Friday, 7 March 2014

Book Review: The Metal of the Dead by Concha Espina

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0838755453/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0838755453&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21There are many writers who enjoyed great fame in their time, but whose names have fallen into oblivion later on. One of them is Concha Espina who happened to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature altogether seven times and running up for it at least twice (once losing it only by one vote!). It seems that the English-speaking world never really took much notice of this Spanish author since I couldn’t find an English translation of her first and most famous novel La niña de Luzmela anywhere. Instead I picked The Metal of the Dead by Concha Espina for today’s review, the novel which many consider to be her best. It has been brought out in a new English translation by Anna-Marie Aldaz in 2003, and yet it appears that I have to add the book to my Out-of-Print Collection.

Concha Espina was born as María de la Concepción Jesusa Basilisa Espina y García in Santander, Cantabria, Spain, in April 1869. She grew up in an environment that didn’t exactly predestine her for a literary career, and yet she began writing poems at the age of thirteen and in 1888 she saw one of them published in a newspaper for the first time. After she got married in 1893 she moved to Valparaíso, Chile, with her husband and began to write for newspapers, an activity which she continued after their return to Cantabria, but above all later in Madrid, and which made her Spain’s first woman to make her living as a full-time writer and journalist. On the literary side the prolific author produced over fifty novels along with short stories, poetry, plays, essays, and occasionally, biographies. Among her most notable works count La niña de Luzmela (1909), The Woman and the Sea (Agua de nieve: 1911), Mariflor (La esfinge maragata: 1914), The Metal of the Dead (El metal de los muertos: 1920), Dulce nombre (1921), Altar Mayor (1926), and Broken Lives (Vidas rotas: 1934). She continued writing and publishing as usual even after she had grown completely blind in 1940. Concha Espina died in Madrid, Spain, in May 1955.

The Metal of the Dead is set in peaceful Spain while beyond her borders rages World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution turns Russia upside down. Gabriel Sánchez used to be a seaman, but finds himself compelled to work in the Cantabrian mines where his socialist ideals soon get him into trouble. His friend and soul-mate Aurora from the fishing village is pregnant and fate would have it that she wants to tell him just the day after he was fired and left for the port to sign on a British vessel heading south for Estuaria in Andalusia. Passengers on the vessel are the siblings Rosario and José Luis Garcillán who work for a socialist newspaper in Madrid and intend to cover the poor living and working conditions of the miners. In Estuaria Gabriel and his mate called Thor (after the Germanic God) miss being back onboard in time. For Gabriel this is a sign that his future lies in the belly of the earth and together with Thor he sets out for Nerva in the Rio Tinto mining district. Almost there the two men meet the old miner and unionist Vicente Rubio and his daughter Casilda who take the newcomers in and help them have a good start. In Cantabria Aurora meanwhile had a daughter and is desperately waiting for news from Gabriel whose letters ceased to arrive. She travels south with the baby to join Gabriel and to see what happened. As it turns out, Casilda intercepted both their letters. Shortly after Aurora’s arrival the miners call a general strike. During the following weeks Gabriel and the other miners, Aurora and Casilda, the journalists Rosario and José Luis Garcillán, and the union leader Aurelio Echea have to go through many hardships, including hunger and death, and emotional turmoil.

Under the title The Metal of the Dead Concha Espina depicts a world that reminded me a bit of a Dickensian novel because it is peopled with extremely poor and hard-working miners and relatively rich and self-righteous managers of the mining company. Nonetheless the author based her novel on real events at an existing scene, namely a miners’ strike against a British-owned company in Andalusia in 1917. The much shorter first part presents all important characters, their lives and their ideas, but it also includes passages about destroyed landscape, the genesis of metals and mining history which by today’s standards feel rather lengthy although they create an impressive picture of irresponsible mining practices and of the suffering that dead metal and its exploitation have caused for many centuries. The second part of the book has a denser and more varying plot which makes it an interesting read. Apart from the protagonists’ personal fates, the claims and reasoning of the miners and the complete lack of understanding that the managers show for their miserable lives get much room. This ideological background led to the novel being called socialist. Instead of giving the story a happy or terrible ending, Concha Espina decided to just let it fade out mirroring that people moved away from the area. The author’s language is precise as well as poetic and surprisingly I had no problem reading the original Spanish version.

Summing up, I can say that I enjoyed The Metal of the Dead by Concha Espina although I must admit that I’m (still) not particularly drawn to the world of mining and that I would have preferred a less obtrusive way of passing on socialist ideas current at the time and supporting the strike. Despite the mentioned minor shortcomings, I recommend the (sad) read – if you can find a copy!

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