Tag Archives: Spanish

Ildefonso Falcones, La reina descalza


Set in the mid-18th century in Spain, this thick historical novel, about 740 pages, is currently a bestseller in Spain (at least in the paperback list of the fnac.es site). It is the third novel for Falcones, a Barcelona lawyer. One does wonder when he finds the time to research and write these sagas if he is still practicing as a lawyer… Actually he says he writes in the morning and still spends half the day in the office. He prefers to keep working to stay in touch with the real problems of real people.

There are four major characters than one follows throughout this novel:

1. Milagros Vega, a young gypsy from the Seville area, gets caught up in both personal troubles and historical events that shatter her family. In the mid-18th century, the king of Spain essentially outlawed being a gypsy, rounding up entire families, sending the men and boys over 7 into work camps and women to jails, all with horrendous living conditions from which many did not survive. By some turn of luck, Milagros escapes the deportations and later reunites with her father upon his liberation. Her mother remains imprisoned and her father marries Milagros to the son of a rival family. Milagros, who is a good singer and dancer, is exploited by her in-laws, who keep the proceeds of the many performances she gives. She is later approached to join a theater in Madrid and the little family moves there. Once in Madrid, Pedro, the husband, continues cheating on his wife and profiting from her talents, singing her up for private performances in the home of rich Madrid citizens. This eventually degenerates into sexual exploitation that I will not detail here.

2. Melchor Vega, Milagros’ grand-father, is an old wily tobacco smuggler who also escapes the round-up and deportation as he was in hiding in the mountain recovering from a stabbing wound received in a fight with a rival smuggler who had stolen some merchandise from him. He is very skillful with a knife.

3. Caridad is a young freed slave from Cuba, who was born in Africa and taken to Cuba as a young girl. She was freed when her master took ill on the ship from Cuba to Spain. She landed in Cadiz and did not know what to do. The ship’s chaplain recommended that the make her way to the Seville area, put her on a boat to that city and gave some directions to follow to find a monastery that might assist her. Once in the Seville area, she did not find the help she sought but is offered a place to sleep by Melchor. She later becomes friends with Milagros although this friendship was fraught with difficulties.

4. Fray Joaquín was a young dynamic priest who was known in the gypsy community near Seville. He was involved in the processing of smuggled tobacco and therefore was known to the other three characters already described. At some point, he disappears… but he reappears to save Milagros from her husband’s murderous intents.

Well, all of those characters do at some point disappear from each others’ lives… to reappear in sometimes unexpected circumstances.

Falcones can spin a good yarn, the story is well constructed, and there are lots of details of everyday life which I find quite interesting. The only downside for me is the amount of the sensationalist approach to describing sexual molestations, which might endear him to some readers but not me. While in the end that is not what I most remembered from his first two novels, I might hesitate getting into a fourth one.

While the point may be that the lives of women of the time was very different from ours, that they did not enjoy a status of equality with men, that their lives were not so highly valued, that they not protected by the law, there may have other, more elegant approaches to describing this state of affairs.

The book ends with an 8-page note from the author on the historical background for his story.



Falcones, Ildefonso,  La reina descalza, Vintage Español, Nueva York, 2013.





Ernesto Sabato, El túnel


This book has been sitting in my bookshelf for at least 7-8 years. I have no idea why I have not read it until now, but the impetus came from the fact that the Libreria de las Americas’ book club is discussing it on April 30. I hope I have the time (i.e. will be in town and not in a meeting with Australian colleagues) to actually attend this meeting and get a chance to discuss this fascinating book. It would also be great to have time to reread and pay more attention to form, use of language,… and to look up the Spanish words I didn’t know.

Juan Pablo Castel is a lonely Buenos Aires painter who has trouble entering into meaningful relationships with others, especially women. During an exhibition, he sees a woman looking at one of his paintings with attention and leaps to the conclusion that she must somehow understand him better than anyone else in the world. He therefore starts to stalk her until he successfully makes contact and learns enough about her to know where to reach her.

They start a relationship that becomes more and more intimate although the level of information exchanged remains extremely minimal. Of course, all of this is strictly from the point of view of the main character as the story is told in the first person, and it seems quite obvious to this reader that the narrator (described as “deranged” by The Guardian article referenced below) has a peculiar perception of reality.

This book digs very deeply into the psychology of obsession. Castel sees María, the object of his affection as a pure, good person, despite her statement that she is bound to hurt him some day. We later find out that she is married, has taken her cousin as her lover, and that her elderly blind husband seems to condone the situation. Castel perceived María’s adultery as treason both against her husband and himself and stabs her to death in her bed at the family country estate near Mar del Plata, where she had joined her lover.

In a crazed state of mind, Castel returns to Buenos Aires to confess to the husband that he has murdered his wife and to reveal to the poor man the extent of his wife’s treachery. He then finds out that the husband knew everything… The husband eventually commits suicide and months later, in jail, Castel is left to ponder why he did it.

In the end, he seems to realize, if I understand the final paragraph well, that he himself is the only person who can understand his painting and that this essential loneliness is a hermetically-closed hell that he will never escape.


Sabato, Ernesto. El túnel. Seix Barral, 2003 [1948].






Isabel Allende, El cuaderno de Maya


I always enjoy an Isabel Allende novel, as I find her to be good story teller and to create rich characters. Although I could not say that El cuaderno de Maya is on par with La casa de los espíritus or Retrato en sepia, my favorite Allende novels, it was still a quite engaging read that kept me nailed to my chair for a week.

This novel tells the story of young Maya Vidal, who takes refuge with a friend of the family in Southern Chile, following a series of events that make her fear for her life. While Maya gets use to her new life in a small Chilean community, we slowly find out, as she commits her own story to paper, how she came to be in so much trouble that she literally needed to disappear.

She took refuge with an old friend of her grandmother in Chiloé. The old friend in an anthropologist who is researching the local beliefs in magic in order to write a book. Officially, Maya is helping him with his work. She also comes to help out at the local school and coaching a kids’ soccer team. She suspect that the “old friend” is something more than that to her grandmother and she does eventually uncover the true nature of their relationship and the link between this enduring relationship and the death of her grandfather following the military coup in 1973.

Maya’s anchors in life are her grandmother, whom she calls Nini, and her grandmother’s second husband, a tall Black profession of astronomy at UC Berkeley, who bring her up after her mother leaves.  That grandfather, whom she calls her Popo, is her greatest influence, the most significant relationship in her young life. Her father is a plane pilot and he is frequently away. He does not develop a close relationship with his daughter until the great unfolding of events that lead to her flight to Chile.

All of Maya’s troubles start when her grandfather (her Popo) dies from pancreatic cancer. Her grief is so great that she is pulled into a downward spiral of rebelliousness, alcohol and drugs. This leads her to one treatment facility from which she eventually escapes. She gets a drive from her truck driver she ends up wishing she had never met. She lands in Las Vegas, Sin City, where she falls even lower than she ever thought possible. After months of descent into hell, she finds help and is rescued by her grandmother.

During her stay in Chiloé, Maya learns a lot about herself, and learns to enjoy life again. However, she is not shielded from the evil she has met on the way and her past nearly catches up with her. In the end, she does survive this last incident and is free to embrace her new found acceptance of her trials and limitations. The story ends on a congenial Christmas dinner in Chiloé.

My favorite Isabel Allende novels are historical novels that mix in magical and mystical elements. While magic and history are not absent from this story, it is set mostly in present time, with computers, gmail, cell phones, and iPods, on a background of Chilean modern history.



Allende, Isabel. El cuaderno de Maya. Vintage Español, 2012 [2011].