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Manuel Astur: San: el libro de los milagros (Of Saints and Miracles)

Our hero is Marcelino Gonzalez Alvarez. He lives in a remote village in Asturias called San Antolfn. He has a brother, Manuel. Both his parents are dead at the start of the novel. We learn of his childhood gradually during the course of the book.

His mother came from a remote village in the hills and had married a man twenty years older than her. He turned out to be a particularly nasty man, a drunk. He frequently beat his wife and two sons. Marcelino the eldest, tried to defend both his mother and brother but with limited success. Manuel looked up to his older brother but after their father’s death, officially from a heart attack, though, as we shall see it was more complicated than that, Manuel changed. When their father died, the night he carried inside him would find its way into his [i.e. Manuel’s]soul too.

Manuel became unpleasant. He was a loser at cards and business, and his only talent was for violence and drinking. Marcelino however, was different. He is known as the village idiot and clearly is not very bright. He was mocked at school (they called him cow-shagger) and is still mocked. He has no friends and has never had a girlfriend. However, he works hard. He earns money only from the milk from his cow, with which he buys his food. He still has the farm which is clearly rundown.

At the beginning of the book Manuel comes to him and asks him to sign a document. He can barely read – he was expelled from school for badly injuring one of the boys who tormented him – so signs it. At this point, Manuel tells him he has effectively agreed to sign away the entire property. He will have to leave . You’ve got no house, no meadows, no cows, no vegetable plot, nothing. It’s all gone. So start packing up your crap, and when they come, get the hell out. Marcelino strikes his brother.

Does he kill him? It is unclear. It seems that Manuel does get away and ransacks the house. However, he is seemingly later found dead. During the course of the book, Marcelino refers to him as being alive and even claims to see him, though it is clear from others that he is dead. Marcelino goes into town, does some shopping and then flees.

While this could have been – and to a certain degree is – a modern Robin Hood/Billy the Kid tale, Astur introduces various elements that change it. Firstly, as we follow his flight, we also are learning about his early life. Secondly, Marcelino is very naive and this means he reacts to various events in a different way from, say, Billy the Kid. Thirdly, Astur interjects a variety of stories. These are, in some cases, the local myths and legends and, in others, stories from the region, such as events that occurred in the Civil War.

The myth stories include the story of Pachin who fell asleep and woke up 150 years later and the wood nymphs that visit Marcelino when he is asleep. The historical ones tell of the plague of strange worms that infect the village (though causing no harm), which the government scientists cannot identify and how Marcelino’s mother, a good witch, gets rid of them as well as various Civil War stories such as the official who welcomed whichever side turned up as a keen supporter of that side but then made a mistake.

Meanwhile we are following Marcelino. He first heads to the now abandoned village where his mother grew up. The police arrive while he is still asleep but make so much noise that he is able to flee.He manages – just – to keep one step of the police, hiding in an abandoned mine and then in an abandoned car.

The press has got hold of the story and the locals are interviewed, giving their views on the family. Some of the locals are worried that Marcelino may come after them for having teased them.

More particularly, he is soon famous and tourists start arriving, hoping to meet the famous outlaw. One or two do meet him and are eager to help him. But then it changes. A local eighty-year old woman, who knew the family, declares that he is a saint. When a miracle occurs, this is confirmed and people steal items from his house as relics.

This is a first-class novel with Astur mixing in the story of a naive Billy the Kid, life in a remote region of Spain, local myths and legends, stories of the region and the background story of Marcelino and his family. He does compare the locals with the incomers – the press and tourists who flock to see the famous outlaw – but is happy to (mildly) mock both. Marcelino is our hero and we cannot help but feel for him – his hard life, his awful father and brother and his naivety.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Acantilado
First English translation in 2022 by New Vessel Press/Peirene Press
Translated by Claire Wadie