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Salvador Reyes: Mónica Sanders

Mónica Sanders, the eponymous heroine of this novel, is not mentioned till around page 100 (out of around 290 pages) and does not appear for another thirty pages. Though the book is, of course, about her, it is more about Julio Moreno. Moreno is the captain of the Alcatraz, a whaling ship that sails out of Valparaiso. He started his career in whaling ships and then worked on a shipping line that sailed between Antwerp and Valparaiso. He had not had much time for women but decided that one day he would settle down. He meets Patricia and, as he has some money put away, buys a small house in Valparaiso. Patricia is a respectable woman and will not let him sleep with her. When he proposes and she accepts, she still maintains that they should wait till marriage but Moreno feels offended and breaks off the relationship. Since then he has had no serious relationships with women.

The story starts during a whale hunt. A force 8 gale is blowing but the ship has sighted a whale and is tracking it. The small crew is very well disciplined and organised and all respect Moreno. However, the boatswain, one Bernardino Rubio, has a history. He had been a good sailor but then his ship has been shipwrecked and he was the sole survivor. His girlfriend had later died and he had been wrongly arrested and imprisoned for theft. As a result of these misfortunes, he turned to drink. Moreno has decided to give him one last chance. However, he has smuggled some alcohol on board the ship and is drunk at the key moment and they lose the whale. Though they manage to catch other whales, Rubio is fired. On the next trip, the fleet owner tells him that they have to take a journalist on board. Percy Roy is the son of a rich Englishman. However, his father lost his fortune and Percy was left with a house in Valparaiso but no money. His youth had been spent on a life of ease, including wine, women and song as well as travel. Now he has to make his own living as a journalist. Moreno checks up on him and finds out that he is not a bad man and that he is married to Mónica Sanders, also from a rich English family that had gone broke. She had had numerous affairs when young and rumour has it that she still does.

Moreno gets on with Roy, even though Roy says he thought it would be fairer if the whales were armed and could defend themselves. Indeed, he generally seems to prefer animals to humans. Despite all this, the whale hunt goes well and Moreno and Roy become friends. Roy invites Moreno to his house where he and we finally meet Mónica Sanders. Mónica Sanders likes going out, Roy does not, so Moreno accompanies her and, inevitably, they soon become lovers. Meanwhile, Bernardino Rubio has reverted to his old drinking habits and meets Crisostomo Montoya, known as Cara de Doctor [Doctor Face]. Montoya persuades Rubio that he has been badly done by and suggests that they both attack Moreno one night. They attack him when he is on the way to meet Mónica Sanders. Though he is hurt, Moreno fights them off and gets hold of Rubio, hits him and then lets him go. His men find out the identity of Cara de Doctor but they also see him talking more than once to Percy Roy. Did Roy set up the attack? Meanwhile, Don Santiago Avendaño, owner of the whaling company, is selling out to a company that will hunt whales in the Antarctic, as it is becoming more and more difficult to find whales off the coast of Valparaiso. Moreno is not sure whether he will go but, when he hears about Roy’s possible involvement, he is not sure whether he should stay with Mónica Sanders.

As I said above, though the title indicates that the book is about Mónica Sanders, it is much more about Julio Moreno. Can a man devoted to the sea, as he is, have a normal relationship with a woman, including marriage and children? Should he even try? Julio Moreno seems at his happiest when he is at the Lifeboat Restaurant with his friends, eating and drinking and, of course, when he is on the whaling ship. Moreover, there is no doubt that Reyes’ love for the sea and for everything to do with sailing is foremost here. Yet, there is that lingering doubt in the mind of both Reyes and Moreno. Should there not be something else? Whatever your views on the matter, Reyes tells a fine tale in the Conrad tradition. And, sadly, you can read it in French and Spanish but not in English.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish in 1951 by Zig-Zag
No English translation
First published in French in 1962 by Plon
Translated by Laure Guille-Bataillon