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Clara Usón: Corazón de napalm [Heart of Napalm]

This is one of those novels where you start off with two completely different stories, told in alternating chapters, and you know that, somehow, sometime, they are going to converge, even if this initially seems unlikely. They involve completely different people and/or people who do not seem compatible with one another, different cities (one primarily in Santander, the other Barcelona) and different periods, late 1980s, late 2000s.

The first one concerns Fede (short for Federico) a thirteen year old boy living in Santander, though he initially lives in Barcelona. In 1984, Fede was just thirteen years old. He is no longer a child but not yet an adult. He is only a problem. Initially, Fede lives with his (unmarried) parents, Gabriel, known as El Chino, and Carmen, in Barcelona. Carmen comes from a very poor family and has little to do with them. Gabriel’s father is rich and, indeed, he gives Gabriel an allowance, though Gabriel works (sort of) selling expensive cars. The two are totally irresponsible, with drugs, alcohol and partying being their life. Indeed, Gabriel often takes Fede out when he buys his drugs. Gabriel supplements his income by shoplifting, of which he is proud.

One day, Fede hears the usual loud partying. When he goes downstairs in the morning, the place is a wreck, with empty bottles, overturned furniture and cigarette butts everywhere. He settles down to watch TV in the middle of the mess. Sometime later, his father turns up from outside. When Gabriel goes into the bedroom, he finds Carmen asleep with another man but does not seem too perturbed. Fede goes to the downstairs toilet. It is locked but this is normal as it will sometimes lock itself. When Fede opens it, he sees a man sitting on the toilet, a needle in his arm and dead.

The result of this is that Carmen moves out and Fede goes to live with her friend, Marilis, saying she will come for him later. She never does. It seems that it has been agreed with Gabriel’s father that Gabriel and Carmen will split up and she disappears from Fede’s life. Meanwhile Gabriel meets and subsequently marries Natalia and Fede goes and lives with them in Santander. He hates Natalia with a passion and the feeling is reciprocated.

Fede now turns in on himself. He does badly at school (but forges his reports), eats a lot and puts on weight and develops a love for Sid Vicious, the English punk musician (who could not play a musical instrument) who was part of the Sex Pistols, killed his girlfriend and died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-one. He is particularly fond of Vicious’ song Search and Destroy, which opens with the lyrics I’m a street walking cheetah/With a heart full of napalm.

Things come to a head when Natalia is arranging a fancy baptismal party for her new-born son. Fede decides to shave his head and so he is told that he cannot come to the church service. He is sure Natalia is keeping letters from his mother to him from him and decides to run away and find his mother. Initially, he does not get very far and when he does, it does not work out well.

Meanwhile we also following the story of Marta Valdés, an artist who lives in Barcelona. She had been hired by the celebrated artist Maristany, who is getting old and who has a tremble in his hands so he cannot paint. However, he still has ideas. Marta becomes his painter, putting his ideas onto canvas and they are sold as his. She is paid a salary, no commission. She gets on well enough with Maristany’s wife but then Solange, who works for ish dealer, moves in. The wife is moved out and Solange takes over. When Maristany is ill in bed, she fires Marta, with no notice, no redundancy pay, nothing. This was two years previously.

Marta struggles. She gets a job as a tour guide at The Prado in Madrid but lasts just three weeks. She now paints portraits for tourists and does some teaching but still thinks of herself as a great artist in the making.

Maristany has died and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art is to hold a retrospective of his work. She goes with a group of friends but when she is visibly upset, a friend of a friend, Juan, takes her to the café. She tells him the whole story. He turns out to be a judge but as he specialises in juvenile issues, he is not concerned with her possible criminality.

Her relationship with Juan is complicated though Solange does contact her to paint more Maristany paintings based on ideas he left. Inevitably both of these issues do not work out the way she hoped. Fede, too, has his problems when he goes to Barcelona looking for his mother.

Apart from two complicated plots which do converge but certainly not in the way that we might have thought and had, indeed, been led to believe, Usón raises other issues. Firstly, we have the issue of street kids. Juan is very much involved in this in his professional life but takes a keen interest in the matter, even outside work. We see several examples of what happens to them. Irresponsible parents clearly do not help. Marta, however, believes that delinquents cannot be reformed,

The other key issue is the role of art. Marta, in our eyes, would seem to be forging Maristany paintings. She would not agree. The first thing I want to make clear is that I was not forging paintings, I was painting Maristanys. While studying art, she had gone to great pains to copy faithfully famous paintings. She sees herself not as a mere copyist but as an interpreter, the same way an actor is an interpreter of a written text. For some reason that escapes me, this is not highly regarded in painting. The copyist is looked down on. Whether this is said tongue-in-cheek (by Usón – it certainly is not by Marta) is not specified. She does, however, claim that some of Maristany’s best work was the work she did for him and this is later confirmed after his death.

She mentions the example of a Raphael which for centuries has been hailed as a great work and then is shown not to be by Raphael but by one of his disciples. It is immediately downgraded. But has it changed? Is the work itself any way a different work? No, of course not.

She even has an idea of faithfully reproducing Velázquez’s View of the Garden of the Villa Medici and then hanging it in the Prado next to Velázquez’s work to see if anyone could tell which was hers and which Velázquez’s. However, she did not. I had to live and living is expensive.

This is a very clever and intelligent work. The plot is complicated and is certainly not obvious. Most of the main characters end up in a much worse state than they were at the beginning of the book. Usón raises several interesting ideas. Sadly, though it has been translated into French and Italian, neither this nor any other of her works have been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Seix Barral
No English translation
Fìrst published in French as Coeur de napalm by J.-C. Lattès in 2011
Translated by Anne Plantagenet
Fìrst published in Italian as Cuore di napalm by Atmosphere libri in 2020
Translated by Elisa Tramontin