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Monday, June 30, 2014

"Sin of Omission" by Ana María Matute

2014 is shaping up to be a terrible year for the literary world in Spanish. I learned last week that the world has lost Ana María Matute, master of realism and pithy short stories as well as longer works that expose all the ironies of society.

What better way to honor her memory than with one of her stories? This is my humble translation of perhaps her most famous. Enjoy.

Sin of Omission
Ana María Matute

His mother, who had been all that was left him, died when he was thirteen. When he became an orphan it had already been at least three years since he’d last gone to school, because he had to make a living here and there, wherever he could. His only relative was his mother’s cousin, called Emeterio Ruiz Heredia. Emeterio was the mayor and had a two-story house on the town square, round and reddish under the August sun. Emeterio had two hundred head of cattle grazing along the slopes of Sagrado, and a beautiful daughter nearing twenty, brunette, robust, laughing and a bit dim-witted. His wife, thin and as hard a black poplar, did not speak gently and knew how to take charge. Emeterio Ruiz hadn’t gotten along well with that distant cousin, but he helped the widow out of a sense of obligation by finding her odd jobs. Then, although the mayor took the son in once he was an orphan, with no money or job, he did not look on him with sympathy, and everyone else in the house felt the same way.

The first night Lope slept at Emeterio’s house, it was under the grain loft. They gave him dinner and a glass of wine. The next day, while Ementerio was tucking in his shirt and the sun had barely risen to the roosters’ crowing, he called down the stairs, startling the chickens that had been sleeping on the risers.


Lope came over barefoot with sleep in his eyes. He wasn’t very big for thirteen but he had a head that looked even bigger for being close-shaven.

“You’re going to be Sagrado’s shepherd.”

Lope found his boots and put them on. In the kitchen, the daughter, Francisca, had made potatoes with paprika. Lope wolfed them down, his aluminum spoon dripping with every bite.

“You know how it’s done. I think you walked the hills of Santa Áurea with Aurelio Bernal’s goats.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You won’t go by yourself. Roque the Medium shepherds around there, too. You’ll go together.”

“Yes, sir.”

Francisca put a loaf of bread in his knapsack, along with a small aluminum flask, goat fat, and cured meat.

“Get going,” said Emeterio Ruiz Heredia.

Lope looked at him. Lope had round black eyes that shone.

“What are you looking at? Go on!”

Lope left, knapsack on his shoulders. He picked up the crook, thick and shiny with use, that he kept leaning against the wall like a dog.

He was climbing Sagrado’s hill when Don Lorenzo, the teacher, saw him. That afternoon, in the tavern, Don Lorenzo lit a cigarette with Emeterio, who was throwing back a glass of anisette.

“I saw Lope,” he said. “He was heading up Sagrado Hill. Such a shame.”

“Yes,” said Emeterio, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “He’s a shepherd. He already knows he has to earn his own living. Life is hard. That poor bastard Pericote didn’t even leave him a wall to lean on or a place to drop dead.”

“The bad thing,” said Don Lorenzo, scratching an ear with a long yellow nail, “is that the kid could be something. If he had the means, someone could make something out of him. He’s smart, very smart. At school…”

Emeterio cut him off with his hand in front of his eyes. “Yes, yes. I’m not saying he’s not. But one must earn one’s own living. Life gets worse with every passing day.”

He ordered another glass of anisette. The teacher nodded in agreement.

Lope arrived at Sagrado and found Roque the Medium by calling for him. Roque was a bit slow and had been Emeterio’s shepherd for about 15 years. He was almost 50 and barely ever spoke. They slept in the same mud hut, under the oaks, taking advantage of the shelter under the branches. They could only fit into the hut bending over and they had to go in on all fours, half crawling, but it was cool in the summer and warm enough in the winter.

Summer went by. Then autumn and winter. The shepherds didn’t go to town except on festival days. Every two weeks, a young lad brought up “rations”: bread, jerky, lard, garlic. Sometimes, a wine pouch. The summits of Sagrado were beautiful, profound blue, terrible, blinding. The sun, high and round, like an unmoving eye, reigned over the land. In the early morning fog, when he couldn’t hear the buzzing of flies or any rustling, Lope would wake up with the mud roof before his eyes. He would stay quiet for a while, feeling the body of Roque the Medium by his side, like a breathing log. Then, he would crawl towards the corral. His shouts were lost, useless and grandiose in the sky, mixed in with runaway stars. Only God knew where they would eventually land. Like rocks. Like the years. One year. Two. Five.

Once, five years later, Emeterio sent the lad for Lope. He had the doctor examine Lope, who had grown healthy and strong, like a tree.

“What an oak!” said the doctor, who was new. Lope blushed and didn’t know what to say.

Francisca had married and had three small sons who were playing in the town square. A dog approached Lope with its tongue hanging out. Maybe it remembered him. Then he saw Manuel Enríquez, a schoolmate of his who had always been behind in his studies. Manuel was wearing a grey suit and a tie. He passed by Lope and waved.

Francisca commented, “Good career, that one. His father sent him off to study and now he’s a lawyer.”

When he got to the fountain, Lope saw him again. Suddenly, he wanted to talk to him. But his shout stayed in his throat like a ball.

“Eh,” he said. Or something like that.

Manuel turned around to look at him and recognized him. It didn’t seem possible: he knew Lope. He smiled.

“Lope! Hey man, Lope…!”

Who could understand what he was saying? What strange accents men have, what strange words come out of the dark holes of their mouths! A thick blood was filling his veins while he listened to Manuel Enríquez.

Manuel opened a flat, silver case filled with the whitest, most perfect cigarettes Lope had ever seen in his life. Manuel handed one to him, smiling.

Lope held out his hand. Then he realized how rough, how coarse, it was. Like a piece of cured meat. His fingers weren’t flexible, they wouldn’t play along. How strange the other’s hand: a refined hand, with fingers like big worms, agile, white, flexible. What a hand, wax-colored, with shining, polished nails. What a strange hand: not even women had hands like that. Lope’s hand fumbled. At last, he took the cigarette, white and fragile, strange, in his hard, heavy fingers: useless, absurd, in his fingers. Lope’s blood stopped between his eyebrows. A blood clot crowded quietly, fermenting between his eyebrows. He crushed the cigarette with his fingers and turned around. He couldn’t stay there, not even with Manuelito following him in surprise, calling, “Lope! Lope!”

Emeterio was sitting on his porch in short sleeves, watching his grandchildren play. He was smiling at his oldest grandson and resting from work with a bottle of wine within reach. Lope went directly to Emeterio and saw his grey eyes, questioning.

“Go on, boy, it’s time you go back to Sagrado.”

In the town plaza there was a square, reddish rock. One of those rocks as big as melons that the boys take from some fallen-down wall. Slowly, Lope took it in his hands. Emeterio looked at him comfortably, with a mild curiosity. His right hand rested between his belt and his stomach. He didn’t even have time to take it out: a muffled thud, the splattering of his own blood on his chest, death and surprise, like two sisters, came upon him just like that.

When they took him away handcuffed, Lope cried. And the women, howling like wolves, wanted to hit him and followed him with their veils raised over their heads, outraged.

“My God, the one who took you in. My God, the one who made you a man. My God, you would have died of hunger if he hadn’t taken you in…”

Lope only cried and said, “Yes, yes, yes…”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas

The Illusionists invites comparisons to the two magician films that came out ten years ago, The Prestige and The Illusionist. Like those films, this book delves into the behind-the-scenes lives and competitions between magicians and maintains an air of mysterious romance. From the beginning, the author finds magic and wonder in the sooty, hungry streets of Victorian London.

The descriptions for this book tend to focus on Eliza. However, Eliza is not the first character we meet. It takes quite a few pages to get to her, and she remains aloof for some time. This story is really an ensemble piece, with each character as unusual and well developed as the others. It's not long before the performing dwarf Carlo and the haunted magician Devil fall in love with Eliza. She's already being pursued by Devil's childhood friend Jasper, but the triangle is treated so subtly, it doesn't get stale. Perhaps the saving grace is that Eliza clearly favors Devil, but doesn't veer from her stubborn intention to take care of herself.

The reader roots for Devil's schemes and Eliza's goals and boos the bad guys off the stage. The author has done her research and has a talent for evocative detail. This is sure to be a favorite for any reader with a passing interest in Victorian England or the golden age of magicians.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Marriage That Sparked Rebellion, Sieges, and Battles

Urraca's royal signature 
Don't miss my post on Unusual Historicals today. In the category of "Happily Ever After — Or Not," Urraca of Castile and Alfonso I of Aragón may be the most Or Not in all history! No one wants to read about a happy marriage, anyway.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What's in a Name? — Guest Post by Author Claudia H. Long

Please welcome author Claudia H Long, author of The Duel for Consuelo, to the blog! Visit her blog once you've read about this fascinating slice of Spanish culture.

When a town's name is so awful, why does it take 1000 years to change it?

On May 25, 2014, the residents of the town of Castrillo Matajudíos, Spain, voted 29-17 to change the name of the town back to its original name, Castrillo Motajudíos. The first name means "Kill Jews" and the second can be translated as "Mount of Jews." (Mota variously translates as "speck," "mount" as a variation of monte, and as a slang for marijuana…)

The change led to some interesting discussions on the Internet. Excluding the trolls of various sorts, three themes emerged: first, what took them so long? Second, how did a town get such a name in the first place? And third, does changing the name white-wash the past or move the town, and Spain, into the 21st century?  All three themes reverberate in the history of the Spanish Jews and the Conversos, or forced converts to Christianity.

The Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492, at the time that the Muslims were expelled as well. Persecution had gone on for centuries, of course, but Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in an uneasy peace until the expulsion edicts finally put an end to co-existing. 

But not all Jews left the only homes they had ever known. Having lived in Spain for four hundred years, it was as much their country as America can be to any of us. Contradictory edicts made it impossible to leave, mandatory to leave, requiring conversion, denying the merits of the conversion, all with the drumbeat of confiscation of wealth behind the acts. So not only were Jews required to leave or convert, they often were prevented from exercising either choice.

The town of Castrillo Matajudíos was originally, back in 1035, Castrillo Motajudíos, when 65 Jews were slaughtered and the remaining Jews fled to that hill. Apparently the name was changed to Matajudíos in 1627. The answer to the question of why it was changed is not apparent, but theories are in two camps: First, that it was a slip of the pen, a typo if you will. Oops, Jews killed here. Second, that it was changed by the Conversos, those unfortunates who had "elected" to convert to Christianity rather than die a hideous death.

The timing would indicate that it was the great-great-grandchildren of the original converts who would have chosen this name, theoretically to "prove" their allegiance to the new religion. This is not as far-fetched as it seems today. Conversos and their descendants were fiercely persecuted. Any hint of Judaizing, or secretly practicing their old religion, was ruthlessly ferreted out by the Inquisition, which led Conversos to the practice of haciendo sábado, or "doing the Sabbath." This involved ostentatiously working on Saturday so the neighbors could see them, eating pork in public, and putting on other displays of Christianity. Naming the town after the killing of one's ancestors is only a small step beyond what we know the Conversos had to do to survive.

As to why it took so long to change, the mayor of the town opined that most residents didn't even notice the name, having lived with it all their lives. Only when they traveled abroad and were embarrassed by the name on their passports, or when the town tried to attract tourism, did they consider its offensiveness. It is often the ingrained prejudice we have that is so routine to us that we don't even notice it!

Should the name be changed? Does the change close an ugly 1000-year chapter or whitewash it into the mists of the past, a past we are condemned to repeat?

Claudia H Long

Claudia H Long is the author of Josefina's Sin and The Duel for Consuelo. Both books follow the stories of women in 1690-1711 Colonial Mexico. Consuelo is the daughter of a wealthy mayor and the descendant of Conversos who made their way to the New World as financial advisers to the Vice-Royal Court. She is torn between loyalty to her family's past and the desire to make a clean start without the taint of the old religion. Her longings are complicated by the Inquisition in its waning years and two men with secrets of their own.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Historical Inspiration in Fiction — Guest Post by M. C. Muhlenkamp

I don’t write historical fiction. I read historical fiction on occasion, and have come across both wonderful historical fiction books with the perfect mix of history and character development, as well as not so great historical fiction books with too much focus on historical details. But like I said, I myself don’t write historical fiction.

However, this doesn’t mean my books don’t have a heavy dose of historical background and research in them. Let me start at the beginning. I write science fiction and fantasy. That’s right. You might be wondering right about now, what role could history play in a science fiction or fantasy book? Well, believe it or not, historical inspiration isn’t only limited to historical fiction, it can play a great role in the development of other non-historical fiction stories.

Historical inspiration adds an extra level of depth to both characters and plots that would otherwise be nonexistent. It is so because historical events really happened and people in history really existed. Those time periods and the people that lived through them were real, their lives and personal stories were real, and their surroundings, struggles, and successes really took place. This source of knowledge is a gold mine for drafting compelling and relatable characters and circumstances in any story.

My latest science fiction stories, Markram Battles, don’t take place in ancient Rome. In fact, they take place in a future even more distant to ancient Rome than our current year. However, by drawing inspiration from the rise of the Roman Empire, its customs, beliefs, love for bloody entertainment, and prevalence of violence, I was able to create a more realistic environment for my characters to live in. Not only that, but by studying real structures of power, military, and empire expansion, I gained the tools to draft a more believable and compelling world.

Ancient Rome was the product of violence where military virtue played a key role in national pride and self-definition of an empire, and even though my characters aren’t Roman nor do they live in that time period, they too share a depth of similarities with this concept. This level of understanding between two seemingly unrelatable perceptions gives me the power to create something people can connect with on a deeper level.

Historical inspiration isn’t only found in historical fiction. Many other authors use it, adding that extra level of complexity to their books by drawing that inspiration into the shaping and development of plots and characters alike. 

Do you as a writer or reader enjoy historical inspiration in stories? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
About M.C. Muhlenkamp
M.C. (Melissa Carolina) Muhlenkamp was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. She is an avid reader, food lover, and slightly obsessive writer with a knack for learning. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter @mcmuhlenkamp