Overcoming the bleakest of situations
FICTION REVIEW: Books Burn BadlyBy Manuel Rivas, translated by Jonathan Dunne Harvill Secker, 548pp, £18.99, reviewed by ALISON RIBEIRO DE MENEZES
BOOKS BURN BADLYis a novelistic tour-de-force by Galician writer, Manuel Rivas. Much longer than his previous works, this hefty tome is the major book that his readers have been waiting for. It’s not that Rivas’s previous works failed to convince. The power and enchantment of both The Carpenter’s Penciland the stories of Vermeer’s Milkmaidclearly announced the emergence of a formidable narrative talent.
Rivas hails from A Coruña and writes in his native Galician rather than in Spanish. His literary career (five books of poetry and 12 works of prose fiction) aside, he has made a reputation as a journalist, essayist, and environmentalist. His work has a wide readership in Europe and America, making him one of the most important literary voices to have emerged from Galicia.
Rivas’s hauntingly poetic use of language and light touch have surely much to do with this, as does his interest in the natural world and optimistic outlook on life. Nature is an all-pervasive concern in his writing; unsurprisingly, Rivas was an outspoken critic of the Spanish government’s handling of the Prestige oil spill off the coast of Galicia in 2002.
Books Burn Badlysees Rivas returning to familiar themes: the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, popular culture and superstition in Galicia, man’s relationship to the natural environment, and above all, man’s treatment of his fellow man. But Rivas has given himself more scope to develop these through the web of closely related and yet still fragmented poetic episodes that constitute Books Burn Badly.
The novel opens with the burning of books by Falangists at Coruña docks on the outbreak of Civil War in 1936, a historical event that Rivas makes his intellectual point of departure. If the burning of books is conventionally equated with the destruction of culture, Rivas is more interested in exploring what may survive, and how: he has an optimistic belief in the ability of the human spirit to resist repression, not without difficulty and hardship, for sure, but tenaciously and against the odds. In this respect, his contribution to contemporary debates on the legacy of Spain’s civil war and repressive dictatorship is significant. Unlike some writers, he avoids both diatribe and facile protest.
Life during the war and under the dictatorship was brutal and grim, and many of the concerns that currently preoccupy literary intellectuals and historians of the period are recalled in Books Burn Badly. Violence, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, cruel executions, and what has been termed “civil death” (having one’s name literally erased from public record) are depicted by Rivas without sentimentality. And while one of his characters remarks that “it’s impossible to understand the mystery of hate”, this is precisely what Rivas attempts.
If in The Carpenter’s PencilRivas approaches these issues through the mind of Herbal, a Nationalist soldier and perpetrator of violence, in Books Burn Badlyhe concentrates on the victimised half of the population, former Republicans and their families.
In a typically understated idiom, Rivas pays close attention to the ways in which ordinary people negotiated their lives under Franco: he notes the effects of migration, for instance – “lots of people, openly carrying their nomadic symbol, a suitcase, gathered in the port and disappeared from the landscape” – or the pervasiveness of advertising – “the whole of Spain seemed to be washing its hair”.
But he also drives home that this was a society founded on silence and omission, particularly the ever-present – yet rarely articulated divisions – of the Civil War:
Things spoke and things fell
quiet. Here were two
perceptions that made a
picture or a poem special.
One, the speaking of things.
Capturing the speaking of
things, their expansive aura
. The other, the falling
silent of things. Their hiding.
Their being absent. Their
In Books Burn Badly, Rivas reminds his readers of the toughness of life in Francoist Spain, but he combines this with a lyrical idiom that undercuts any sense of nihilism. In short, he never loses faith in the human ability to overcome the bleakest of situations.
Alison Ribeiro de Menezes lectures in Spanish and Portuguese at UCD. Her latest books are A Companion to Carmen Martín Gaite (Tamesis; with Catherine O’Leary) and War and Memory in Contemporary Spain (Verbum ; with Roberta Quance and Anne Walsh)