This internationally acclaimed 1998 novel—the first of its Galician author’s to appear in English—is an elegantly composed mosaic portrayal of the human cost of the Spanish Civil War.
The story begins many years afterward with a journalist’s visit to interview Dr. Daniel Da Barca, a “revolutionary grandfather” hero of the Republican resistance to (fascist) Falangist tyranny, who has returned to Spain after a long exile in Mexico following his escape from prison. The journalist’s story is joined by other voices remembering—the primary one being that of Falangist stooge and former prison guard Herbal (who’s sharing his memories with a sympathetic prostitute at the whorehouse where he’s now employed as a handyman). Herbal is tormented by accusatory images from his past: specifically, his reluctant murder (under orders) of a (nameless) painter whose drawings had boldly exalted the figures of his fellow prisoners; more generally, the stoical Da Barca’s love for beautiful Marisa Mallo, the granddaughter of a Falangist collaborator—a relationship that endures as a rebuke to the captors who tried to break Da Barca’s spirit. Furthermore, the aforementioned painter’s “carpenter’s pencil,” which Herbal has appropriated, evokes the spirit of the painter, which now “visits” and speaks with the chastened Herbal. Rivas creates a dramatic and fascinating nexus in which these and other vividly realized characters (notably Mother Inane, a fervent nun who angrily debates religion with the freethinking Da Barca) are shown in an increasingly complex interrelationship, also captured in a series of stunningly evocative “pictures” (the dark shape of a wolf against a background of snow, a train full of tubercular prisoners, an “orchestra” of musicians who have no instruments). The result is a deeply moving depiction of heroism and survival, this despite an uneven translation whose frequent awkward phrasing (e.g., “in the jovial manner some of them had been doing”) suggests an overly literal blurring of the differences between Galician and English idiom.
Exciting and accomplished fiction. One looks forward to further translation of Rivas’s work.