SmallStations - Manuel Rivas

Sam is a drug addict with a sense of humour. One particular escapade lands him in hospital, where he makes friends with the old man in the adjoining bed and becomes progressively enamoured of the nurse Miss Cowbutt’s unsung qualities. In an attempt to wean him off his drug habit, his elder brother, Nico, takes him to the village, Aita, where their grandmother lives, a world far removed from the distractions of modern life, in which even the silence seems animate. He meets up with Gaby the single mother and Dombodán the collector of discarded items. He also becomes acquainted with a slippery customer named ‘Sir’ who takes refuge in the radio set in the attic. A host of colourful characters – from Tip and Top to the ‘relentless lady’ – populate this tale, which pits a victim of zero expectations against the haunting traditions of the village.

From the author of The Low Voices and The Carpenter’s Pencil, the book of short stories that set him on his way and revolutionized Galician literature when it came out at the end of the 1980s. For the first time, Galician prose dealt with the Galician landscape in a modern context, uniting tradition and modernity, placing the poetry of landscape alongside the irony of modern society. In One Million Cows, a collection of eighteen short stories by Manuel Rivas, the first he published, a boy tries to find out if his cousin is really a battery-operated robot, a sailor who has been shipwrecked at sea turns up dead in a local bar, the inhabitants of a village transport a young suicide so that he can be buried in an adjoining parish, a Galician who has recently returned from England dreams of building a golf course on the mud-flats of his childhood, and a prospective councillor is put off by the fish scales on a fishwife’s hands. Manuel Rivas is Galicia’s most international author, and once again the reader will be able to enjoy his striking metaphors, his commitment to what he writes, and his lingering eye for detail.

From Unknown to Unknown is a selection of eighty poems by Manuel Rivas in Jonathan Dunne’s English translation. The poems are taken from the Galician book Do descoñecido ao descoñecido, which contains the author’s collected poems from 1980 to 2003, a total of six poetry books and some recent poems. In 2009, the author brought out a further collection, The Disappearance of Snow, which was published in English by Shearsman Books. Manuel Rivas is Galicia’s most international author. Much of his fiction has appeared in English, and three films have been made of his work (Butterfly’s Tongue, The Carpenter’s Pencil, All Is Silence).

Bulgarian readers already know Manuel Rivas from three books published in Bulgarian: his novels, The Carpenter’s Pencil and In the Wilderness, and his collection of short stories, Vermeer’s Milkmaid. This is the first time his poetry has appeared, including selected poems from his first five poetry books and the whole of The Disappearance of Snow. The style of Rivas’ poetry, like that of his fiction, is magical, intriguing and up-to-date. His talent as a journalist makes him appealing even when he talks about past events. His metaphorical expression, dense and surrealistic, doesn’t differentiate between poetry and prose. In his poetry he deals with unexpected comparisons, which topple over one another, borrowing images from far and close, like the Classical and Baroque architecture of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Manuel Rivas builds up the structure of his works with clear, plain writing, showing modesty towards God and the environment.

In this novel, happiness and unhappiness follow one another, while happiness is just a spark in the night. The heroes who live in an oppressed, poor and monotonous atmosphere are like patches in the background of fertile nature and the wondrous, wild company of mice, moles, lizards and other animals, their reincarnated fellow villagers. And yet everybody manages to find his own mercy and comfort. The bored housewife in a former classmate who puts flowers in her garden, introducing beauty into her daily life. The dumb brother in the princess of the tales who lives behind three golden rings and is protected by a wild pig. The rich lady in her friendship with a neighbour, sharing her life as if it were a story from the Titanic. In Manuel Rivas’ works, magic and realism follow their most classical structure, but with a simplicity and use of metaphor that border on high poetry.

“What more does a man need than a horse, a revolver and a woman with a flower’s name to feel like a king?” writes Rivas and in a single sentence he embraces all the book, galloping through a world of pain and love seen with a look as pure as a child’s, as eccentric as a poet’s. In this book of sixteen tales that constitute a whole are heart-breaking stories in which the feeling of things precedes the things themselves, the end is in need of interpretation, and every image is a human cell – incomparable and trembling with life. The delicate style, the way the stories grab the reader, the erudite respect towards the reader and the ability to charge things with love place the author and this book forever on the list of classic works not to be missed.

This is the only the second book written in the Galician language of northwest Spain to be translated into Bulgarian. Widely acclaimed and widely translated, The Carpenter’s Pencil is a story of love set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The author, Manuel Rivas, seeks to dispel the darkness of hate with the light of fantasy, humour and tenderness. Günter Grass claimed to have learnt more about the Spanish Civil War from reading this novel than from any history book.