Marcos Giralt Torrente - The stories offer a language of how distance develops—‘both of us were more reluctant to recognize ourselves in the other’— and the usual ‘problems’ of love seem new and alive under the microscope of these deep, delicate studies

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Marcos Giralt Torrente, Paris. Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa. Hispabooks. 2014.

Paris depicts a man’s journey through the labyrinth of his memories, a search for his origins that will uncover an old family secret and turn his world upside down. A mesmerizing and haunting story by award-winning author Marcos Giralt Torrente, a master craftsman calibrating nuance and impact with a true gift.

In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and Father and Son: A Lifetime, translated by Natasha Wimmer. In Paris, Giralt grapples with deceit, obsession, inexplicable love, and the limitations of memory, themes prevalent in his story collection. But the dimensions of a novel allows him to further develop these themes, so that in Paris we find a fuller, and patient, exploration of the nature of truth and human emotion.
The novel is delivered in monologue form by a middle-aged man reflecting on the marriage between his mother (aloof, stoic, saintly, and stubborn) and his father (a vain, promiscuous scoundrel). He is fixated on eight mysterious months his mother spent in Paris, when the narrator was a boy: if he discovers what happened in Paris he might make sense of his parents’ relationship, and, in the process, end the nightmares that still recur twenty-plus years after his parents split up.
When the novel opens the narrator’s mother is suffering from dementia and cannot verify his memories. What are these memories? It’s hard to say. Much of the novel “depends in large measure on what I [the narrator] don’t know, but intuit.” Even if he were to recount past events, would they be true? What is remembered rarely coincides with what happened. So, is it what happened that is haunting the narrator, or what he remembers?
He cobbles together a story from secondhand anecdotes, askance observations, and half-truths. In regards to what his mother has told him, about his upbringing, he states, “When our knowledge of a subject depends on the words of others, we can never be sure if they’ve told us everything or only a part.” This both contests his mother’s veracity and advises readers to be wary of the narrator’s story. We mustn’t settle for what is said, but search for what isn’t, the elisions, repetitions, and circumlocutions masking the story beneath its primary narrative.
Very little happens in Paris. What might serve as high drama tends toward the soporific. For instance, on the night his father is arrested for fraud, at home, the narrator peacefully sleeps in his bedroom. Likewise, he figuratively sleeps through his father’s absence. “I did not even miss him in the two years that followed, at least not to the point where one begins to have suspicions and seek answers.” Naïveté? A bit. But this also reveals a preoccupied mind. His main concern is his mother and what she is feeling: “What she felt and how she really was had to be covered up . . . I supposed what this revealed, deep down, was an intense shyness, an exaggerated rejection of any kind of exhibitionism.” When he does, finally, mention his father, the motive is clear: “I need to think about him in order to begin to think about her.”
After two years in jail the father returns, hardly reformed. He leads a double life, fabricating employment, sleeping around, and hiding fake business cards under his desk—which the narrator discovers. He doesn’t tell his mother about the cards. That would have made it “more real than it already was.” But later he seems to regret his decision:
What troubles me, basically, is the age-old dilemma of whether not telling someone something is the same as lying: Does real lying have to be deliberate? Are we lying from the moment we choose to conceal something from someone because it seems inopportune or inappropriate? . . . And this brings me inevitably to another question. However close we feel to those around us, can we ever be sure that what we know about them is true, if what they tell us is the whole truth or just part of the truth, and does knowing or not knowing change anything in our lives?
The narrator’s guilt is peculiar, but binding. His father’s a fraud, his mother is protecting a terrible secret, while he is troubled by a relatively innocuous cover-up. Through guilt, however, and the exaggeration of his misdeeds, he relates to his family. The “we” employed here is not in the universal “we” one finds in an author like Javier Marías but a restrictive “we,” linking father, mother, and son.
After his father leaves, his mother moves to Paris alone, but returns eight months later. Whatever normalcy her arrival restores ends when the narrator chances upon his parents together at a café in Madrid. Watching from a bus stop, he sees “evidence of a bond that did not include me, a bond that was no stronger than the one binding my mother to me, a bond that had undergone its own evolution, independent of me and my significance.” The narrator seems to accept his place outside his parents’ relationship. But Giralt creates a parallel between mother and son that complicates that relationship. Returning from the bathroom, his mother catches his father rifling through her purse for cash. Rather than confront him, she watches him search, as the narrator watches his mother watching his father. Mother and son mirror each other, forming a spatial intimacy more defined than the bond shared by his parents.
Where characters stand destabilizes our footing as readers. Truths asserted by the narrator are contested by experience. His early insistence that single events are not, as we assume, life-changing, initially feels accurate, but it becomes a hopeful rationalization after the narrator’s life-changing talk with his mother. Stylistically, Giralt relies on long, knotted sentences to convey the thought process of the narrator, a man confounded by the past, reduced to assertion, assumption, and reaching—with great irritably. As Giralt states, “The language [my characters] use to express themselves has to reflect the undulations of their thoughts and their mimesis of details and exactitude.”
Although Giralt fully explores his characters’ minds, he never cedes control. The narrator’s thoughts feel exactingly arranged to reflect the intent of the novel. After his parents leave the cafe, the narrator trails his father through Madrid—and realizes that he isn’t following his father, but his mother, through the alleys of his own imagination: “Seeing my father walking ahead of me . . . what I was really seeing was my mother, or, rather, my mother in the company of my father, as I walked the unknown streets of Paris, all the while thinking I was walking the streets of Madrid.” But as the pursuit continues, his father becomes his father again. “I saw myself in my father, and I needed for that figure, which was at once him and me, to become one with the figure that was only me.” Everything overlaps. The narrator is his father, his father is his mother, Madrid is Paris.
This blurring reflects the mind remembering. Events, locations, people, and feelings merge to give a sense of a moment, how the past was felt, and here readers swirl through the undifferentiated landmarks and persons prevalent in the narrator’s psyche. And as characters overlap, the narrator, whether he sees it or not, takes on the role of his mother.
Despite his father’s machinations, his mother continues defending her husband. She sells their apartment and gives him half the money, leaving her son without an inheritance. Her excuses echo those the narrator makes for her. In her insistence that “Whatever [her husband] may or may not have done over the years is no indication of his lack of commitment or of his feelings not being genuine,” we hear the narrator praising her commitment, courage, and sacrifice. Mother and son are identical in how they defend the beloved. So perhaps it is not the his mother’s love for her depraved husband plaguing the narrator, but his unconditional love for his mother, a woman who has fabricated the past—for whose benefit she has done it is disputable.
Paris reminds us that the stories we tell about others are always stories about ourselves. The attempt to understand another, through narrative, is like walking through a house of mirrors alone, hoping to catch, in one of those mirrors—the next one, perhaps, or the next one, the next one?—the image of another. Paris is an excellent first novel. Though its debt to Marías is obvious, Giralt’s world is more restrictive than Marías’s. The latter reaches in many directions—history, politics, the afterlife—whereas Giralt, in Paris, extensively studies the unique landscape of one character’s psyche. As we navigate the narrator’s cities—Paris, Madrid, La Coruña—we discover the limits of memory, the limits of knowledge, and our habit of testing, and forgetting, those limits: “Memory is a great temptation, and what could be easier than to highlight some memories at the expense of others and retrospectively draw up a synthesis adapted to what has endured rather than what actually happened.” -


Marcos Giralt Torrente's Paris is an excellent, psychological novel, a book which looks at the weakness of memory and the dangers of reliance on a single person in your life.  It's written in the form of a monologue told by a middle-aged man looking back to his childhood and, in particular, events surrounding his ne'er-do-well father and his enigmatic, saintly mother.
While the pair have long since parted, there was a strange attraction between the two, one which even the father's spell in prison failed to break, and this forms one of the central issues the narrator attempts to get to the bottom of.  However, he's also fascinated by something which he will never be able to learn the whole truth about (his mother, the only one with full knowledge, is suffering from dementia and has no memory of earlier events).  He believes that the key to the final breakdown of his parents' relationship lies in the time his mother spent in Paris, a time which could reveal several secrets - but it's possible that there are other, darker truths out there, just waiting to be brought into the light...
Paris is intense and powerful, and the combination of great writing and an intriguing secret makes for an excellent novel.  It was the unanimous winner of the 1999 Premio Herralde de Novela (a Spanish prize for debut novels), beating Andrés Neuman's Bariloche into second place.  For a first novel, it's a surprisingly complex and developed piece of writing.  However, the flip side of that is that it should come with a warning - you'll need a lot of concentration to stick to the task at hand.
The novel centres on the figure of the mother, a portrait of the mother as a martyr to her family.  She's a woman who's very good at keeping secrets, holding her true feelings deep within:

"Talking about herself would have meant allowing her "self" to surface, and that was something she simply could not allow.  What she felt and how she really was had to be covered up, concealed beneath hundreds of protective veils - either learned or innate - that established a distance between her and the suffering or hopes that were watching and waiting inside her." p.40 (Hispabooks, 2014)
The author develops his picture of the mother with a slow, steady build up of details.  A controlled, measured woman who knows her man will disappoint her, she wants to believe in him, despite knowing full well that he will never change. Which rather begs the question - why does she stay with him for so long?  And, more intriguingly, does she have a few more secrets of her own?
As much as the novel is about the mother, though, there's also a lot to discover about the narrator, a man searching for truth among the rubble of half-remembered events.  He's never really sure of the events he discusses, constantly talking around the facts, either because he can't remember them or because he never knew them in the first place (in several places he explains that he was never privy to the whole truth).  In fact, the same is true for the poor reader as we are strung along a little, never really knowing what, or whom, to believe.While calling him an unreliable narrator might be a touch extreme, it's true that caution is called for when trying to get to the bottom of the story.  His mother's loss of memory fuels his obsession with the past:
"I can no longer separate what she told me from what I know now, from what she gradually confided to me in later, lonelier years, and from what I've since found out for myself, what I dared to think, or what I made up." (p.64)
Much of what he tells us is 'pieced together later', the product of his imagination, although he is the first to admit the problematic nature of his conclusions.  The language used reflects this; it's incredibly tentative and halting, full of conditionals and modals.  The text abounds with phrases such as 'must have been', 'may have said' and 'I will never know if...'.  Still, that doesn't mean he isn't playing with us...
Paris is also about subjectivity, and Giralt Torrente discusses at length the way in which we can confuse facts and feelings:

"Things happen, and later on you might recount them to someone else with more or less exactitude, and the image you convey will not be so very different from the original events.  What you were feeling, though, what was going on inside you while those things were happening, is more a matter of silences.  We can get quite close in our description of events, but we will never be able to describe their very essence, an essence tinged with despair, or joy, or with both at once." (p.37)
Which doesn't stop the writer, and narrator, from trying to pin down the essence of those distant events.  We are drawn into this game too, tempted to judge the characters - the mother, the father, the narrator, his Aunt Delphina.  The problem is that with only a few of the facts, we can never be completely sure that we're right.
The writing is excellent, with a style reminiscent of Saramago and Marías (there are definite shades of A Heart So White here). Paris consists for the most part of long, precise sentences, full of complex clauses, constantly folding back on, and contradicting, themselves.  Of course, this is all aided by the choice of translator - Jull Costa, as always, does a wonderful job, meaning that the book never reads like a translation.
Paris is a very good book, and for those who like his style, there's more out there from Giralt Torrente in translation.  His story collection The End of Love is already available, and Father and Son (which, as Tiempo de Vida, won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa in 2011) will appear in English in September.  So is he the next big thing in Spanish?  Well, there's certainly a lot to like.  Paris is a fascinating, complex novel - even the cover, while initially plain, reveals something about the plot.  It's definitely not an easy read, but it's certainly a rewarding one :)
*****
Before I finish, there is one little issue I want to address here.  This is my third Hispabooks work, and all three have had British translators (Rosalind Harvey, Jonathan Dunne and Margaret Jull Costa).  While the translations definitely feel very British, for some reason, the books use American spelling conventions, plus the occasional, jarring Americanism.  It's a trend I'd already picked up in the first two books, and reading Paris merely confirmed it.
These (rare) Americanisms particularly stand out in Jull Costa's excellent translation.  Examples include 'jelly' instead of 'jam', 'wash up' instead of 'wash his face'/'have a wash', 'bills' instead of 'notes' and 'Mom' instead of 'Mum'.  It's not a huge thing, but it seems an odd stylistic choice to me, almost as if the publishers are hedging their bets with the variety of English.  It's likely that most people wouldn't notice, but I like to think that when it comes to translations, I'm not most people ;)
Any thoughts?  I'd love to hear if anyone else has noticed this trend - and what you make of it... - Tony Malone



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Marcos Giralt Torrente, The End of Love, Trans. by Katherine Silver, McSweeney's, 2013.

In this quartet of mesmerizing stories, Marcos Giralt Torrente explores the confounding, double-edged promise of love. Each finds a man carefully churning over his past, trying to fathom how the distance between people can become suddenly unbridgeable.
Two tourists visit a remote island off the coast of Africa and are undone by a disconcerting encounter with another couple. A young man, enchanted by his bohemian cousin and her husband, watches them fall into a state of resentful dependence over the course of decades. A chaste but all-consuming love affair between a troubled boy and a wealthy but equally troubled girl leaves a scar that never heals. The son of divorced parents tries in vain to reunite them before realizing why he is wrong to do so. In The End of Love, Giralt Torrente forges discomfiting and gripping dramas from the small but consequential misunderstandings that shape our lives.

Four stories from Spanish writer Torrente take as their very loose theme the idea of dying love. A vacationing couple becomes embroiled with local police off the coast of Africa; separated parents struggle to raise a son post-divorce. In each case, Torrente’s narrators announce their roles as writers or documentarians—an author who chronicles an estranged husband’s last wishes, a radio host who recalls an adolescent infatuation that made lasting impressions. In captivating, subtle, and unsettling prose, Torrente propels characters through time, jumping hours, weeks, and years (covering, at one point, decades in a single clause), building tension with Roberto Bolaño-like accumulation of plot, often waiting until the action has ended to divulge a key fact or coincidental non sequitur that unlocks the truth. Despite his high-grade realism, Torrente’s narrators defer frequently to “the terrain of speculation.” A concerned tourist imagines the worst when a German couple disappears; a literary vagrant suggests reasons his cousin’s marriage has ground to a codependent stalemate. This is Torrente’s first book to appear in English. With luck, the first of many. --Diego Báez 

The four stories that make up The End of Love are so good at evoking absences that I would call them elliptical machines, but that would create the wrong associations and do this prizewinning writer from Madrid an injustice. Thanks to Katherine Silver's translations, which hardly break a sweat [...] Giralt Torrente's first publication in the United States arrives with the force of the unexpected, the nervous excitement of a first encounter. —Benjamin Anastas

“The End of Love“: by Spanish author Marcos Giralt Torrente may not be the most gargantuan, epic, enormous, humungoid book on the BTBA longlist, but it may very well be the most perfect. Four stories, each about 40 pages long—sentence-by-sentence this is a book you can bet your life on. When I first read it in Spanish back in the fall of 2011, I immediately knew I was in the presence of a master craftsman. Whether writing long or short sentences, he exercises a remarkable control and precision with each and every word, calibrating nuance and impact with a true gift. As I read El final del amor, what was equally apparent was that this is a writer who is equally apt at crafting stories, manipulating structure, tone, pacing, and information to engineer profound depth and compression. It is for this reason that I like to think of the four pieces in The End of Love more as novellas than stories.
Two years after reading El final del amor, I then had the pleasure to read this book again, in English in the fall of 2013, and it was just as good. This brings me to another reason why this book is worthy of the award: the Best Translated Book Award prides itself on being as much about the translation as about the book, and very few books published in 2013 were translated as well as Katherine Silver’s The End of Love. This is an important point, for while I see very many good translations on the BTBA longlist, I see few masterful ones, and Katie Silver’s surely ranks among the latter.
So what does Torrente do in The End of Love? I would say he compresses a lifetime’s-worth of observations about love into four nearly perfect stories. Here we see all sorts of romantic relationships invoked, and Torrente gives us the pleasure of watching them play out over months and years (just how does he do this in only 40 pages? as I said, he is a master). Even the one story in this book that only takes place over two days makes us feel as though we understand its two couples as though we’ve known them for years. Across the sweep of this book we receive a rare insight into the many different sensations, emotions, and couplings that are generally referred to simply as “love.” Torrente makes us see just how much is contained in this small word, making us feel as though we are with an author who has witnessed love in every single one of its uncountable permutations. Quite simply, Torrente adds a few new thoughts to a concept that is as old as speech, a thing that, if you think about it, is truly a remarkable achievement. Torrente is in fact trained as a philosopher, and it shows in the depth of thought—and passion—that he has brought to this book.
The End of Love is also the entry of a remarkable new author into English. Already two more of Torrente’s seven books are slated for publication in English, and who can doubt that many more will follow? At the young age of 46, Torrente has already built a considerable international reputation for himself. He has won and judged major international awards, he has been translated into numerous languages, and, to top it all off, he is a member of the groundbreaking Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas’s legendary Order of the Finnegans (the Order is explained in his 2010 novel Dublinesca). Surely we will be hearing much, much more from Torrente in the years to come.
For all these reasons, I would say that The End of Love is a book that demands to be read, and may as well take this year’s Best Translated Book Award. - Scott Esposito


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Marcos Giralt Torrente, Father and Son: A Lifetime. Trans. by Natasha Wimmer, Sarah Crichton Books; Reprint edition, 2014.

"This is a story about two people, but I’m the only one telling it."Many authors have wrestled with the death of a father in their writing, but few have grappled with the subject as fiercely, or as powerfully, as the brilliant Spanish writer Marcos Giralt Torrente does in Father and Son, the mesmerizing and discomfiting memoir that won him Spain’s highest literary award, the Spanish National Book Award. Giralt Torrente is best known for his fiction, but it is in this often savage memoir that he demonstrates the full measure of his gifts.In the months following his father’s death from cancer, Giralt Torrente could not write—until he began to write about his father. In many ways, they were strangers to each other; after his parents’ relationship ended, when he was quite young, Giralt Torrente’s father remained in contact with him but held himself at a distance. Silences began to linger, prompted by Giralt Torrente’s anger at his father’s lies and absences and perpetuated by their inability to speak about the sources of the conflicts between them. But despite their differences, they had a strong bond, and in the months leading up to his father’s death from cancer, they groped toward reconciliation. Here the author commits to exploring it all, sparing neither his father nor himself, conscious of their flaws but also understanding of them. Weaving together history and personal narrative, Giralt Torrente crafts a startlingly honest account of a complex relationship, and an indelible portrait of both father and son.Beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer, the award-winning translator of Roberto Bolaño, and as lyrical and clear-eyed on mourning as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Father and Son is an uncommonly gripping memoir by an uncommonly talented writer. 

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