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Aline Pettersson: La noche de las hormigas [The Night of the Ants]

The legend of Iphigenia has been a staple of literature since the days of Euripides. Indeed, there is a book on this site (sort of) featuring her. Though her story is less well-known now, she is a key feature of this book. The story concerns Dr Alfonso Vigil. He is married to Elisa and divorced from Elba by whom he has two children. Elisa is a tapestry artist (though she trained as an anthropologist). In fact he met her when straying into an exhibition she was giving. She is currently making a series of tapestries called Iphigenia’s Wedding (in most versions of the legend Iphigenia was going to marry Achilles but did not). The couple have had a row and Alfonso has gone off to walk in the park, a park he used to play in as a child, when he hid behind a tree and pretended to be a knight. While out in the park, he is mugged, not only losing his wallet and watch but being stabbed in the leg, probably an artery. He is rapidly losing blood and he needs help but there is no-one to help him and he fears he is going to bleed to death. As a doctor – a neurologist – he is well aware of the consequences.

While lying there bleeding, he is reminiscing. He reminisces about Elisa and Elba, about his children, about his career (he decided to become a doctor when his older brother died of septicaemia and he wanted to know how to deal with it) and about his life. He also wonders how Elisa will feel when he is found dead in the wood. Who will replace him in her life? Who will take over from him in the hospital? Will it be Carlos Antúnez? They had been friends but their professional rivalry had driven them away from one another. He wonders about his son, whom he always found difficult to get on with, and his daughter, to whom he always felt much closer. Mixed in with his reminisces, Pettersson gives us a poetic and imaginary view of Iphigenia’s early life.

Above all, what we learn is that Alfonso is a man of science and therefore only trusts what he can measure. Subtly, Pettersson shows how this might have caused problems for him in his life, why he drifted apart from Elba and is now rowing with Elisa. Life for him does not, as Elisa says, hold any mystery, only what can and cannot be measured. This is not a matter of religion, though he does not believe in God, but a matter of understanding and appreciating what cannot be seen and measured. This is, of course, related to the mystery of Iphigenia and her sacrifice. This is a subtle but very well-written book about the different ways of living life. Sadly, none of Pettersson’s work has been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 1997
No English translation