Lucia Etxebarría: Un milagro en equilibrio [A Miracle in the Balance]
This book won the Planeta Prize in 2004, presumably, at least in part, because it is written by a woman who had something of a reputation as an iconoclast, writing about alternative sexualities and drug usage, but who is now writing about motherhood. Eva Agulló is a woman who has very much experimented with sex and drugs. Indeed, the books starts off with the usual schoolgirl crushes, in particular that she and her friend had on a teacher, who turns out to be gay. (He later died of cancer but Eva feels that he effectively killed himself because he could not face being different in a Spain where conformity, particularly sexual conformity, was considered essential.) Eva’s life as a young adult involved lots of drugs and alcohol, as well as casual sex (though she was careful to take precautions). All this changed when she became a mother. Fairly early on in the book, she starts writing a long letter to her new-born baby, Amanda, describing in some detail her early life, her problems with being a mother and how she has become what she has become. Indeed, the subject of this book can clearly be seen as something of a Bildungsroman, namely how Eva became what she is and how she is dealing with this.
We learn a lot about what Eva thinks of herself. Indeed, this is, not surprisingly, the main topic of this letter/journal that she is writing. She calls herself a control freak (she uses the English expression), saying that she needs things in their place and a certain amount of order in the chaos of her life. (Muchas veces pienso que esto responde a una necesidad desesperada de ordenar el mundo: ya que aquel en el que vivía siempre me pareció inordenable [I often think that this is a response to a desperate need that I have to order the world, given that the one I live in also seems to be incapable of putting in order.]) It is here that we learn that she is, by profession a writer, the only thing, she claims that she can do effectively.
She had started writing when young and had continued to do so. It started with stories and small competitions. After university, she went into editing and then into ghost-writing (helping a celebrity write a book called How to Win the Boy that You Like, publisher’s reader and writing an advice column in a magazine for teenagers). She wrote three novels but all were turned down. She wrote a book for a series aimed at women, in which there were testimonies from women in various situations. The first three had been on prostitutes, victims of abuse and anorexics. She was asked to write one on drug addicts. She interviewed a variety of woman drug addicts, from street junkies to posh cocaine-sniffers and the book was published. She herself, of course, had a lot of experience of drug use but had to maintain the fiction that she was writing merely as journalist and not as former or current user. To her surprise and the surprise of everyone else, the book was a huge success. As a result of this success, when she became pregnant, she was asked, not only by the publishers but by some of her readers, to write a similar one on pregnancy and childbirth. But, as she says, who wants to publish or read a book which has such sentences as Hoy me he levantado con una náusea pegajosa en el estómago, como si me hubiera comido un kilo de toffees. Además, me dolía cada hueso de mi cuerpo. [Today I got up feeling sick to the stomach, as though I had eaten a kilo of toffees. In addition every bone in my body was aching]? She had been recommended a book by Carme Riera on just this subject, called Temps d’una espera [Waiting Time]. Riera had painted her pregnancy as a joyous experience, not mentioning early morning sickness, aching limbs and so on. When Eva wrote to Riera to ask her, Riera admitted that she had suffered as other women had but she did not want her daughter to read about that aspect but only the positive side. However, Eva continues to research the subject. Why, she wonders, is one of the two key events of life (i.e. birth and death) found in literature and the other rarely? So she reads the usual magazines and devours practical books on the subject. She ends up writing this letter/journal, which, she accepts, may one day be published.
The letter/journal deals, inevitably, with all the usual issues of childbirth, from oxytocin to breast-feeding (and breast size – she has large ones), from how to deal with crying babies to postnatal depression. She gets a list of the likely fallout from childbirth, issued by the local authority, including stress, depression, guilt complex, isolation, lethargy, irritability, insomnia, dietary problems – the list goes on. She worries about the changes to her body. (When a friend later asks her how long does it take for woman’s body to get back to where it was before pregnancy, she replies Never) but it is not all about childbirth and child-rearing. We start to learn more about her life. Two of her schoolfriends have gone on to success. In particular, David Muñoz has become a soap opera star. His soap is sponsored by a strongly religious company. One day, Eva had been with him at a club (he was married) and he had his arm round her and the two of them seemed quite happy. They had been photographed by a scandal magazine, Cita which implied that they were having an affair and that they were both doing drugs. The fallout for both is huge and, eventually, Eva sues. She gets swamped by paparazzi, offered various TV appearances and offered a large sum for being photographed nude.
Things change when her mother contracts pancreatitis, not least because we now get a detailed history of her mother and of her family (two sisters and a brother) and their inevitable not always straightforward relationships. All this time, we have known that she had a husband or, at least, a father to her daughter, who is living with her and helping to take care of Amanda. However, we knew little about him, not even his name. She now tells the story of how she went to the United States and her adventures there, including living with the Famous Black Musician, health problems related to alcoholism (and, to her, the surprising cost of health care in the United States) and how she met Anton, a Romanian and the man who will be the father of her child. Inevitably, she regrets not knowing her mother better and she finds out some family secrets and, as this is a Spanish novel, there is, of course, a Civil War connection.
Eva’s problem, like the problem of many heroes and heroines of novels, is that she is not sure who she is or where she is going. This starts from her childhood when as she somewhat bitterly points out, even her names are not her own. Eva is her mother’s name and Asunción, her second name, is her elder sister’s name (though she is known as Asun). (This partially explains the fairly unusual name of Amanda for her daughter.) She drifts through life, pulled by sex and drugs, caught up in a failed lawsuit and a career that is thrust on her but that she does not really want. Even Amanda controls her more than she controls Amanda for, as many mothers will testify, the baby can often seem unreasonable and more than once she cries out I hate you and just manages to stop herself from shaking the child. It might be argued that this is a feminist novel, given that the most of the main characters are women, but I am not so sure. Eva ends up in a traditional relationship, looking after a child, while her female friends and relatives generally seem discontent with her life. Her two sisters have unhappy marriages. Indeed, it might be argued that Etxeberria is saying that the modern Spanish woman has it not much better than her mother and her grandmother when, as we learn, a woman could not sell a property, travel abroad or even visit someone in prison without the authorisation of her father or husband. It is something of a messy book and perhaps overlong, with her detailed discussions with her baby daughter and the long description of her family relationships but I certainly found it interesting if not always enjoyable.
First published in Spanish 2004 by Planeta
No English translation