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Almudena Grandes: Los aires difíciles (The Wind from the East)

Three people – Juan Olmero, his ten-year old niece, Tamara, and his mentally handicapped brother, Alfonso – arrive in a small seaside town not far from Jerez. They are moving into a new house, in a complex built for the well-to-do middle classes. They are watched by a comfortably-off, single woman, Sara Gómez, who has the house opposite and wonders about their relationship (as do we initially). This book will be primarily about these four people, who, of course, have something of a hidden past and who have all moved from Madrid.

Juan is a successful orthopaedic surgeon and, through a friend, has obtained a job in a hospital in Jerez. We gradually learn that Juan had two brothers – Damián and the aforementioned Alfonso – and two sisters. The family had grown up with Charo as a neighbour but Damián had married and they had one daughter, Tamara. We are told that Charo was killed in a car crash, while with Damián, and he had died some time later from his injuries. We later learn that this is not entirely true.

Alfonso was the last of his parents’ children and had been brought up as one of the family. He has a mental age of around six and can more or less cope with the world. Juan will leave him in a daycare centre during the week, while he is working in Jerez.

After their parents’ death, Damián and Charo had looked after Alfonso, not least as he was fond of Charo and she was fond of him. After the death of Damián and Charo, Juan, who is single, agrees to look after him, not least because his sisters each have children and one is divorced. He also agrees to look after Tamara. Because of the trauma suffered by both, but Tamara in particular, he thinks it is better to move away from the family home, hence the move.

Sara, too, has a past. She came from a large but poor family. When she was born seven years after her next oldest sibling, her parents struggled to cope, both having been traumatised by the Civil War. (We learn the details later.) Her mother’s employer, a rich, married, childless woman, agrees to look after her so she is brought up very differently from her siblings. Relationships between Sara and her siblings are not good. However, abruptly, when she is fifteen,her benefactress, Doña Sara, and her sick husband move away for a while and Sara has to move back into the family home. She is not happy about this.

When the couple return and Doña Sara invites Sara around for lunch, Sara is inclined to be bitter and refuse but her mother counsels her to take advantage of her relationship and she does, determined to gain her revenge against Doña Sara and her class. It is Doña Sara who pays for her to train to be a bilingual secretary.

Since then she has had no friends and only one serious (adulterous) romantic relationships. The only constant in the torturous path of Sara Gómez’s life had been her resolute intention to keep going, always keep going. However, the arrival of Tamara and Tamara’s friendship with Andrés, the son of both Sara’s and the Olmeros’ cleaning lady, Maribel, brings her out of herself.

Meanwhile we are following the past of Juan who becomes a successful doctor but loses his girlfriend, Charo, to his very entrepreneurial and more dynamic brother, Damián. Obviously, there is no love lost between the two brothers. Indeed, there is a bitter rivalry where Charo plays no small role.

Above all, it is clear that Grandes is very partisan. She sees Juan and Sara as flawed but essentially good people. Both have a decidedly murky past and both have committed a major criminal act, yet, somehow, we seem, if not to forgive them for this, to understand and accept it. However Damián and Andrés Senior, ex-husband of Maribel and father of young Andrés, are both unremittingly evil or, at the very least wicked people who deserve everything coming to them.

In their past Juan and Sara had struggled a bit with their decisions and their romantic life but in their post-Madrid life, they seem to come out of their shell somewhat and be clearer as to what they want and where they are going. What they want is what many people want – enjoyable human companionship, be that with the children and Alfonso or with other grown-ups. In short they want a life, yes with its responsibilities, but also with its normal pleasures and not too complicated.

And then there is the wind. The English is called Wind from the East but the original Spanish is called Los aires difíciles, which might be translated asDifficult Winds for while the wind from the East may be more problematic – it seems to very much affect people’s moods, particularly people like Alfonso – the the wind from West also plays a role. These winds occur throughout the book and do affect people though, as Sara says at the end, the east wind blows it all away.

I thought this a very fine book, partially because Grandes goes into some detail regarding the various relationships as well as regarding the various motives of the key characters for doing what they do but also taking a fairly unconventional approach to moral issues. Can criminal acts ever be justified? We will all obviously have different views on this but she seems to be in no doubt that there are times, though they may be wrong, they can be excused for various moral reasons. I certainly have my view but I would leave it to he readers to make up their own minds.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2002 by Tusquets
First English translation in 2006 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Translated by Sonia Soto