El Jarama, (The River), ★★★★
by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio
1955, Premio Nadal of the same year,
also Premio de la Crítica de narrativa castellana, 1957
One of the best 100 novels in Spanish in the XIX century
I’ve changed my reviewing method. This is a full star, ★, and this a half star, ✫
★★★★★ Not to miss, worth re-reading
★★★★ Books that surely have stayed with me.
★★★ Very enjoyable read, recommendable.
★★ Meh. Nothing remarkable.
The half star, ✫, would make it closer to the higher category, an in-between of sorts.
This book completes my Back to the Classics 2017, it falls into the category of books that have received a prize. The prize and book are not well known in the English world, I wouldn’t think so. The Premio Nadal is well known in Spain though. It was awarded that prize the same year it was published, 1955.
Ferlosio is contemporary of the laconic and mysterious author, Juan Rulfo. At a Spanish blog on book, run by two amazing readers, a lady and a gentleman, I first saw two titles by Ferlosio, one his Jarama, (The River in English), the other The Adventures of the Ingenious Alfanhui. I see that he has other titles, and I’m very interested in this author ever since I found this novel.
I don’t foresee many would have read this book in English, but then some of you surprise me, as when I found out that Maximilian (a reader and blogger whom I follow) had read Pardo Bazán in English. Ferlosio and this book in particular, are particular and specific to Madrid, and the time after our civil war. Spain never participated in WWII as a nation (some fought in it), but we had a civil war between 1936 and 1939. The critics of Ferlosio’s time were divided. Some found the book a masterpiece, a book that elevated the common events of people on a Sunday afternoon, normal urban and country people. Others complained about the lack of a hero, the vulgarity of the topic (I have to say that there’s nothing profane, it alludes to his focus on the talk and dialogues of plain people.) I’m in the first group. I consider this book a gem. I believe the book is different, a masterpiece, precisely because it has a content I’m fond of, (Madrid in the times of my parents, something I still relate to), and an innovative form. I’ve never read a book like this before. Similar, yes, and yet Ferlosio takes this lack of hero to another level.
It’s interesting to note that Goodreads reviews are also divided. It’s mostly one or two stars, or five. It’s either loved or disliked with a passion. If you read for plot, forget about this title. Yet again, maybe those of us who love it, are those for whom the book affords a high dose of nostalgia. I grew up with people that looked like this, acted like this, talked like this.
The content: this book captured a bygone era like no other. I’m sad thinking there will not be more like it. If there were, this will not be so special. One of my uncles had a chalet by a different river, yet the scenario was a very similar one to the book’s. By his chalet, there was a restaurant, and the other chalets of neighbors he knew, and the nearest town. This was only 30 minutes from our city flat in Madrid. We used to go just for the day, sometimes for longer. His chalet had a pool, and it was a restaurant also opened to the public for long. When I grew up though, it was closed to the main public, yet my uncle always had lots of guests and friends over. I learned to swim by the river. Ferlosio captures that atmosphere. I have a problem with the critic who described his prose as vulgar, for I found him evocative and quite poetic. I’m thinking that possibly, for those living in his time, a book about their own moment, their own life, may have sounded more prosaic, and they could have lacked the perspective that makes it shine in all its splendor.
The form: I’ve read books like The Moonstone, with that delightful change of narrator, many Victorian authors like Thackeray, Trollope, George Elliot, who talk to us, readers, books like some of Ishiguro’s novels, where the line between reality and the mind of the protagonist gets blurry in way peculiar to him, but among the realist authors, or the authors that we call “costumbristas” (who present us reality and the customs of the day), I had never read a book that felt like a camera was hovering over two places, and from one group of people to the other, forming a mosaic of conversations, and lifting a whole place and world from those dialogues. There’s so much likability in those people we hear talk. We learn much about them by the apparently trivial conversations. It’s such a magician’s trick, he has removed himself from the book. I like the fact that the book is compared to a movie but it’s not a movie. Being a book, it gives us time to savor it, time to construct a more in depth world and meet its people. I recognize prototypes in these people immediately, yet they are presented in all their individuality, not at all vague.
And this brings me to the translation. The book has been translated by Margaret Jull Costa. I don’t know about the quality of the translation, but she seems to translate renown authors. Will the book fulfill the reader’s expectations in English? You can read Yuri’s approach to translation when he translated Omon Ra. They are found here, at the end of the book. Omon Ra is a very Russian book. When we read in English, it’s not that we are reading in a different language, and we may be missing so much, to me, if we have not lived and breathed in Moscow, (or at least in Russia), for some years, it would be impossible to understand the cultural references the book contains. Yuri, in my inexpert opinion, did the right thing omitting many of those. I appreciate his many notes, and the fact he did away with tons of others.
Do I feel disconsolate about the fact of all I’m missing when reading a book like Omon Ra? Absolutely not. I believe that having some knowledge of another culture, a different author, the themes and the form of a book like Omon Ra (and many others I read in translation), is an exhilarating experience. Maybe if any of you take a chance with the book, something will be lost, but something different also to what I experienced when reading it myself, you will have that I wont. I am not talking today about the value of learning other languages to better enjoy books in their original language, I’m simply stressing how amazing and mind stretching is reading books in translation (when the translation is well done, which is something complex to define, but easier to spot as readers.)
My love for this book be related to my personality, to my crave for something different, something that surprises me, but I find reading minor works like this, classics that have a narrower audience, highly rewarding. This is also why I read more classics on average than contemporary works. It’s just my own preference. Variety, quality, and depth excite and relax me too. I have no patience for the many titles that are a bit of the same (even though they may be good variations of a known formula.) My brick and mortar book club takes care of adding some of those lighter titles. The value of reading those is in the friendship and conversation. And there’s some older books we read, plus some of those new titles sometimes surprise you, like The Boys in the Boat. And this is all I wanted to say about this book, would you feel tempted to read it?