Manuel Rivas: O último día de Terranova (The Last Days of Terranova)
Our hero is Vicenzo Fontana, an elderly man when the book starts, not helped by the fact that he had polio in his youth and, now in his old age, has had to revert to using crutches (The doctor says it’s post-polio syndrome). Vicenzo owns a bookshop inherited from his uncle and his father before that but he is now closing it down as the town is being taken over by developers and his landlord has declined to renew his lease. He put a sign on the door saying Total liquidation of all inventory due to imminent closure though he is having doubts about that (I should lie and write: Liquidation due to death of owner). However, wandering round the town he sees several other shops closing down and liquidating their stock.
The book follows his thoughts as he looks back on his life, with his time immobilised in an iron lung when he had polio being key. He spent some time in an iron lung and not only did his own experience affect him, so did the experience of the girls who are known as hunchbacks and who have to lie flat and straight the whole time but who, like many people in this book, our narrator included, rebel. We will learn much later how badly the Spanish government of the time behaved as regards treatment of the two conditions.
His father, Amaro, had been banned from teaching so when Amaro’s future father-in-law advised Eliseo, Amaro’s future brother-in-law not to become a fisherman like him, Eliseo’s sister Comba opened a bookshop, with her brother and husband, Amaro, becoming involved later. They illegally imported books from Argentina and France (in refrigerated trucks) to evade the Francoist censorship. Amaro was nicknamed Polytropos, one of the alternative names for Odysseus. It is not initially clear why he got this nickname but one man suggested it was because he was wily, though we later learn it was because of his university thesis on Odysseus. Father and son (Amaro and Vicenzo) initially get on well but Vicenzo drifts away from his father without any real reason, though presumably because he was growing up. They eventually agree to limit their communication to letters, when Vicenzo is living in Madrid.
Matias Loureiro Paz, also known as Dombodan was his best friend. They were born about the same time and Dombodan’s mother, Expectación, was the wet nurse for Vicenzo. Amongst other things they experiment with drugs together, something not wise to do in the Franco era. Vicenzo was briely in a band called The Urchins (named after sea urchins) and retains his interest in music and lyrics.
A good part of the book is about their anti-Franco stance. Amaro losing his job as a teacher, their importing books banned by the Franco government and their regular run-ins with the authorities are all part of it. The bookshop receives regular visits from the police to check for banned books, which have all been cleverly concealed behind innocuous titles.
Vicenzo spends time in Madrid where he is a fan of David Bowie and a drug user. He is there when Franco dies and for the state funeral which, of course, he avoids. It is there that he meets the multi-named Garua. she is also called Giuliana, Beatriz, Estela and a few other names. She is Argentinian and is fleeing from the Argentinian authorities during the era of the military dictatorship. One sub-theme is the horrors perpetrated by the military in this era and the fact that the Argentinian secret police is active in Spain, hunting down people like Garua, often with the assistance of the Francoist police. Garua comes back to Chor (where Vicenzo’s family live) and hides there. She will teach Expectación, now Vicenzo’s housekeeper, to read but Expectación will only ever read one book (several times) – Pedro Páramo.
In 2014, when the book started, Vicenzo is feeling despondent. What are you doing here, Mr. Fontana? Waiting for death, like everyone else. He has seen a couple hunting barnacles and when they seem to have fallen in the sea he summons the rescue helicopter, unnecessarily as it turns out. The woman, Viana, is heavily pregnant and, always the Good Samaritan, he helps her out when Crash, her boyfriend, disappears.
There is a lot going on in this book, which makes it such an enjoyable read. There is the political anti-Francoist, anti-authoritarian issue. Rivas makes his views very clear as regards Franco, the Argentinian dictatorship, the police and the greedy crooks (one sub-plot is the theft of religious artefacts from churches). There is a tribute to Galician culture – music, food, literature, language and customs. as mentioned there are various sub-plots. As the book is essentially Vicenzo’s thoughts, he ruminates on a host of subjects, including life.
The book is about a bookshop so literature is key. We meet a few writers such as Borges, Lezama Lima and a few Galician poets I must admit I have never heard of. However there are numerous references to a host of writers from Gombrowicz to García Márquez (another clown), from Lorca to Samuel Beckett, from Cervantes to Pessoa and many more.
As well as the characters mentioned, there are a variety of other colourful ones. Eliseo, Vicenzo’s uncle, is particularly interesting. He is gay when being gay was not a good idea in Spain. He was a surrealist, also not a good idea in Franco’s Spain. He has a vivid imagination, at times perhaps too vivid. The stories he told were happening. Were going to happen. He is not afraid to stand up for what is right, though it may get him into trouble. From Miguel the Tramp to Ramiro, also known as Sibelius, who can play Bach on the keyboard beautifully, there are other colourful characters in this book.
Rivas tells a superb story, seen essentially through the eyes of Vicenzo, a story which travels around, diving into politics, literature, local culture and, above all, lives well lived, despite the horrors of the political situation.
First published in 2015 by Edicións Xerais
First English translation in 2022 by Archipelago Books
Translated by Jacob Rogers