Friday, 27 December 2013

Book Review: The Farewell Angel by Carmen Martín Gaite

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13314306-farewell-angelMy last review of the year 2013 is dedicated to a novel ending on Christmas Eve although the religious feast only serves as the perfect date for the protagonist’s emotional rebirth after a deep crisis. The Farewell Angel by Carmen Martín Gaite, one of her country's most renowned modern authors, is a contribution to my literary tour around Europe and gives me an opportunity to revisit Spain, Madrid and Galicia to be precise. In the first place, however, it’s the story of a young man who is caught in the invisible and invincible snow palace of his soul. His past is as a huge puzzle asking to be solved. For this purpose he has to look reality in the face and separate it from imagination. 

Carmen Martín Gaite was born in Salamanca, Spain, in December 1925. After her studies of Romance philology at the University of Salamanca she took up doctoral studies at the University of Madrid. A group of young writers encouraged her to try out her own literary skills. She began to publish stories in magazines, while earning her living as a teacher and later as a secretary. Her first award-winning work, the short novel El balneario (The Spa), came out in 1954. Three years later Carmen Martín Gaite received the prestigious Premio Nadal for her novel Entre visillos (Among Anti-macassars). The 1960s were dedicated to family and doctoral thesis. The latter was approved in 1972 and inspired her highly popular essay of the same year Usos amorosos del dieciocho en España (Love Customs of Nineteenth-Century Spain). From then on Carmen Martín Gaite translated works of important writers like Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi and Eça de Queiroz into Spanish, wrote literary criticism for newspapers, essays, screenplays, short stories, poems, children’s books and several novels. Only few of her works have been translated into English like The Back Room (El cuarto de atrás: 1978), Variable Cloud (Nubosidad variable: 1992), Living’s the Strange Thing (Lo raro es vivir: 1996) and The Farewell Angel (La Reina de las nieves: 1994). Carmen Martín Gaite died in Madrid, Spain, in July 2000. 

The novel The Farewell Angel is set in Spain in the late 1970s. The protagonist is Leonardo Villalba Scribner, a young man of around thirty, who leads a rather haphazard and purposeless life travelling at random, doing odd jobs and pursuing half-heartedly his artistic ambitions. His family is wealthy, but Leonardo abandoned home soon after his paternal grandmother’s death. The late Doña Inés Guitián left him her estate in northern Galicia, the Quinta Blanca, where he spent most of his early childhood wrapped up in a fantasy world which was nourished by the remote area’s magical atmosphere as well as by his grandmother’s fairy tales and puzzles. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen strangely attracted, even obsessed him from an early age on. Much in his life makes Leonardo compare himself to Kai. Like the boy in the Snow Queen’s Palace he seems to be incapable of deep emotions and often his memory fails him because without warning he tends to drift off into his fantasy. He experiences himself as a stranger even among friends and family. In the end his careless lifestyle, which included taking drugs and being in bad company, brought Leonardo into prison. When he is released, he learns from the paper that his parents have died in a car accident and he realizes that he needs to get his life and his mind into order. It may be his last chance. The Quinta Blanca and its new owner Doña Casilda Iriarte turn out to play a key role in Leonardo’s following search for the past, for reality and for his identity. 

The Farewell Angel is a very complex and difficult novel written in a poetic language including many references to important works of literature. The story of Leonardo Villalba Scribner begins to unfold in a series of seemingly disconnected details. In a certain way this mirrors the chaos in Leonardo’s mind which becomes particularly apparent in the second part of the novel. Those chapters are marked as being from the young man’s notebooks, thus they are basically a long and confusing stream of consciousness. The novel’s first – introducing – and the third – unravelling – part, on the other hand, are told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. Whichever narrative technique Carmen Martín Gaite uses, she indulges in slowly dealing out the pieces of a puzzle which is much larger than expected and quite different from what the reader is led to believe at first. On the symbolic level Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen serves as a guide-line for the writer, the reader as well as the protagonist which is also expressed in the original Spanish title corresponding exactly with that of the fairy tale. It seems strange to me that the English title is The Farewell Angel instead and contains no reference whatsoever to The Snow Queen. The German edition has at least been published under the title Das Haus der Schneekönigin (The House of the Snow Queen). 

Reading the original Spanish version of The Farewell Angel by Carmen Martín Gaite has been quite a challenge for me, and yet I enjoyed it enormously. I found the novel fascinating, surprising and captivating, a read which was really worth the effort. Actually I’d say that it is one of the best reads that I ever read. What a pity that the work is so little known outside the Spanish-speaking world! Highly recommended.

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