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Recensión crítica de «Black Air» e «Winter Letters» as traducións inglesas de «Aire negro» e «Cartas de inverno», de Agustín Fernández Paz

A páxina Complete Review publica unha recensión crítica de M. A. Orthofer sobre as novelas Black Air e Winter Letters de Agustín Fernández Paz, traducida por Jonathan Dunne e publicada en inglés por Small Stations dentro da colección «Galician Wave».


Black Air

Black Air is narrated by Victor Moldes, who here finally looks back at the events from three years earlier that have haunted him ever since: he hopes that writing it all out, recounting what happened, might be cathartic and freeing.
Obviously something bad happened — something really bad — and Fernández Paz does a nice job in leading up to what that was. The introductory present-day warning already serves to put the seeds in the reader’s mind, but Fernández Paz still manages a proper build-up on the seemingly benign, slowly adding the creepy elements in carefully leading to Victor’s abyss.
What Victor looks back to is his first job at a psychiatric centre on the Portuguese border, a job the promising student gets not because he is the best-qualified — though his credentials are very good — but specifically because of his: “enthusiasm for diverse fields of knowledge, the breadth of your reading, the fact you were so open”. The first case he is entrusted with — or latches onto — is that of Laura Novo, locked up in the isolation ward for three months now without any improvement in her near-catatonic state. The thirty-one year old woman had been a journalist and even published a collection of stories; she still writes now, too — but only the same words over and over and over again, filling endless piece of paper with her name.
Patiently Victor tries to chip away at her defenses and get her to open up. His method involves literature: he draws her out by reading to her, from great works of literature. And once she starts to be semi-functional again he convinces her to write an account of the events that led her here: writing as therapy, confession, and act of self-(re)discovery. (Just as now, three years later, Victor is writing about these traumatic events from his recent past — suggesting that his method didn’t work quite as awell as planned originally.)
Fernández Paz nests Laura’s account in Victor’s, her written recollection then taking up much of the middle of the novel. Her story seems harmless enough at first: she traveled back to Galicia, renting a room in a guest-house (unimaginatively called ‘the Big House’) owned and run by Carlos, who had been her teacher when she was sixteen (and whom she had had a huge crush on). She enjoys her time there, and gets along well with the other visitors — many of them friends of Victor’s — but the one person who doesn’t take to her is helping hand Moncho — “Moncho believes you shouldn’t be here, you should never have come to the Big House”.
Moncho might be a superstitious, uneducated local but, of course, Moncho is right. There’s a local legend — and: “there are other, similar beliefs in other parts of the world” — about something bad that can be woken from the depths and enter the world:

As you can guess, they’re the typical legends that have a veneer of truth and are told as if they really happened. The catalyst is always a woman. A beautiful woman depicted with red hair, probably because of its association with fire. Remnants of the Christian tradition. You know, woman as seducer and source of sins. Deep down you should feel flattered.

Or maybe not. In any case, bad things start to happen around Laura. There are plausible explanations — but there is also that implausible one …..
Laura even leaves the Big House, but she can’t leave it entirely, drawn back to it, and to Carlos — and, of course, to catastrophe.
Skeptical scientist Victor wonders about Laura’s account when he gets to the end of it. First of all, it doesn’t answer all his questions — there are some final missing pieces — but more importantly the rationalist in him can’t be convinced to take her completely at her word. And, after all, as a psychiatrist, he’s used to seeing everything as a mind-game: Jung and Freud and the others offer explanations galore for all the things we can conceive of ….. On top of that, Laura is a practiced writer, and:

I’m well aware how the reader’s credibility can be manipulated by someone who is skilled in this profession. After all, despite having published only a single book, Laura was a writer and she obviously knew how to effectively marshal narrative strategies.

Still, Laura seems all better after she’s written her bit. But Victor can’t leave well-enough alone, and has to try to find the final missing pieces; predictably, it does not go well.
Rather too often, in both Laura’s account and Victor’s, the characters point out that if they had just not taken a (usually unnecessary) additional step everything might have turned out fine — but they are inexorably drawn to take those steps. The reminders — even as pangs of conscience — aren’t necessary, and are the only things that drag the story down a bit, feeling too forced. But otherwise Fernández Paz spins his tale very well indeed. The roles of writing and reading — of literature, and the written word, abstraction and theory rather than real-world practice — are particularly nicely employed here.
A difficulty with such horror-novels is the nature of the evil, and Black Air‘s isn’t entirely convincing (Fernández Paz’s choice of appellations — as with ‘Big House’ — doesn’t really help either); a smaller, more specific myth and evil might have worked better here. Still, the novel is nicely rounded off, and certainly sufficiently unsettling — and Fernández Paz’s simple but stylish writing always a pleasure to read.

M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2015


Winter Letters

Winter Letters is a tale entirely in the Lovecraftian mode, and Agustín Fernández Paz doesn’t pretend otherwise: the epigraph is from Lovecraft and the master is quickly invoked in the story proper — “his tales fascinated me”, one of the characters reminds another.
The story is nicely presented, the narrative going three layers deep. It begins with Tareixa Louzao receiving a padded envelope from her brother, a well-known and successful writer named Xabier, whom she hasn’t heard from in some two months (which had made her anxious — it was unlike him not to write for so long). Inside the envelope is a letter from Xabier — and another envelope, which he asks her not to open. Instead, he instructs her to wait a week, and if she hasn’t heard from him by then she should bring the envelope to a police inspector he knows — without looking at the contents herself; “I can’t bear the pain you would feel”, if she does, he warns.
She doesn’t immediately rip open the mysterious envelope, but she doesn’t do or wait as instructed either. The next part of the narrative then consists of the contents: Xabier’s account of what has happened, as well as a pack of letters addressed to him from his close friend, the world-famous painter, Adrián Novoa.
Xabier explains that a while back Adrián had considered moving back to Galicia, hoping to find inspiration in his roots and the Galician countryside. Xabier happens to come across a small advert in a newspaper: “FOR SALE haunted house, no time-wasters or jokers”. They have a good laugh over that and Adrián takes down the phone number, but nothing more of it comes at the time — and Xabier soon takes up a cushy visiting lectureship in Canada for half a year, losing touch with Adrián and what becomes of him for the duration. Only upon returning does he find these letters of Adrián that recount was has happened in the meantime.
Adrián describes deciding to have a look at the house after all, and being completely taken by it: “It’s as if it has me under its spell”. He bought it, had it fixed up — and then settled in. Still, all the while, he can’t help but notice that the locals are very tight-lipped about the house’s supposedly ‘haunted’ nature:
They know something, of that I’m sure, because whenever I ask them about the house, they fall silent, a flicker of fear passes through their eyes. But they don’t say a word.
Fernández Paz nicely and effectively moves the story forward in these letter-chapters, from Adrián’s excitement about his new house to his discovery that there is something rather off here and his investigations, which pull him deeper and deeper into the abyss. Xabier only gets the letters all at once, and then rushes out to help his friend — dispatching his own final letter, to his sister, just in case, as he follows Adrián’s footsteps.
The final chapter has Tareixa dealing with the aftermath (though wisely enlisting the help of the inspector her brother had recommended), bringing the story full-circle again.
There is indeed something wrong with the house, and Fernández Paz presents this very well — with a little, increasingly creepy mystery (a clever twist found in the pages of a book), and a few glimpses that find the deeper mystery disconcertingly just out of sight and uncertain — even as it seems to be right around the corner. From an almost carefree attitude at first, the horror creeps closer and closer — but without clearly revealing itself. It’s a technique that isn’t easy to pull off, but Fernández Paz does so well.
This is a small story — barely a novella — and not a weighty one, but it is impressively well-crafted and -written (with translator Jonathan Dunne capturing just the right tone for the English version) and almost entirely satisfying. In fact, it’s a fairly basic horror-story — yet in its presentation and writing a cut considerably above most; it does Lovecraft justice.

M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2015

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