The Low Voices by Manuel Rivas review: hits the high notes
Manuel Rivas’s beautifully translated memoir/novel brilliantly capture a time, a place and a family
Manuel Rivas author of The Low Voices: tells wonderful stories. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
The Low Voices
His parents used to sit in the dark together, listening to the radio: “Our house hanging on the hillside looked just like a ship. The wind whistling over the harmonica of the roof.” The Galician writer and cultural commentator Manuel Rivas brings a poet’s sense of wonder to his writing.
This beautiful new book is described as a novel, yet it reads as a memoir, a loving account of his simple village childhood spent with a father who said little and a milkmaid mother who had read the lives of the saints as a child, grew up to love books and spoke to herself. Of his three siblings, it is Manuel’s relationship with his slightly elder sister, Maria, which is the most intensely described and ultimately dominates the book.
The Low Voices is a story, impressionistic and random, because Rivas tells stories. He also explores truths and with candour and rigorous sense of cultural responsibility. But, above all, he is a storyteller. Every little incident becomes real.
There was the day when his chatty Uncle Francisco is shaving an elderly customer. The uncle recalls a night years earlier, obviously during the Spanish Civil War, when Falangists arrived to snatch Francisco’s father “with the intention of killing him”. It is all very dramatic, made even more so when the stranger sitting in the chair remarks that he may have been one of the intruders, and adds “with a certain pride” that he may have been the driver. It seems a coincidence, but then life is full of them.
The real point of the story is the Uncle Francisco’s response. He completes the job, even adds, “a few smacks of aftershave” and orders the old man to never return. When the customer attempts to pay, he is told to invest in some Masses instead. “Nothing you do will ever be too much to save your soul.”
Rivas has shaped an unusual tale; the book is an extended lingering glance at his childhood and at the people who were central to it. His meditative tone is brilliantly conveyed by Jonathan Dunne, who has now translated nine of Rivas’s books, among them All Is Silence (2010), a black morality tale of extraordinary panache set in a small town creaking under communal corruption. He has also translated two superb political novels by Rivas, The Carpenter’s Pencil (1998) and Books Burning Badly (2006).
Dunne has an international reputation as a translator and is also the publisher of Small Stations Press. More than anyone, he knows the value of translation.
“Life is translation” he has written. “I didn’t create life, it came to me from my parents and, if I am lucky, I will transfer it to my children. Nothing starts or ends with us. So it is absurd for us to think of translation as somehow inferior or second-rate, since in effect we are thinking of ourselves and everything we do in this way. When we translate, we hear a voice, we are inspired, just as a writer is.”
He could almost go a step further and add the reader’s response. “It is not that translation is a lower form of writing, but that writing is a form of translation.”
Dunne’s argument is compelling when one considers the role of memory and how it informs a work such as memoir or an autobiographical novel. At no time reading The Low Voices does one feel to be other than listening to Rivas recalling the people who influenced him as well as the anecdotes and the chance incidents that mattered.
One of his earliest memories is of hiding in the bathroom with Maria. Their mother had been out working; on her return, she couldn’t find them. A reader’s initial reaction may be, why did she leave them? But that this the late 1950s, in a small village. The mother felt she felt they were safe playing at home. It is when she returns that her fear begins to overpower her irritation. But for Rivas, the two very different types of fear are evident.
Rivas’s attention moves to his father, a construction worker with a fear of heights. It was something he kept hidden. That quiet man played the saxophone until the day he sold it because he needed money for his family. The narrator is our likeable guide, not the central subject; he is fond of his family, tender but never sentimental.
Throughout his work, Rivas always balances themes and recurring images; the abstract and philosophical with practical realities. He reveals so much information (he was a journalist, after all) but is never pedantic.
Deliberate, not random
Even among the current generation of Spanish mainland writers working in the three Spanish languages, Rivas is outstanding. He draws the reader in with his wonderful stories, yet he also offers insights, often as if in passing. But nothing is random; Rivas is deliberate. It is his lightness of touch which not only beguiles but puts one at ease.
It is only after reading this gorgeous and, frankly, strange little book that it becomes clear that Rivas has not only written about his family, but has created a portrait of Spain and above all, an insider’s look at a very particular culture: his own as a citizen of the northwest Spain, an area very like the west of Ireland.
Early in The Low Voices, Rivas writes about his mother, who was “sweet but not docile”. He mentions what it was like for Spanish women of her generation. The laws were “even more shocking than people’s attitudes towards them . . . a woman could do nothing without her husband’s approval. But my mother could not accept such a submissive role, and my father knew it.”
Rivas was born in 1957, and by his late teens was already political. His writing began initially with poems he wrote, expecting little. He describes his first steps as a journalist (“It was fine to know how to type, but if you wanted to be a real journalist, the first thing you had to do was to buy some tobacco “), and there is the comedy of being assigned the horoscope. When young Rivas does a vox pop in the street, asking a normal person for her views on abortion, she retorts: “Listen, boy. I’m not from around here, I just came to buy some shoes,”. Still, he writes relatively little about himself.
So many word pictures, such as the local men shuffling about at the back of the church, unwilling to take communion as they had not gone to confession, while the women needed the weekly ritual more than the actual service. There is a sense of community sustained by family and all the incidents that establish a family’s history.
It seems too simple, but the most satisfying way to read Manuel Rivas is to read each of his books. Brilliantly served by Dunne, Rivas is special – funny, benign, opinionated. He tells wonderful stories because he learned early in life how to listen, and he listened to the soft, wise voices around him.
Rivas misses nothing, and it is fascinating to see how, in The Low Voices, he does not tell us how he became a writer but shows us the people, such as his quiet, unassuming, determined mother, who helped make him one.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent