Tuesday, 22 October 2013

'The Swimmers' by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre (Review)

Frisch & Co. is a new publisher specialising in translated fiction, with all their titles appearing in digital form only.  I didn't have much luck with the first book I tried, but from the start, today's choice was the one I really had my eye on.  Reviews compare the book with works by Haruki Murakami, David Lynch and Paul Auster - and while those comparisons are fairly apt, this writer has a style all of his own...

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre's The Swimmers (translated by Lucas Lyndes, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novel in fifty short chapters, mirroring the fifty 50-metre lengths the protagonist swims three times a week.  Jonás, our water-loving friend, is a photographer who, after breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, takes a step back from his career, instead taking pictures for newspapers.

Recently, his time has been spent drinking, working part-time and swimming with his best friend, Sergio, and he has been content to let the world slide by at its own pace as he gets on with his life, one length of the pool at a time.  However, when his father informs him that his mother has disappeared, uncontactable for a couple of months, Jonás realises that something is very wrong.  You see, his mother is not the first person to go missing - and she won't be the last...

The Swimmers is an excellent novel, and the comparisons above are (to me, at least) fairly apt.  In Jonás, we have a very Murakamiesque protagonist, and the slow, measured build-up, with the action implied rather than confronting, builds the tension nicely.  The pivotal scene of the book towards the end is comparable to what Murakami does in both The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore - as is the ambiguous ending.

Jonás is a loner, who is simply not adapting to life in his new flat without his partner.  He's begun to retreat from his commitments, almost living just for his swimming and his lunches with Sergio:
"...because his whole life is strapped to his back and right this instant it takes up no more space than that backpack, he could go practically anywhere, he wouldn't be leaving anything that important behind, in truth there's nothing waiting for him, just that fifty-meter stretch across the water."
(Frisch & Co., 2013)
The one thing that allows him to feel in control of his life is the beautiful rhythm of swimming long distances.

The book can be seen as a subtle criticism of society, one where people no longer make the time to see each other.  As Jonás says to his father:
"And don't go obsessing over this thing with Mom.  There are thousands of families in this city who don't see each other on a regular basis, friends who lose track of one another, and that doesn't mean anyone's vanished into thin air all of a sudden.  I've had friends where if I fall out of touch or lose their cell phone number, if they move to a new place or change their email address, I've got no way to find them."
Tired, permanently stressed, he (like many of us) has no time for family and friends.  Modern life, well, it's rubbish...

While I talked about the Murakami feel of the book above, another novel that came to mind while reading The Swimmers was Saramago's Blindness, not so much because of the style but for the connection between the central ideas.  Like Saramago's contagious blindness, Perez Azaústre's mysterious disappearances seem to impose a bizarre new problem on a fairly normal society, with people gradually becoming more and more frightened as they lose contact with their loved ones.  As in Blindness, it doesn't take long everyone to start to panic.
However, it's also possible that the disappearances are merely an allegory - perhaps it's Jonás who's taking a step back from life.  The ever emptier streets and the uncrowded trains might just be a symptom of his problems, representing his gradual withdrawal.  The shadows he sees at the swimming pool, vague outlines lurking behind the large plate-glass windows, might represent the people he's left behind, or lost along the way.  Jonás is certainly nostalgic about his childhood and his lost love - perhaps The Swimmers is a reflection on the loss of contact modern life brings.

The style of the novel is beautiful with long, elegant, sentences mirroring the powerful, driving strokes of Jonás the swimmer (it's no coincidence that there are fifty chapters...).  The writer uses themes of water, light, shadow, heat and coolness to... well, I'm not quite sure, but I'm sure they're there for a reason ;)  The mentions of water are particularly frequent, as you would expect, and there seems to be a connection between the pool, the abandoned water park and the canvas Jonás' mother was working on, one that eventually makes sense.  Even so, it's hard to get your head around everything on a first read - it's a book which deserves to be reread.

I had a quick look around, but I couldn't find any other example of the writer's work in English, which is a surprise.  I loved this book, and it's the kind of novel that many other readers would love too.  Kudos to Frisch & Co., and Lucas Lyndes, on bringing Perez Azaústre's work into English; hopefully, they'll team up again in the future to publish more of his books.

And while we're speaking about the translator, there's a great little piece on the publisher's web-site, in which he discusses the process of translating The Swimmers, with particular mention of style and sentence length.  Anyone interested should definitely take a look :)