Back to the Classics 2017, Book reviews, Spanish Authors, Spanish Books, Translation

El Jarama, The River


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.
★             Run.

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?


8 thoughts on “El Jarama, The River”

  1. Hi Silvia, I come to your blog by way of our mutual friend Karla A. I’m enjoying reading your comments on books I know, but rarely get to discuss with anyone. I was most curious to read your take on El Jarama. I read it when I was in my early 20’s. Of all the books I have read I remember this one most clearly: this was the first book that I wanted to physically hurl across the room. Your description makes me wonder what I missed in it. I know I was frustrated by the writing style, but there was something in the story that my 20 year old self rejected violently. I do wonder how I would find it if I were to read it again now -30 years later and without the wide-eyed innocence and expectation of happy endings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hola Tracy,
      Karla has talked to me about you. I am honored by your comment. I think I have an idea why that strong reaction. It’s a sort of existentialist book, a camera look at two main scenarios (the restaurant and the river), with no plot, and an unsatisfactory ending. The reason why I LOVED IT, it just reflected my childhood and teen years at my uncle’s chalet and nearby river. It describes my parents generation to a T, the dialogues and characters are spot on, and the after civil war atmosphere and coming of age of the young ones in the book is spot on. It’s a book I would have disliked as a young person, as much as I don’t know if I could read again El tambor de hojalata, or Carrie, (ouch, jajaja)


    2. And again, your comment made me very happy. You have to tell me your favorites, (and I know DQ is one!) Never in a million years I thought I would find someone who had read El Jarama.


  2. I suppose it was that there were no points of commonality between my experience and that of the characters in the book. Or perhaps that any points of commonality, at that age, were too painful to admit.

    My favorites: el Quijote, of course! After that, I would say Galdós. (I had the privilege of helping to translate some of the love letters between him and Pardo Bazán for a book one of my professors was working on. I will forever think of him as her “ratoncito.” Your post on him reminded me that I am at a season of life where I can finally revisit his Episodios Nacionales.

    I also loved Lazarillo de Tormes (who stands up well to rereading), and after watching El Ministerio del Tiempo on Netflix, I want to go back and give Lope de Vega a second look because I think maybe I was missing something the first time around – much like I read Agatha Christie for several years before I realized she was funny.

    There are the Latin American standards of Borjes, García Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Vargas Llosa. Those, too, were from my early 20´s, and were so transformative for me that I dare not revisit them for fear they might not live up to my memories. I was surprised to find that, coming from rural Tennessee, magic realism was part of my familial experience and felt very comfortable.

    And then, not in the classics category, I have an affinity for women mystery novelists of Spain. That was to be the topic of my dissertation (20 years ago!?!)-the subversiveness of women writing mystery novels in the minority languages of Spain…doubly subversive because they wrote in their regional language and because when they “restored justice,” it rarely involved the police finding the culprit as is common in US and British novels. Sadly, the names of the women, other than Maria Antonia Oliver, escape me at the moment. …That is also the up-side of getting older and memory fading, when I re-read books, it is with fresh eyes.

    Sorry to be so long-winded. It is rare that I can discuss these books that have meant so much to me. I am enjoying reading your thoughts on these books. I wish you had been in my literature classes in college!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry! It was so SHORT, hahaha.
      I LOVE Galdós, I have a homage post ready for the 10th, that commemorate his birthday. He was born 175 years ago that day.
      #1 I NEED to know that book of their letters.
      #2 I adore El Lazarillo y La Celestina
      #3 My Latin Americans were Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Ernesto Sabato and Cortazar, and I am also scared about revisiting them.
      #4, your dissertation topi, AMAZING. We must read those mystery writer women!
      #5 I too want to revisit Lope de Vega, and I will watch that Netflix show (I hope it’s still on)
      #I too wish we took classes together, but now we are in touch, and with others. (My intention to read Los Pazos de Ulloa has been renewed.)

      In the post about Galdós, there’s also an invitation to read La de Bringas, or The Spendthifts.

      I compiled whatever I know to exist in English, and I write about my experience with this amazing writer.


  3. I don’t find that the book of the translated letters was ever published. I fear the professor must have abandoned the project. Oh, how we pored over photocopies of those letters, trying to decipher the writing! I wish that I still had those photocopies. What was I thinking, throwing them out??? There is this book in Spanish (the one that gave my profe the idea): Emilia Pardo Bazán: cartas a Benito Pérez Galdós by Carmen Bravo Villasante and this one on Kindle (but I don´t know it enough to recommend it with confidence) Miquiño mío

    I am looking forward to your Galdós post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I see. I would have done the same with the photocopies, Tracy. I will investigate those alternatives you gave me.
      And looking forward to chatting more about Galdós, and hopefully read together.


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