Espido Freire: Melocotones helados [Frozen Peaches]
Forty-five years before the present time of this novel, nine year old Elsa disappeared from her family home. An extensive search was carried out not only by her father, Esteban, but also by her brothers, Miguel and Carlos, and most of the men of the town in which she lived, Virto (all the place names in this book are fictitious). She was never found. Miguel and Carlos shared a pact never to forget her but, as the start of the book shows, she has been more or less forgotten by all her family, including those not yet born when she disappeared. However, she is remembered in one way. Two of the women who would have been her nieces, the daughters of Miguel and Carlos respectively, have named their daughters Elsa, meaning that Esteban and his wife, Antonia, had two granddaughters called Elsa to remind them of their lost daughter. Miguel’s Elsa is four years older than Carlos’, so she is known as big Elsa while her cousin is known as little Elsa. The lost Elsa is known as Elsita. Though most of the characters may have more or less forgotten her, we do not and Freire continues to drop hints about what might have happened to her, only to reveal her somewhat surprising fate at the end of the novel.
This is a multi-generational novel, following in particular, Esteban and Antonia, their two children and their grandchildren. Esteban had met Antonia before the war (the war, of course, being the Spanish Civil War). He had bravely approached her and they had become close. He, like many others, did not expect war and was surprised when it happened. When he went to work that day – he was a travelling salesman for a textile company – he found that the workers had locked up the boss. He thought of fleeing the country but found his documents had been stolen. So he joined the army. We are never told which side he joined but it seems clear that it was the Franco side. Initially, most of his job was administrative and he did little fighting. He became friendly with José, who told Esteban about his wife, Rosa, and the café they had and how he would develop it after the war. Later in the war, both men have to fight. Esteban kills a man. José is killed.
As the war is dying down, Esteban asks for leave and heads off to Desrein, a town he had never visited before and where Rosa lived. He manages to track her down and meets Rosa and her fifteen-year old daughter, Silvia (daughter from Rosa’s first marriage. Esteban thinks that the age difference between mother and daughter can be no more than fifteen years.) They ask him to stay, not least because, with the war ending, men are in short supply and they need a man to help them. The café is set up, with the help of Esteban and when he shows signs of wanting to leave, Rosa throws her daughter at him and even sleeps with him herself. Eventually, however, he heads back to Virto. We only learn the real reason for this at the end of the novel. When Antonia asks him what he has been doing all this time, he tells her that she does not want to know and, gradually, she forgets. He does not forget Silvia.
Antonia and her family had been well off before the war but were less so by the time the war ended. When her mother died, she and her brother inherited but he did better, being the man. However, Antonia and Esteban, now engaged, make a deal with him and they get a bakery shop in Virto while he and his wife get the house in nearby Duino (nothing to do with the town in Italy or Rilke’s Duino Elegies). Esteban and Antonia will run the bakery shop. He does the administration and selling, she does the baking, using a cookery book written in French and English, though she speaks not a word of either language. To their annoyance, they can never quite get the frozen peaches to work. Though Antonia does not know it, it was a special favourite of Silvia. However, when they grow up their two sons are not interested in running the bakery and leave Virto. Miguel opens a furniture shop in Desrein and Carlos follows him and becomes a bus inspector. The two do not get on but their wives do, though there is jealousy on the part of Miguel’s wife as, initially, Carlos and his family seem to be better off financially.
Despise all this back story, the focus is on the present day. Big Elsa has become an artist and has stayed in Desrein. Desrein has changed. There has been considerable immigration, some from elsewhere in Spain and but also from abroad. The result has been poverty and its associated ills, including crime, drugs and violence. The old town is still attractive. The outer area is not. The response to this has been the rise of cults. They have helped the poor, drug addicts and victims of crimes but have used them for their own ends and their own ends include an increasing amount of violent attacks on those that they do not like, for political, religious and other reasons. The attacks including physical attacks and cars and houses being burned. The police have managed to control some but not all these attacks. Gradually, the cults become cleverer and make alliances with the more powerful and limit their attacks but they are still very much a menace, particularly the major one called The Order of the Grail. One of their latest victims is big Elsa, though, initially, it is not clear why. It starts with blank letters, moves on to threatening phone calls (including death threats) and then attacks on both her flat and studio. She is advised to temporarily move out. At the beginning of the novel, we see her in Duino, where her retired grandfather lives. Antonia has died and he still lives with the maid/nanny (whose name we never learn). He and Antonia inherited the house in Duino when her brother died, without any children. Elsa had rather hoped her boyfriend, Rodrigo, would come with her but he has his job and cannot or will not.
Meanwhile, we learn that little Elsa has joined The Order of the Grail. She was an only child and had never really fit in with others. She argued with her parents and frightened off friends with her attitude. However, she seems to find her place in the cult with similar misfits, at least initially. She is and remains, however, a rebel, and the cult does not tolerate rebels, only unquestioning obedience. Things get worse and worse for her, till she is finally locked up by them. She manages to escape and is prepared to testify against them, a very risky business. Meanwhile, her cousin is struggling in Duino, unable to focus on her work. She misses her boyfriend but, at the same time, wonders about whether he is right for her. As her friend, Blanca, says, he has no blood in his veins. He may be decent, sensible, faithful and not use the usual lines that men use (Freire gives us a long list of them), but he lacks both passion and understanding. Indeed, the very conventional, strait-laced Elsa has been unfaithful to him a few times, looking for that passion he lacks.
We learn a lot more about Elsa and Blanca, with Blanca being the rebel friend to Elsa’s conventionality but Blanca, inevitably, has her own problems. Indeed, Freire condemns her as the typical artist – wearing black, sporting necklaces made of shells or bones, having several piercings and having a very dark sense of humour, in contrast to Elsa who is not outspoken, very sensible, not very ambitious and barely noticed in class.
This is a very complex novel, following quite a few characters who all have their own issues, caused by a mixture of their own characters and often unexpected external events caused by others. The problem, as Freire points out, is that no-one listens to other people any more. They are all very much wrapped in their own issues – Esteban still thinks of Silvia, Miguel dislikes his brother and his wife is jealous of her brother-in-law and his wife, Elsita does not fit in at school, nor does little Elsa, while big Elsa cannot decide what she wants to be or whether she wants the stability of Rodrigo or some passion in her life. The real issue for Freire is clearly that we are becoming more separate, more wrapped up in ourselves. The book both opens and ends with the idea that we will forget. There are, she says, many ways of killing a person and then there is forgetfulness. Olvidaron a Elsa tantas veces, tanta gente. A tantas Elsas. Simplemente pasó su tiempo, continuó la vida y su lugar fue ocupado por otras cosas, por otras personas. [They forgot Elsa so many times, so many people. So many Elsas. They simply passed the time, got on with their lives and her place was taken up by other things, other people.]
First published in 1999 by Planeta