Lorenzo Mediano's The Frost on his Shoulders (translated by Lisa Dillman, review copy kindly sent by Europa Editions) is a novella set in the Pyrenees shortly before the Spanish Civil War. The story begins when the inhabitants of the small mountain village of Biescas de Obago become aware of an article in a regional newspaper, dredging up old history and besmirching the name of the town. Infuriated, they charge the local teacher with writing a response to the article, determined to refute the allegations made. The teacher takes on the task, but is reluctant to do so for several reasons: firstly, he knows full well that it's a waste of time; secondly, he also knows that the article is much closer to the truth than the tales spun by the villagers.
After fulfilling his useless task, the teacher then decides to secretly write down what really happened, the story of a young shepherd boy, Ramón, and his wealthy beloved, Alba. It's a story of star-crossed lovers, two young people who can never be together - not because of any animosity between the families, but because the very idea of love straddling the social divide is so dangerous that it could tear the whole village apart...
The Frost on his Shoulders is a fascinating story of what happens when one man decides to stand up against what fate and tradition have decreed to be his future. Although it starts a little slowly, what begins as a potentially predictable story of thwarted lovers soon becomes something much more than that, a tale of history at a crossroads. The teacher explains to his audience that:
"...it's all well and good for a shepherd to be able to count, so he can tell if any sheep are missing, and the fact that everyone here can sign his name lends our town a bit of prestige; but that's enough. Because any more than that and people start dreaming, wishing things were different than they are..." p.36The way they are is, to be honest, feudal. A handful of wealthy families own all the land surrounding the village, and anyone not lucky enough to be an heir to one of these houses is a nobody, a possession. The local workers are bound by unwritten rules, stuck working in the same place and unable to marry as they are needed to labour for the rich families. Even if they were, the local tradition of disposing of many female babies at birth (women are only needed for producing heirs...) ensures that there aren't enough women to go around.
Against this background then, the slightest sign of insubordination is seen as a threat, a challenge to the status quo, and our story bears this out. Ramón, educated above the normal degree for a rural worker, decides that he wants to rise above his station, earn money and marry the delicate, beautiful Alba, heiress to the richest house in the area. The ruling class decides that he must be crushed, denying him the opportunity to work, but as Ramón undergoes immense hardship in the mountains to make it on his own, the undertrodden villagers slowly begin to support him, seeing in him a role model, a symbol of change and progress - exactly what the landowners feared...
The story builds to a stunning, and slightly unpredictable, climax, with the reader willing Ramón on to achieve the unachievable, all the while knowing that the odds are against him. Allowing the young upstart to attain his goal will open a crack in the carefully-constructed social edifice which sustains the profitability and survival of the village against the harsh, unforgiving environment it is surrounded by. In a tension-filled village, with violence only ever a heartbeat away, it is inevitable that there will be bloodshed...
As mentioned earlier, the story is narrated by the teacher, an outsider who acts as a sort of guide through the alien culture of the villagers. He has had to adapt to a place where life seems stuck in the 1620s, not the 1920s, and he is our voice in the wilderness. However, it's probably best not to trust him too much... His version of the story is just as subjective and personal as that collected from the accounts of the villagers, and most of what he recounts is hearsay. He is, to say the least, more than a little biased ;)
I enjoyed The Frost on his Shoulders, but there was one thing I was confused by. The cover of my edition has a blurb on it, "A gripping piece of eco-fiction set in the Pyrenees Mountains", a comment which I initially found puzzling and rather superfluous. I had never heard of eco-fiction, and I really couldn't see any environmental influences in the book. Then, last night, I was flicking through a book on literary fiction (a work I've been slowly perusing for the last few months), and it all suddenly became clear.
Ecocriticism is a strand of literary theory which looks at literature from the viewpoint of nature, putting the environment, usually seen as merely the setting for events, in a central position. Instead of focusing on what the characters do, we look at how the environment they live in has shaped them, and The Frost on his Shoulders is a perfect example for this train of thought. Life in the mountains is hard, precisely because of the isolation and the extreme weather conditions, and the type of society which exists there has been forced upon the villagers by the problems the environment poses.
However, Ramón, while rebelling against society, is actually supported by nature. The harsh conditions make it possible for him (with a lot of hard work) to make a success of his life, and his upbringing in the mountains allows him to find food and shelter - and survive - in a place where many people would simply keel over and die... This idea of the book as a work of eco-fiction is new to me, but it's a very interesting one, and extremely apt here :)
"Try to understand, dear reader, that these innocent jokes, though cruel, are less so than life in the mountains; and if village women want to know every little thing you're up to, it's only because they lead empty lives; and if we make light of everything, it's only to keep from crying." p.39
I think that by the end of the book, anyone who tries The Frost on his Shoulders will know exactly what he means...