Friday 2 November 2007

Quality, not just quantity

Not listed yesterday, but high among recent pleasures: the many rewarding hours spent with a big, fat novel by Almudena Grandes. I’d resisted her books without too much difficulty, although the English translations are all over the UK best-seller lists and the 3-for-2 bins in the chain bookshops. ‘More Iberian ardour’ [!!], said a Financial Times review of the fat novel in question, Los Aires Difíciles - The Wind from the East, in English translation by my favourite literary translator from Spanish, Sonia Soto [no link for Sonia Soto – bloody typical], while The Guardian described it as a ‘classy blockbuster’. Tssk, it’s so much more than that! A friend brought this back for me from a recent trip to Spain, and what a long, slow, delicious read it is. Now I've finished, I want to start right over and linger longer in this gentle, deep, detailed portrait of sorry, twisted but ultimately endearing psyches.

Detail: so difficult to sustain without being boring. This is so detailed it takes 800 pages to tell the tale, and every word of that, to my taste, is worthwhile. Long, deep back-stories building up into a meticulous tableau of people and place. It’s like a slow build-up of paint, a group portrait in oils. Extraordinary really that it is maligned as a ‘blockbuster’, impressive only for its size. A novel of serious ideas is not supposed to be this rivetingly readable?

It's a very still book. Still figures in a landscape - the broad, sandy beaches of the Cadiz coast. Still figures pondering the stories, the inexorable patterns, of their lives. Can the levante, the hot, dry, sometimes maddening East wind that blows on that coast, scour out the patterns of the past and make a space for new beginnings?

I’ve been flicking through the book in search of a paragraph to quote in illustration of what I liked so much. But I’d be quoting from just one layer of this long, patient build-up of pigment, and would give no indication at all.

Perhaps that passage where Maribel has been stabbed by her vile ex-husband? Where Sara, throughout their motorway dash to the hospital, see-saws between angry disbelief and despairing resignation?

No, the whole impact of this fast, dramatic scene is that it bursts upon a long, quiet stream of story. To understand how good this novel is, you have to read it, plunge right in and spend some time.

So I gave Andy the idea of trying this - worth it already then!

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