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Ana María Matute: Paraíso inhabitado [Uninhabited Paradise]

Novels which tell of a children’s world completely detached from the adult world have been popular for a long time, from Peter Pan to Harry Potter. Matute takes this idea but instead of having a Hogwarts or Never Never Land, her children live firmly in the real world, in an unnamed town which seems to be Madrid, in the early-mid thirties (the novel ends with the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 to 1939.) Though they live in the real world, they are able to create a separate world, which does not rely on magic, fairies or even evil pirates/school teachers.

Adriana (often known as Adri) is a child who is, as she says, born at the wrong time. Basically, she is an afterthought. She has a much older sister who, at least for the early part of the novel pays little attention to her and, when she does, looks on her with disdain. She has two older twin brothers, Jerónimo and Fabián, who initially ignore her but do acknowledge her later on, and are generally friendly but only when they can take time off from their studies. We learn early on that both will be killed in the Civil War. Her parents also have little time for her, not least, as we soon learn, because their marriage is on the rocks. Initially, her only friends are the tatas, which translates roughly as nanny, though they seem to do other work, such as cooking and ironing. There are two – Tata María – a motherly figure who looked after Cristina and Adriana’s and Cristina’s mother, and Isabel, a woman who has a daughter about the same age as Adriana but who is herself illiterate but still very caring. Adriana listens to and learns much of what she knows from these two. More particularly, she learns to exclude other adults, by generally not talking to them. She also spends much of the night exploring the house and knows all the secret hiding places, where she can overhear adults (even though she does not always understand what they say). The key symbol for her is a unicorn in a tapestry which she sees leaving the tapestry and running off. Somewhat ironically, the cover of the book uses this image, which is called the Captive Unicorn, though the book cover illustration has the surrounding fence removed. In short, she grows up as solitary, with the staff as her only friends and companions.

But grow up she does and soon she is sent to school, specifically Saint Maur, a school run by French nuns. The headmistress welcomes her and tells her that Cristina was an exemplary pupil and they expect her to emulate her sister. They will be sorely disappointed. She makes no friends, rarely speaks and is surly. Though she is academically bright, she does not fit in with the sports-loving girls nor the French nuns. She soon gets a reputation for being a bad girl, a reputation that, despite frequent lectures from her mother, she is keen to cultivate. When she gets into a fight, she is sent home and briefly suspended. Other help is sought. Her Aunt Eduarda, her mother’s older sister, comes, and tends to side with Adriana. She takes her out and treats her well and even introduces her to her friends. Adriana looks up to her aunt but does not change. Meanwhile, her father seems to be gradually withdrawing from the house but, before doing so, he take her out one Christmas Day. Of course, much is closed but he does take her to the cinema where they see The Crusades. Adriana adores it and is particularly taken with Loretta Young. She persuades her father to take her to a later show, where they see A Tale of Two Cities. However, when she gets home she has a fever and becomes very ill.

Two key things happen subsequently. As she tells us straight away, she will never see her father again. More importantly, while she is recovering, she sees a gorgeous creature from her window. She thinks it is a boy but she is not sure as he has a mass of curly hair and is wearing very feminine clothes. It will turn out to be Gavi, a Russian boy a bit older than her, who had escaped from Russia, with his mother, a ballerina, and his father, a count. When she gets better – and this takes a long time, with one relapse – she and Gavi will become best of friends and behave as though they are in their own world. They will play with a Children’s Theatre, invent games, read together and essentially ignore the adult world, except for the staff and Teo, who seems to be some sort of tutor for Gavi. This will be a glorious time for Adriana. Initially, her mother is unaware of this relationship but when she finds out, she is not too happy about it and tries to persuade, unsuccessfully, Adriana to have a female friend. But the joy of this friendship, even love, cannot last forever. The real world impinges on Adriana’s happiness.

Matute superbly evokes both the solitude of Adriana and her efforts to find another world in which she can live and which she eventually does find with Gavi. Their sparkling relationship and the increasing inability of the adults or, at least, those that are concerned about it, to deal with it are brilliantly handled and we can feel very much how Adriana is both in this special world while being close to the real, adult world of increasing political tension, family problems and school. It is to be hoped that this book is translated into English.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2008 by Ediciones Destino
No English translation
Published in French as Paradis inhabité by Phébus in 2011
Translated by Marie-Odile Fortier-Masek
Published in German as Unbewohntes Paradies by Hoffmann und Campe in 2010
Translated by , Sabine Giersberg
Also published in Bulgarian and Turkish