, is told by her parents that she must start attending klavia lessons in the old quarter of Plugufan and miss training sessions for maila, her favourite sport, she is understandably annoyed. But her teacher, Mastrina Xaoven, turns out to have a sense of humour and agrees, in return for Guiomar learning to play the instrument, to tell her a story about a girl called Attica who is a member of the politically powerful Gwende community. The traditional inhabitants of the land, the Malluma community, have been confined to the nabrallos or suburbs, where Gwendes are not supposed to go. But one evening Attica boards a train to the nabrallo of Bragunde, hoping to attend a concert in one of the famous hicupé clubs, and there she meets Fuco, a Malluma boy who claims to be a firewalker. The nabrallo has been overrun by a plague of scorpions, and the children resolve to consult the witch Onga, Queen of the Cemetery, about this. They will learn that a far greater evil lurks beneath them, in the lost underground world of Nigrofe, where the balance between good and evil has been obliterated by the removal of a sacred tree, and it rests on them to restore that balance if only they can find a way in… In these two tales, the line between fiction and reality is blurred, and there is a striking resemblance between the old music teacher and the intrepid girl in her story.

Nico is a computer programmer from Coruña in Galicia. On a business trip to the city of Bergen in Norway, he visits the quays of Bryggen, a place he has been to before. He buys a couple of postcards from a shop there and, much to his surprise, discovers that one of them has captured the moment when he and his friends visited Bergen on an Interrail trip after leaving school ten years earlier. There they all are: Óscar in his Deportivo football shirt with Bea; Nico with the slightly pretentious Mía, poring over a map; the Italian exchange student, Piero, a few feet behind them. But where is Nico’s girlfriend, Aroa, and his best friend from school, Xacobe, the other two members of the group? Nico is shocked to find that they are in a corner of the postcard away from the others and are kissing. He resolves to unearth all the mystery surrounding that trip and the bitter month of September that immediately followed, when a tragedy occurred, a tragedy that split the group apart and from which no one has recovered. He will invite all his friends to a school reunion and, by gauging their reactions to the postcard, finally learn the truth of what happened.

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.

In order for Dragal to come back to life, possibly at the expense of Hadrián’s humanity, the descendants of the original seven knights must meet in the dragon’s crypt at midnight on the first full moon of the spring equinox, which coincides with Easter night. They must have the keys of the Secret Science with them: the parchment that stands for Wisdom, the master crystal that signifies Strength, and the alchemical egg that represents the dragon’s Secret. The parish priest, Don Xurxo, and the policeman who investigated Hadrián’s previous disappearance, Cortiñas, are considered to be two knights, but even counting Hadrián and Hadrián’s mother, that still leaves another three knights that will have to be convened if the Dragon’s Fraternity is to be complete and successfully fulfil the prophecy about the dragon’s child regaining the power wrested from its father and releasing the telluric forces. Perhaps the fire at St Peter’s, which has destroyed much of the inside of the church, will act as a magnet, attracting the other members of the fraternity and enabling the ritual to be carried out. But with services for Holy Week transferred to the sports pavilion, and a nosy bishop, the race is on to reach the dragon’s crypt in time.

It is several years since the events of Brother of the Wind, the prequel to Flower of Sand, and Amrah, the daughter of the mayor of Qhissa Hanni in the mountains of north Iraq, has adapted to her new life in Kirkuk. Her father has gone from being mayor of a small village to becoming a pivotal figure in the oil business, an intermediary between foreign corporations and local companies, and an aspiring politician. He has betrothed his daughter to his business partner, the governing judge Jemaa Lefta. Amrah, however, has not forgotten her childhood sweetheart, Khaled, or her wish to study architecture at university and design buildings in the new Iraq. Her studies bring her into contact with a local resistance leader, Haytham al-Taleb, and when her father falsely accuses her mother of adultery and divorces her, she agrees to provide Haytham with information about his business activities. Her involvement with the resistance will go much further than that, however, taking her down a road she would never have imagined, and ultimately salvation will take the form of the most unexpected person in her life.

Khaled is an Iraqi boy, a member of the Koblai tribe, growing up in the village of Qhissa Hanni in the mountains of north Iraq. He has left school to look after his family’s flock of sheep, but his father and the local schoolteacher think he has the makings of a writer, so they give him a notebook in which he records his aspirations, events in the village, the life of his family, his wish to own a horse which he will call ‘Ahu al-Rih’ or ‘Brother of the Wind’, his secret engagement to the mayor’s daughter, Amrah, so secret that even she doesn’t know about it, the time when he and a friend go frog hunting and slip a couple of frogs into the midwife’s bag, causing havoc when the midwife is due to assist in the birth of Ilaisha’s son… The book is presented as a series of letters which Khaled writes to the son of a European archaeologist, Dr Meira, nicknamed ‘Al-Galego’, who has taken up residence in the village in order to pursue his archaeological studies and because he has grown fond of the Iraqi way of life. But the invasion of the country in 2003 by the United States and its allies casts a heavy shadow over this remote village and its inhabitants, who struggle to come to terms with the issues that are at stake and who will have to draw on all their reserves of courage and strength if they are to survive. The war will bring tragedy to the village and will force Khaled to undertake a journey he has never imagined before, to the heart of the country’s capital, Baghdad. This is a journey of principle, of courage over fear, of faith and friendship, of self-sacrifice, that will change Khaled’s expectations forever.

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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