Thursday, 18 September 2014

'A Distant Father' by Antonio Skármeta (Review)

I've been lucky enough to review some wonderful books from Other Press this year, so I was happy to agree to try the book reviewed in today's post, especially as it's a fairly short work.  Of course, life gets in the way of the best-laid plans (as do other books...), and it spent a few months on the shelves before I finally got around to it.

Which, in a way, is great timing - it's only actually being published today :)

Antonio Skármeta's A Distant Father (translated by John Cullen) is a short novella set in Contulmo, a small town in Chile.  It's the home of Jacques, a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher, whose return home from teaching college coincided with his French father's departure from the family home.  Now, stuck in the dull town, alone with his mother in their small house, Jacques spends his days teaching whatever needs to be taught at the local school and his spare time translating poetry for a regional newspaper.

Desperate for a change in routine, he persuades his father's old friend Cristián to accompany him to the town of Angol, where in addition to buying a present for a student's birthday, he'll get the chance to let off steam at the local brothel.  The trip turns out to be a memorable one, and not just for the reasons you'd imagine.  While roaming the streets of Angol, he discovers something which will turn his small world upside down...

A Distant Father is a beautiful little book, a story you can read through in a single-sitting (I did it twice, a week apart), a work which evokes the melancholy of youth and small-town blues.  In a town where everyone knows everyone else, there isn't much to do, and people tend to move away once they're old enough.  With few jobs, and a train service which is threatened with closure, it's easy to agree with the comment that the world is not made for small towns.

Cristián is Jacques' link to his father, and his quiet friendship is one of the young man's few refuges from sadness.  However, the silent miller has his own ways of coping:
"Cristián is an assiduous drinker of red wine, and his apron is eternally spattered with purplish stains.  He always offers me a glass, which however I always decline.  Drinking alcohol makes me sad."
p.18 (Other Press, 2014)
With alcohol only exacerbating his melancholy, Jacques needs other ways to escape from everyday life.

One of these escapes is language and literature.  Thanks to his father, Jacques is able to speak French, and he supplements his income by translating simple poems for a regional newspaper.  Hoping to fool people into thinking his trip to Angol is on business, he takes along his latest literary project:
"And so I've brought along a book by Raymond Quenau that the editor of the newspaper wants to publish in installments.  Prose is easier than poetry, but I do get all caught up in the fates of the characters.  Maybe that's because so little happens here.  We're secondary figures, not protagonists." (pp.31/2)
Again, Jacques is struggling with life away from the bright lights, living an urban life vicariously.  The book, by the way, is Zazie dans le métro, a novel about a provincial teen in the big city...

While it's a novella, A Distant Father works very much like a play.  Its short chapters act as scenes, and the simple, direct prose leaves much to the imagination.  There's a clever plot which is skilfully built up, with secrets involving birthday boy Augusto Gutierrez and his beautiful sisters Elena and Teresa.  The clues are there if you know where to look, but I'd rather not say too much more - I don't want to spoil it for you...

In short, this is a great little book with a lot to uncover in its few pages, and while I'm reluctant to give the game away, I'll provide you with one last hint.  The cover of the Other Press version has more to do with what happens than the title; the original title was Un padre de película, and the cinema entrance on the cover is a nice touch (I especially like the way the Other Press logo is used as door handles!).  OK, that's more than enough from me - go and read it ;)