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Tomás González: La luz difícil (Difficult Light)
There are those novels that, fairly early on, you have an idea, or at least you think you do, where they are going. Then there are those novels that you have no idea where they are going. Then there are those novels where you have no idea where they are going and suddenly you are hit with a dramatic episode or statement which immediately indicates the direction in which they are headed. This novel is one of the latter.
Our narrator is a Colombian painter called David. By the end of the book he is highly successful and well-regarded. He is happily married to Sara and they have three sons, Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo. The family had moved from Bogota to Miami, where they had spent three years. They then moved to New York. At first they had a fairly cramped apartment, which made it difficult for David to paint in peace but then Sara had found a larger apartment overlooking a cemetery, where there was a room which could be David’s studio. The family was happy there. Then we learn that the family had scheduled the death of Jacobo for that night.
Jacobo was in a taxi, driven by a Sikh, Preet. The taxi was hit by a pickup driven by an intoxicated junkie at the corner of Sixth Street and First Avenue, less than four blocks from the apartment, and I, and Sara, and all of us, were plunged into the deepest hell.
Jacobo was badly injured, though Preet was unharmed. He has numerous operations and treatments but all of them leave him in considerable, usually unbearable pain. They try conventional and unconventional treatments but nothing works. When Venus arrived on the scene and was able to give him special massages, he initially felt better but the effect did not last long and, while her massages did help, they were not the solution. However, she did become his girlfriend. Jacobo is in a support group, where he meets Michael and it is from Michael we learn of the intensity of the pain, with graphic descriptions.
The latter part of the book is written in alternating chapters. One chapter has the now seventy-eight year old David back in Colombia. They had returned there, leaving the boys in the United States. Sara had died two years previously. He is going blind from macular degeneration and is writing the account of what happened in the period leading up to Jacobo’s death, with the aid of a magnifying glass and his (unhappily married) housekeeper. Ángela. While there is no sexual relationship between the two, there is a certainly a degree of closeness, not least because of her husband’s infidelity.
Jacobo has decided that he could bear the pain no longer and wants to die. It has been decided that Pablo will drive him to Portland, Oregon, so that he can see a bit of the country before he dies. In Portland, a doctor will illegally help him to die. We follow the events as Jacobo and Pablo cross the country and the rest of the family, including two US friends, Debrah and James, Venus and Arturo’s girlfriend wait out events. Preet, who visits regularly, turns up, unaware of what is happening and Michael, who has guessed what is happening, keeps in touch.
Phone calls take place between the boys and the family. The family tries to sleep but cannot. David goes out wandering round the streets. They get reports from Pablo on progress.
However, it is not all about Jacobo. David is a painter and he looks at the world with a painterly eye. Early in the book, he is painting the foam churned up by the Staten Island ferry as it leaves the dock and we get his observations on that. But we also see his observations on nature, particularly birds and trees. (He much prefers the Colombian ones to the New York ones.) Like many painters, he likes the play of light on surfaces but he also likes death and decay – horseshoe crabs crawling onto to the beach and dying (he does eight, and, by the end of the book, they are worth a lot of money) and a motorbike half-buried in the sand. González writes so well that we can see the paintings from his descriptions.
He also observes his natural environment as a painter. Outside their second New York apartment, there is a cemetery and he studies the gravestones. When he is out walking the night Jacobo is to die, he meets a Russian man(who, despite his accent, insists he is American). The man is carrying a large amount of second-hand LPs in the basket of his bicycle which he claims to have bought all over the world. He lays them out for David to see and González’s masterly description turns a mundane scene into a fascinating one. This will continue throughout the book.
As mentioned, in the latter part of the book he is seventy-eight. Not surprisingly, he meditates on old age but not necessarily in a negative way. He points out that his aunt lived to the age of ninety-five and was serene the whole time. Several times in the book, he comments on the gravestone, in the cemetery, of lady who also lived to be ninety-five. He may be going blind but he takes it in his stride and even decides to no longer go the ophthalmologist. In the future that looms before me I will be able to enjoy only the light of sounds, the light of memory, and light without forms.
This could easily have been a mawkish tear-jerker and, in the hands of a lesser writer, would have been. However, González is a superb writer and he tells the Jacobo story well but surrounds it with much else – his painting, his observation of the world, his family, his old age, his immediate environment and the effect of light on surfaces. All of this makes for a superb book.
First published 2011 by Alfaguara
First English translation 2020 by Archipelago Books
Translated by Andrea Rosenberg