Posts Tagged ‘Ana Maria Matute’

Translated by Laura Lonsdale

Another of the books I bought in the New Year with my Christmas book vouchers, The Island by Ana Maria Matute is a delicate coming of age novel, that I first heard about from Jacqui at Jacquiwine’s journal.

Set on the island of Mallorca just after the start of the Spanish Civil war, this is a beautifully written novel, with images that linger long in the mind. The story is narrated by Matia, a fourteen year old girl, who having recently been expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress, has been sent to live with her grandmother. Her aristocratic grandmother is a watchful, domineering woman, and Matia is not particularly happy with the new arrangement. She has already undergone a lot of change and upset in her young life, her mother dead, her father has gone off to fight the war. For a while she lived with her father’s old nurse, then she left for school, and now she’s been sent to the island. There’s a subtle atmosphere of oppressiveness even at the start of this narrative, a growing sense of childhood’s end, a shadow ever present.

“My grandmother’s hands were knuckled and bony, and they had some beauty in spite of their coffee-coloured stains. On the index and ring fingers of her right hand jiggled two large, murky diamonds. After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private drawing room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false -she would inspect the white houses on the Slope, where the tenant farmers lived, or she would peer out to sea, where there wasn’t a boat to be seen, not any trace of the horror that fell from the lips of Antonia, the housekeeper.”

In Matia’s grandmother’s house lives her Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja, Aunt Emilia is an insubstantial figure, cowed by her mother’s domination of the household. Borja is a year older than Matia, a sly boy, capable of malevolent spite, he manages to always be on his best behaviour when the grownups are around. The housekeeper, Antonia, her son Lauro and a parrot complete the household. Lauro acts as a kind of tutor to Borja and Matia, following them around and keeping them company outside the house. Borja is spitefully cruel to Lauro, calling him ‘Chinky’ and seeming to hold some special knowledge over his head. Matute portrays this uncomfortable and unequal relationship well, the reader knows we are only just starting to see Borja’s real character.

The teenagers on the island all seem to have their own little ‘bands’ with whom they run around – I stop short of calling them friends, they are merely allies – for a time. Matia and Borja spending pretty much all their time together, have their band of hangers on too. This is summer, they all spend long hours outside, yet there is a darkness to this unfettered freedom, and bright, blisteringly hot summer days.

“A tiny green lizard came out from under a stone. The two of us remained very quiet looking at it. Our eyes were close to the ground and, from between the grasses, the lizard looked at us. His tiny eyes, like pinheads, were sharp and terrible. For moments it seemed like the awful dragon of Saint George, in the stained-glass window of Santa Maria. I said to myself: “He belongs among the men: the ugly things of men and women.” And I was at the point of growing and changing into a woman. Or probably I already was.”

Matia meets Manuel, an outsider, and feels instantly drawn to him. Manuel and his family have long been persecuted for their Jewish heritage. Manuel’s step-father killed by other members of their own family for his politics. This is childhood’s end for these teenagers and nothing is quite as it might seem. The story of Mallorca and these teenagers at this time takes place against a dark historical backdrop of anti-Semitic atrocities – the evidence of which still exists in the town square.

“From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost.”

Matute’s descriptions of the island and its landscape are beautiful, and yet there isn’t any feeling of idyll. This is a time of ancient hatreds and complicated allegiances – and a war is being fought not too far away. Borja hates Manuel and lets Matia know it, he is jealous of Manuel, when he learns there may be an unexpected connection between him and the powerful local landowner Jorge, who Borja clearly hero-worships from afar.

As the novel progresses, Matia starts to see things for how they are – how the real adult world is not a very nice place. Everywhere around her there seems to be betrayal or unkindness, the Fairytales she once loved so much are shown up to be lies.

This is a subtly lyrical novel, a coming of age story with a seam of darkness running through it.

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