Things Look Different In The Light – Medardo Fraile (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

This year eight of the twenty-five longlisted titles come from the Spanish, four of them making the final ten on the shortlist. A predisposition to Spanish works? Maybe not as obvious as it first seems with works coming from Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala and of course Spain itself. Today I look at one from Spain and translated by somebody whose translations I have reviewed before, Margaret Jull Costa (Javier Marias’ “The Infatuations” from last year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Best Translated Book Award longlists).

 

I have also been quite partial to the Pushkin Press Collection Series, having previously reviewed three of Yasushi Inoue’s works (“Bullfight”, “The Hunting Gun” and “Life of a Counterfeiter”), Paul Fournel’s “Dear Reader” and recently the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlisted “In The Beginning Was The Sea” by Tomas Gonzalez”. I’m building up a nice collection of the beautifully presented works, on crisp paper, hand stitched and a delight to hold.

 

But none of that has anything to do with the words on the page – and Medardo Fraile received many awards for his words. As our sleeve explains it was through his short story writing that he became most well-known. Born in 1925 he lived through the siege of Madrid and through his work in Scotland as a Professor at the University of Strathclyde from the 1960’s he was a champion of the Spanish language.

 

Pushkin Press have put together an anthology of his short stories, a collection of twenty-nine works. A few running to only three pages, most less than ten.

 

Our collection opens with “Berta’s Presence”, the story of a one year olds birthday party and the resulting tension of one of the guests wanting and waiting to talk to the child. Whilst the content may seem banal, we are immediately exposed to the journey ahead, our story is full of reality, awkwardness, shame as well as enlightenment:

 

A bottle on the table reflected the branches of the chestnut tree outside the window. It was a warm evening, the windows open, full of the distant murmurs and melodies set in motion by the departing sun. One of those evenings when the scented, rustling countryside suddenly enters the city, as if the countryside had left itself behind for a few hours in order to set the city-dweller humming a tune, whether at a birthday party, in a bar or at home. One of those evenings when the factory siren sounds like a moan of a large, friendly animal gone astray and where the frank, rustic kisses of the soldier and his sweetheart sound like pebbles in a stream. One of those evenings of high, long, tenuous mists, so that when the stars first come out, they will not appear too naked.

 

These are stories dripping in metaphor, but unlike terms you’ve ever heard before, but equally as creative. Another story “A short” tells a simple tale of a fisherman, Fermin Ulia, falling in love:

 

They entered the so-called Modern Warehouse, which was actually very old and smelt of the customs and fashions of yesteryear. The assistants yearned for lost refinements and it would have taken only the pricking of a rose thorn for them to die. Fermin and Mari exchanged a first kiss behind a mannequin carrying an umbrella. Mari’s lips were as tasty as the anchovies caught by night fishermen in fine mesh nets. They strolled through the warehouse, and she chose for him a tartan shirt in subtle shades. With a knowing wink, Fermin showed the assistant the bottle he had with him. Mari stepped in to prevent the exchange and held out a few coins instead. Fermin Ulia understood her meaning. They drank the bottle of brandy together in a small room with blue painted walls. And there he first put on that subtle shirt, which was all the colours of a cuttlefish on heat.

 

Our title story, “Thing Look Different In The Light”, is the humorous story of a tradesman, having inadequate instructions but still proceeding in painting a directional sign in the Metro underground. “Restless Eyes” tells of a couple who go to the cinema, there’s their Saturday night gone. The mundane is so richly bought to life, in eight pages the lack of intimacy, the inner desires are all bought to the fore, even though nothing implicit is actually said.

 

This is a collection of scant beauty, a collection where the less said the richer the picture becomes, as Ali Smith says in her Foreword “ so little is said and so much is conveyed”.

 

“The Cashier” tells of Rosita who works the till in a bar:

 

For Rosita, the bar was a place where anything could happen, a music box full of surprises, with the advantage that she was inside that great music box and could subtly change the melody with just a glance or a word. In the mornings, the customers, drenched in light, seemed to Rosita to have a golden glow about them, they talked loudly and there hung in the air the aroma of those autumnal brown cigars that make one think of strong, swarthy men with money and expensive cars. In the afternoons, in the long hours until the lights were turned on, the customers changed in appearance, allowing themselves to be filled right down to the bottoms of their pockets with a glittering, greenish light, an aquarium light, like a sauce that eases the digestion and gently dissolves ideas. Then came the vulgar, ecstatic, dizzying hour of the young couples. And at night, the shrill yellow light, the yellow of funerals, liquorice root and brass cymbals, clung to the flesh of the various night owls and suspect couples, who emerged from the tunnel of night looking new and elastic, confident and free, and filled with a somewhat malign spirit.

 

We have stories describing the inanimate, “The Car” and “The Armchair”, their lives and the memories whilst using these objects the central theme.

 

Our book is presented in chronological order and I felt as we got further into the work some of the splendour and awe became a little trite. Not saying the stories later in the work are poor by any stretch of the imagination, I just enjoyed the earlier, raw writing a little more.

 

Slightly reminiscent of my recently reviewed “A Useless Man” by Sait Faik Abasiyank, short stories exploring the minutiae of everyday life. Another fine work on the Best Translated Book Award list, one I’m glad to have come across, although I’m not convinced it is the winner – more on one of my favourites in the coming days – although with the winner announced tomorrow I could be behind the eight ball with my reading and reviews!!!
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