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Antonio Soler: El sueño del caimán (The Alligator’s Trap)

Our unnamed hero is Spanish but when we first meet him he is a receptionist in the Regina Hotel, in Toronto, and the longest-serving receptionist at the hotel. He will retire in six months. I’ve been living in this country, which doesn’t belong to me or to anyone else, for more than three decades.

We learn that it is not a very classy hotel because at least two of their regulars are prostitutes with their clients. The other receptionists get their kicks listening in. The prostitutes tend to be given Room 108.

One day, an old man, who has made a booking, arrives at the hotel. Our hero recognises him immediately, though he does not seem to recognise our hero. He is given Room 108. He is Luis Bielsa., a Spaniard, aged seventy-nine. They have a past. Bielsa had been involved in the Spanish Civil War, opposed to Franco. He had been tortured and kept in solitary confinement but had not given his comrades away. Bielsa had also been close to a man called Rojinsky, a Canadian, who had been in a Gestapo prison in France during World War II but he later committed a slew of robberies in Spain . Rojinsky no longer belonged anywhere. He never had. He was a foreigner.

While watching Bilsa and seeing what he does – he has got tickets for the ballet and seems to be in Toronto for a reunion of the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion, a battalion of Canadians who fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War – we follow his current life and, more particularly his past life and his connection with Bielsa.

His current life is fairly boring. He was married but my wife died six years ago. I didn’t love her. Well, I did, but not in the way that one is supposed to love a wife. I put up with her, I used her. Indeed, if he has ever loved anyone it was Vera, whom he knew in Spain. He lives in a small flat and seemingly lives a very mundane life. However, as there is an undercurrent of violence in this novel, we learn of a series of brutal murders taking place in Toronto and also his of his childhood when his stepbrother took great delight in shooting sparrows, which our hero had to pick up.

However back in 1956, he was a young hothead. Though much younger than Bielsa and Rojinsky, he came up with a plan to carry out an assault on the Bobadilla ammunition depot. Others were involved, includingVera and Sebastian Pasos, who now seems to be in Canada. Pasos hated Bielsa with a passion, not least because Bielsa seemed to be friendly with various powerful people. At the time Vera was our hero’s girlfriend but she seems somewhat friendly with Bielsa. The project is slow to come to maturity because of various delays, not least because Pasos spends some time in prison. We gradually learn that our hero spent nine years in prison, where he was tortured, presumably because of this project.

One of the key themes of this novel is memory, not so much Proustian memory, triggered by a madeleine, but rather how the person we were in the past is not the person we are now. He gives an interesting example of Phineas Gage. Gage worked on the US railways. Gage had had an iron bar which he would tamp down the sand and the dynamite they used to blast a path for the rails. One day he caused a spark which set off thr dynamite, which blew the bar straight through the front of Gage’s head. Amazingly he survived. However his personality changed. Was the pre-explosion Gage the same person as he post-explosion Gage? Yes and no. Was our hero of 1956 the same person as the Canadian hotel receptionist? Yes and no. I understood that it’s futile to keep our memories locked away like water in a bottle. It’s pointless retaining the memory of better times. It’s corrosive. It’s painful.

We gradually learn what happened in 1956-57, how the project developed and where it went wrong and, of course the consequences of the participants. We also follow the thoughts of our hero about his life now, his life then and how the two have interacted and continue to interact but also how he separates them. He thinks a lot about Bielsa, who still has not recognised him and whether he will let Sebastian Pasos, who is in Toronto and who always hated Bielsa, know about Bielsa and whether he, they or neither will confront Bielsa.

This is a first-class story – what actually happened in 1956, what he intends to do now, with or without Pasos (whom he helped come to Canada but whom he does not particularly like) and also the brutal killings taking place in Toronto. However it is the memory aspect and the trauma of events in 1956-57 and how, not surprisingly, they have coloured his life since, even if, now and then, he can bury them, that are fascinating. He has an excellent metaphor for it: I’m a man travelling on a train and that train is my life. I go through the carriages of my past, regressing, walking backwards while the train advances at full speed towards the future. A train full of people. Their faces become clearer the further away I get from the present. Those faces stare at me with penetrating eyes. He also adds I also belong to another world now. A world that isn’t this one. It’s not Canada or Spain. It’s a world that has only one inhabitant.

He has lived in Canada for nearly forty years , been married and had various jobs but the events that occurred in Spain in 1956 and subsequently may be temporarily suppressed but will never leave him and are reopened in full force when Luis Bielsa walks through the door of the Regina hotel, Toronto.

First published in 2006 by Ediciones Destino
First English translation in 2024 by Clapton Press
Translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles & Simon Deefholts