From Manuel Vilas
It is clear from the start that “Ordesa” will be a variation on the autobiographical novel: the narrator – or speaker or confessor – is a 50-year-old Spanish writer named Manuel who lives alone in his apartment in Saragossa and wonders what he is lost. The list may not be long, but it cuts deeply. His father died a decade ago, his mother the year before. Heavy drinking and an affair ended his marriage, and his two teenage sons have turned their attention to other areas even on the rare occasions when they visit us.
But this novel is also something else, something indefinable, amorphous. Manuel Vilas writes both novels and poetry, and this book is somewhere in between. It is a meditation on longing, loneliness and self; a storm of souls, a mirage of phantom figures – resurrected images of dead ancestors, childhood memories, the changing face of Spain. And all these visions come to Manuel in waves after the death of his parents as he tries to understand his own grief and emptiness in midlife. It is a book of deep reckoning – of the meaningful and everyday – but written with an airy, even bizarre note.
“Everyone loses their father and mother – that’s just biology,” says Manuel early on. “But I am also obsessed with the dissolution of the past and with it its ultimate inexpressibility.” Alone and drifting, Manuel shuffles to the supermarket and makes one or two trips to Madrid for an exhibition or a book event. Most of the time, however, he putters around the house, looking at the furniture and keepsakes from childhood that are still full of memories. An inner voice leads a searching conversation with his younger self and the spirits of his parents. When he looks in the mirror, he sees his distant, enigmatic father in his reflection.
Manuel’s father isn’t the only blind spot in this book. Both groups of grandparents exist in the hazy hearsay realm for Manuel, in a family that is prone to silence and disappearance. (Photos are scattered throughout the text, making one wonder whether they are from the author or whether it matters at all.) Manuel’s family is rooted in the Spanish peasantry and lower middle class, a largely anonymous world of “barns “Poverty, stench”, alienation, disease, catastrophe. “However, during its childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, Spain suddenly infected a sense of material advancement embodied in sporty cars, dishwashers, televisions and smart suits.
Manuel’s father is a traveling salesman who is not unemployed. In fact, he supplies fabric to tailors in the northeastern provinces. His mother, a compulsive smoker and sun worshiper, indulges in her trips to the hairdresser and the local swimming pool. Both are eccentric non-conformists in Franco’s Spain who do not know the Catholic Church and the social class and political affiliation. His mother is particularly prone to inventing herself, stitching stories and shrouding herself in secrets. “My mother was a chaotic narrator. Just like me, ”Manuel admits. “I inherited narrative chaos from my mother.”
“Ordesa” feels hideous and fragmentary indeed, and that’s part of its charm too. (It became a bestseller in Spain, where it was released in 2018 for recognition.) The revelations come in bursts to Manuel, clearly captured in Andrea Rosenberg’s sparkling translation. Chapters follow each other quickly, drawing out half-repressed memories and truths, often delimited by abrupt, one-line epiphanies. Despite the melancholy in the heart, this is ultimately a book of light – the sunlight streaming through Manuel’s haunted apartment, the magical summer vacation in a place called Ordesa at the foot of the Pyrenees, his parents’ lost paradise in the US Flush of Youth.
“Yellow is the visual state of the soul,” thinks Manuel in a typical rush of speech. “Yellow is the color that speaks of the past, of the disappearance of two families… of the sadness of never seeing your children, of Spain’s fall into Spanish miasms, of cars, of highways, of memories, of the cities where I am lived. of the hotels I’ve slept in – yellow speaks of all of this. “
Like the color yellow, this book is a brilliant reminder of a golden age and its slow deterioration.