Monday, 9 December 2013

'Uppsala Woods' by Álvaro Colomer (Review)

It's a big welcome to the blog to Hispabooks, a new publisher specialising in translations of contemporary Spanish literature.  I was lucky enough to receive a couple of review copies from them recently, and today sees my review of the first - which looks at a very weighty topic...

Álvaro Colomer's Uppsala Woods (translated by Jonathan Dunne) begins when Julio Garrido arrives home on his fifth wedding anniversary.  He's surprised not to be met by his wife, Elena, and looks for her all over his slightly eerie, cruciform apartment without success.  Until, that is, he opens his wardrobe and finds her slumped comatose in the corner.

While the drug overdose is not exactly unexpected (Elena once told Julio of an urge to jump from the balcony...), it's still a shock for the husband.  His wife survives the attempt, but now Julio understands the life that faces him in the future, one of constant vigilance.  It's a realisation which would try anyone, but Julio is hit particularly hard.  You see, he has his own issues when it comes to death...

Right from when I read the first page of the book in a sample, the style grabbed me.  It's an urgent monologue, a man in a hurry, only poor Julio's not really sure where he's heading.  Uppsala Woods is actually the third book in a loose trilogy on death in modern society, with this final book focusing on suicide.  It's not a long book, but even so, it propels the reader along at a fair lick, with some sections leaving you slightly breathless.

Julio is haunted by a childhood trauma, the death of a neighbour, and he has never really got over the event which was to shape his life.  The incident led to severe stress and several problems at school (some fairly embarrassing), leaving him with a special fascination with death - even if he's petrified of it.  On seeing a road accident:
"While others had crowded around the injured person, no doubt fascinated by the fact that death could show its face in such an ordinary place, I had gradually concealed myself behind the traffic light without being aware of my actions, and still today I am surprised that my legs could have taken me away from the scene of the tragedy without having received, directly at least, an order from my brain."
p.40 (Hispabooks, 2013)
Now that his wife seems to be moving towards the realm of death, Julio feels his own life spiralling out of control.  It's a state of affairs which is unlikely to end well.

It becomes increasingly obvious as the book progresses that there were marital issues even before the suicide attempt.  Colomer discusses how marriages start to crumble from the inside, showing how, little by little, walls (and padlocks) appear between two people, as Julio muses about a lack of sex, distance on the sofa in front of the television, and even a reluctance to use the bathroom together.  With the marriage on rocky ground before Elena's overdose, afterwards Julio slowly begins to unravel.  His initial measured tone slips, and he becomes prone to anger, shouting and fits of rage (to the point of causing himself chest pain).

The novel has a wider significance than a marriage breakup though - it's also a look at the way society copes (or doesn't) with mental illness and suicide.  For fear of the 'disease' spreading, people attempt to minimise the risk by covering up the signs.  In fact pain is all too common, much more prevalent than we like to think.  When Julio observes the people in the streets on their way to work, he muses:
"Sometimes, when I focus on their faces, I notice a strange look in their eyes.  Perhaps they are sad, or absent, possibly they don't know where they are going, I sense these emotions because I have acquired a sixth sense for grasping pain, a human being's deep, authentic, insurmountable pain, and I only need to pay attention to their pupils to realize they are gagged by frustration." (p.87)
The struggles of life are obvious wherever Julio looks...

As he begins to lose the plot, fearing he is unable to prevent Elena from trying again, the parallel story of the discovery of the tiger mosquito Julio has been looking for becomes more important.  Heo attempts to immerse himself in his scientific work, even if his imminent breakthrough couldn't have come at a more inopportune time.  There's an obvious handy parallel between the spread of the mosquitoes and what he sees as the increase in the number of suicides, but is his work enough to distract him from his home troubles?

Uppsala Woods is a book I really enjoyed, a gripping read and an entertaining and thought-provoking look at the effects of modern life on our will to live.  The title though has a slightly older origin.  Colomer explains it on the very first page, in a preface which talks of a wood in ancient Viking Europe - a place for the old and weary to dispose of themselves before they became a burden on their communities...

Of course, this is something present-day societies prefer not to discuss, but in his novel the writer forces us to confront an uncomfortable question: is the image of the old swinging from trees such a terrible one?  Or is it worse to see drug-addled depressives forcing themselves to work on the train each day, just waiting for the courage to put an end to it all?  I'll leave you to ponder that one...