Esther Tusquets: ¡Bingo!
A novel about bingo is not something that would normally appeal to me but Tusquets is such a superb writer that this one really works. The unnamed protagonist – he is not the narrator as Tusquets uses the third person and generally refers to him as the man – is approaching sixty. Though he had thought about death before, he had never really thought about old age. He vaguely thought that it was going to be about waking up with new aches and pains, losing his hair and teeth and wanting something but not being physically able to do get it or do it. However, this has not happened. Indeed, he has recently had a medical check-up and the doctor told him that he could expect to live for another thirty years. But one thing had happened. He had lost interest in everything. He was a lawyer and his firm was one of the top three in the city (presumably Barcelona) but he did not really care. He only occasionally went into work. He had more than enough money. He had lost interest in women, food, travel, the sea, reading and art (he has a large private art collection and had studied art earlier and had planned to be a painter, something at which he still dabbles), all the things that used to interest him. Now he spends the day sitting in front of the television, with a couple of bottles of beer and a packet of cigarettes and the newspaper. He barely watches the television and skims through the newspaper, finding nothing of interest to read. Alternatively, he goes for long, aimless walks through the city, often stopping off to have a drink in a seedy bar.
The only thing that keeps him going is Ana. He is married to Adela. He was fortunate to marry her, an attractive woman with a fortune. She has been a good wife, looking after their two children and turning a blind eye to his many affairs. However, before Adela, there was Ana. They had met at university. He was twenty-one and she eighteen. They had fallen in love with one another almost immediately. There was no doubt that they were going to spend the rest of their lives together. But they did not. We do not know why, at least initially, though we know something happened to cause them to fall out. He married Adela, she married someone else. Now, he has completely lost touch with her and has no idea if she is still in Barcelona or elsewhere. Nevertheless, he talks to her (in his mind) constantly. He makes it clear that he has no desire to see as she is now but only to remember her as she was. It is Ana to whom he tells what he thinks, what he wants and what he is worried about, not Adela.
One day, when out on one of his walks, he is finding it very hot and he needs somewhere to cool off and to get a drink. There is no bar in the area but he does see a bingo hall. He goes on and finds a seat nearest to the air conditioning. He buys cards, because he has to, but does not fill them in. He does buy a beer. Soon an attractive woman – we later learn that she is called Rosa – comes and sits next to him and asks him why he is not filling in his cards. They start talking and he learns much about bingo and the culture surrounding it. When he next goes out for a walk he finds himself in the same neighbourhood and again goes into the bingo hall. Again he is joined by Rosa and soon he is immersed in the bingo culture – the superstitions (always burn a winning card), the different people (all social classes and ages and both sexes), the relationships between the staff and players and the relationships between the different players and the stories that all of them have. He becomes a regular, often staying till closing time, which is five a.m. His wife, he feels, must think he is having an affair but, he feels, if he tells her the truth, she will never believe him. And then there is a new staff member, Elisa, not like Ana but who somehow reminds him of Ana.
This could have been a boring book but Tusquets tells it so well. What is growing old and what does it mean? What is loneliness and how do people cope? And how important is it to win at bingo? Tusquets throws in a couple of unexpected twists. This was her last novel before she died in 2012, though she did write stories, essays and memoirs afterwards. As a final novel, it is certainly a worthwhile swansong.
First published in Spanish 2007 by Editorial Anagrama
No English translation
Also published in Portuguese