Sunday 25 August 2013

'The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra' by Pedro Mairal (Review)

It's always good to see more publishers bringing out fiction in translation, and a recent addition to the fold is New Vessel Press.  They announced a starting half-dozen from around the world, and first up is a slim book from Argentina - although it's a work which certainly belies its size...

Pedro Mairal's The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (translated by Nick Caistor, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a book worthy of being New Vessel's first release.  The narrator of the story is not the titular Juan Salvatierra but his younger son, a man who lives in Buenos Aires working as an estate agent.  One of the reasons for his move was to escape from his father - or, to be more precise, from the gigantic canvas painting Salvatierra senior spent his life creating.
"I was supposed to be going away to study, but above all I wanted to escape from Barrancales, from home, and most of all from the painting, from the vortex of the painting that I felt was going to swallow me up forever, like an altar boy destined to end up as chaplain in that huge temple of images and endless duties with the canvases, pullies, colors..."
p.80 (New Vessel Press, 2012)
Years after his father's death though, our friend, together with his elder brother, Luis, decides that the unique artwork deserves to be brought out and shown to the world.  The brothers return to their hometown (and their deserted home) to find the painting and sell it to an art gallery overseas.  It's a unique creation, a tapestry-like picture which flows like a river, and there are sixty rolls piled up, one for each year of the artist's painting life...

...except that there should be sixty-one...

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra doesn't run to much more than a hundred pages, but it's a beautiful, well-written story.  The narrator initially just hopes to settle some outstanding family affairs, but in searching for the missing roll, he finds much more than he bargained for.  As well as discovering some interesting, unsettling and surprising facts about his father (and remembering the way the painting defined their relationship), he also starts to find out a little more about himself.

In fact, his search for the missing piece of the painting leads to a complete reevaluation of his life.  He decides to shut his office and return to his home town, cycling along old paths and walking by the river, the border between Uruguay and Argentina (which has its own role to play in the story...).  In effect, he is revisiting the past, adrift in a town full of strangers, where the train station is abandoned and overgrown, and his father's friends are long gone (or senile).

While his return allows him to see the town once more, it also helps him to learn more about his father, who is quite the enigmatic figure.  Juan Salvatierra was left mute by a childhood accident, and this led him indirectly to his artistic destiny.  An autodidact, his entire life was spent on one astonishing (lengthy) work.  However, when it comes to life outside painting, his son discovers that there was a lot more to his father than he ever realised...

The star of the show though is the painting itself - life captured and reflected on canvas.  It gives the son a sense of a blurred reality, and when he comes back to town, he starts to think he's in the painting:
"I looked at all this, asking myself so many questions at once.  What was this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes?  What did it all mean?  What could my father's life have been like?  Why did he feel the need to take on such a huge task?" (p.35)
One thing's for sure, Salvatierra truly wanted to create life's rich tapestry.  However, it's one which also contains many of the answers to his son's questions...

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is a beautiful, understated novella, a story which calmly unfolds in front of the reader's eyes.  It consists of short chapters full of elegant prose and measured recounts, but there are also plenty of little pieces of information which only later slot into their rightful place.  Nick Caistor's translation is partly responsible for the feel of the story, making the book smooth and a pleasure to read.  It would best be read slowly, allowing time for the story to develop at its own pace.  Alas, I fear that most readers (like myself) will devour the book in a sitting or two ;)

One book it reminded me of a little, both in its measured pace and its subject matter, is one of Peirene Press' class of 2013, Richard Weihe's Sea of Ink.  Both use the literary form to describe an artist and his art and both use short, concise chapters to great effect.  And, like Juan Salvatierra, Bada Shanren was a man of few words (in his case, by choice though!).

What Mairal has produced with this book is a painting like a story, in a story like a painting, and I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to see read it :)  It's a book I can heartily recommend, and one which I hope to reread at some point.  As I said at the start of the post, it's good to have new players in the translated fiction game - especially when they can produce books like this one.  More please :)