Grand Tour #2 – Spain. Living’s the Strange Thing / Carmen Martín Gaite

From Portugal to Spain (my route through Europe is largely contiguous). I must apologise for the delay in posting this. I had been going to read a novel by Esther Tusquets that we had in the library, but it looked so unpleasant that I couldn’t face it. After some digging around online I settled on Living’s the Strange Thing (Lo raro es vivir) by Carmen Martín Gaite, translated by Anne McLean. Only it got lost in the post, hence my lateness.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Magda, I’m more confused every day. I know other researchers concentrate on their theme, get to the point and that’s it, they can separate it out from the rest. But I can’t. For me everything’s important.’

‘From the rest? What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know, I mean a bit of everything, like when what happens to me at each moment gets mixed up in my head with what happened to me before, and with other people’s stories, living, dead, ghosts, scenes from movies, everything folded up together in a mess, so much so that I say to myself: It’s not worth separating things out from other things, what’s the point?’

This is the gist of the book, I suspect, the connectedness of human existence (and the absurdity of being here at all, hence the title, which recurs like a mantra). Águeda is a 35-year-old woman dealing with the fallout from her mother’s death a couple of months earlier. The book opens with Águeda visiting her grandfather’s nursing home, where its manager suggests to her that she impersonate her mother (also called Águeda) so that her grandfather might see his daughter one last time. Meanwhile, her research on the 18th-century adventurer Don Luis Vidal y Villalba is stagnating.

If the first chapter suggests intrigue, that’s not quite what follows, and I suspect the experience of reading the book is an infinitely less frustrating one if you abandon expectations and let yourself be led by Águeda’s thoughts. Though it has a large cast of people and places, the novel’s focus is largely inward- and backward-looking.

The nature of the book makes it a very hard thing to write about, and all I feel able to do here is to choose a few individual moments to illustrate Martín Gaite’s oblique approach to storytelling.

The idea that Águeda (or any of us) lives in multiple worlds – in the present, in the past, in dreams and fantasies, in the world of films, and perhaps elsewhere too – is a beautiful one to me. There are close affinities between Águeda’s several worlds. She contemplates Don Luis Vidal y Villalba and his loyal servant Juan de Edad imprisoned in separate cells and unable to communicate with one another, and draws a parallel with her own relationship with her mother.

In the shower one morning, Águeda has an epiphany: she realises that she imagines Rosario, the woman she perceives has usurped her in her mother’s affections, with the features of Anne Baxter, the usurping starlet in All About Eve. I love this depiction of illogical logic. I can’t think of examples, but I’m sure I have allowed people’s resemblances to others to colour the way I view them.

Águeda is visited by the ghost of a dead relationship when she encounters an ex-boyfriend, Roque, performing in the street as a human statue. She isn’t sure it’s him and tries to engage his attention, but, being a human statue, he doesn’t respond. This meeting prompts her to remember that she fell for him because he was the embodiment of a man she had dreamed of, her real life at the mercy of her dream life.

The delicacy of the tapestries woven by our minds is another theme. In one chapter, Águeda writes that her memory of Tangiers is of a stairwell where her mother had to rest during a visit to the city during Águeda’s infancy. This is bound up with the memory of a self-portrait painted by her mother, and of a cruel lie told by Águeda that was intended to prompt a rebuke from her mother but failed to. When we most want to connect with someone, we fall short.

It’s hard to accept how incidental we are, our inability to convey to each other anything more than travesties of vacillating souls; and to accept at the same time the gestures and babbling we stubbornly use to try to get close to those we’ve supposed form part of our stories.

A lot of threads are tied up at the end – an unexpected message from the grandfather, a coming full circle – which is satisfying to the reader who likes neatness, but it doesn’t quite ring true. Surely the other worlds continue; they can’t just dissolve.

It seems appropriate, given the novel’s preoccupation with the difficulty of communicating with people, that I’ve done such a poor job of expressing why I liked it so much. It is very much worth your time.

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