Almudena Grandes: Malena es un nombre de tango [Malena is the Name of a Tango]
Let’s start with the easy bit first. Yes, it is indeed the name of a tango. And, of course, it is also the name of the heroine of this book.
Magdalena Fernández de Alcántara – known as Malena – is a twin to the almost perfect Reina (Spanish for Queen). It is the first part of the book that is most interesting. Malena feels cursed. She plays second fiddle to her twin sister. She feels left out and awkward, wishes she had been born a boy. Even her mother does not fail to let her know that Reina is her favourite and the superior daughter. She does, however, have two friends. The first is her grandfather. It is he that gives her the valuable family heirloom – an ancient emerald – which, after his death has the family wondering where it has gone, little guessing that Malena has it. It is he that tells her the first part of her historical inheritance. The family is descended from Ródrigo Fernández de Alcántara, a conqueror of Peru, and an all-round bad character. Malena feels that she has some of his bad blood.
Her second family friend is also called Magdalena Fernández de Alcántara, though called Magda. She is an aunt who, while Malena is young, becomes a nun and then runs away from the convent. She has always befriended Malena and continues to do so, finally revealing the rest of the Ródrigo curse (among other things, he was gay), as well as other unsavoury stories from the family closet.
Of course, Malena grows up, falls in love (with a half-German, half-Spanish, motorbike-riding, jeans-wearing cousin calls Fernándo) and loses him. At this point the book seems to lose some of its piquancy. She marries, has fake orgasms, a disgusting brother-in-law, a premature baby (who survives), gets bored with her husband and watches quietly as he goes off with the perfect Reina, teaches English, finds out more of the dirty family linen from Aunt Magda. This bit we seem to have seen before. But, overall, the book is an excellent portrait of a woman struggling to grow up, struggling with a family curse, struggling to be herself.
First published in Spanish 1994 by Tusquets
No English translation