Friday, 14 April 2017

Book Review: Celebration in the Northwest by Ana María Matute give way to feelings of inferiority and fear, to envy and ill will, to hatred and malice is never a good idea because it leads straight into a life of ever growing misery. Once caught in the vicious circle of such harmful emotions, it’s difficult to break out and to see the good in life or other people. Often the seed for a negative view of the world – and lifelong unhappiness – is planted in the soul already in earliest childhood like in the case of the main protagonist of Celebration in the Northwest by Catalan author Ana María Matute. As a man in his mid-forties, Juan looks back on his childhood and youth, notably on the mixture of hatred and love that he felt for his half-brother Pablo who was his complete opposite in looks as well as character and whom he chased away in an attempt to make him share his misery.

Ana María Matute Ausejo was born in Barcelona, Spain, in July 1925. After high school, she studied music and painting, but having finished her novel Pequeño Teatro (Little Theatre; published only in 1954) as a seventeen-year-old she eventually chose literature. Her first novel to appear was Los Abel (The Abel Family) in 1947. Other acclaimed novels from her pen are Celebration in the Northwest (Fiesta al noroeste: 1952), The Lost Children (Los hijos muertos: 1958), an autobiographical trilogy consisting of Awakening (Primera memoria: 1959; also published as School of the Sun), Soldiers Cry by Night (Los soldados lloran de noche: 1962) and The Trap (La trampa: 1969), plus La torre vigía (1971; The Watchtower), but she also published short story collections and children’s books. In 1976 the author was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. After long silence she brought out the novels Luciérnagas (1993; a revised version of the one shortlisted for the Premio Nadal 1949 and published as En esta tierra [In This Country] in 1955), Olvidado Rey Gudú (1996; Forgotten King Gudú), Aranmanoth (2000), and Paraíso inhabitado (2008; Uninhabited Paradise). Ana María Matute died in Barcelona, Spain, in June 2014. Her unfinished novel Demonios familiares (2014; Familiar Demons) appeared posthumously.

It’s Carnival, just three days before Ash Wednesday, when the street artist Dingo passes through his native Artámila, scene of the Celebration in the Northwest. It’s a dim and wet evening as he has often seen them in his childhood and he longs to get out of the valley with its destitute villages as soon as possible, but evil fate would have it differently. With his circus wagon he runs over a small boy and the fatal accident forces him to stay. In the village he reports the boy’s death and asks for Juan Medinao, the last of the wealthy Medinao family who have ruled there for three generations. As children they were unlikely friends because Dingo’s father was only a poor day-labourer and Juan’s the biggest landowner in the valley, but they realised that they were brothers in suffering: for nothing their fathers beat them cruelly and they stood alone. They agreed to run away together as soon as they’d have saved enough money. Dingo, however, seized the first opportunity and joined a group of street artists leaving his fearful friend behind without a penny and without hope. When suddenly Dingo reappears in the village after well over thirty years, bitter memories overcome Juan and he feels the urge to confess his sins to the parish priest. He lays open the story of his life after Dingo’s betrayal and of his ambiguous relationship with his half-brother Pablo Zácaro whose birth prompted Juan’s mother to commit suicide. Afterwards, Juan at the same time wanted to be near his handsome, happy and independent little brother and to see him removed from his world for good. Grown-up Juan tried to tie Pablo to himself and to draw him into his own misery marrying his bride, but his brother didn’t react as expected.

The narrative perspective of Celebration in the Northwest is that of an unconcerned third person who knows Spanish rural society and the soul of the main protagonist inside out. Although the author doesn’t bring it to the usual bloody end, it’s clearly a post-war variation of the story of Cain and Abel from the Old Testament that skilfully juxtaposes the personal account of Juan, the wealthy though unhappy legitimate son embodying Cain, and an outside view of Pablo, the poor though happy illegitimate son representing Abel. Thanks to the focus on Juan’s memories and mixed emotions, he appears as a character with great psychological depth trapped in weakness and suffering. At the same time, the novel is a celebration of death as most important reality of life that becomes integral part of the story through the run-down little boy of the frame plot and through Juan’s late mother who both find their last resting-place in the village cemetery in the Northwest to which the title of the novel refers. The style of the narrative is dense, evocative and lyrical; its language that employs impressive images, metaphors, and symbols is unpretentious and powerful. The book drew me in immediately.

Reading Celebration in the Northwest by Ana María Matute gave me immense pleasure although as usual I couldn’t help struggling a little with the Spanish original. Overall, I experienced it as a very engaging and beautifully written short novel and character study of an utterly unhappy man who finally recognises and faces his faults. I must admit that the sibling rivalry that evokes the ancient theme of Cain and Abel was less important to me than the really succeeded exploration of how we all are architects of our own happiness or misery and of the beneficial or detrimental role that our environment plays in the process. In addition, the book allowed me another short glimpse into Spain after the Civil War. It’s definitely a classic that deserves more attention outside its country of origin and therefore I’m happy to be able to recommend it highly.

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  1. After my great reading experience with The Time of the Doves, I have wanted more Catalan literature. I will look for this one. Another Cain and Abel-based novel I have loved is East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

    1. I never read East of Eden although I own a copy. I don't quite know why, but it has remained in my TBR pile for the past twenty years or so.

      I hope that you can find somthing by Ana María Matute... I saw that most of her books(including Celebration from the Northwest) are out of print, but used copies are available.


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