What a child sees, what an adult knows
by Suzi Steffen
In Spanish novelist Rosa Montero’s Beautiful and Dark (translated by LCC’s Adrienne Mitchell), a nameless girl child arrives at a train station and begins her life. Signs and portents, mystical and allegorical names (her second-rate uncle’s name is Segundo; her father’s was Maximo), dwarfs and magic boxes and men with names like “the Portuguese” and “Shark” hover around her rather constricted world.
Her journey from blank slate at that train station (all she remembers is one word, Baba, which she uses to comfort herself, as a talisman) takes her through dangerous streets and into a dangerous household. Segundo’s a gangster and a con man, a dangerous guy who probably betrayed his brother. The girl and her cousin Chico, who’s small and “can become invisible,” she tells us many times, don’t go to school, but live with their grandmother, a woman who rules the household imperiously — except where Segundo’s concerned.
The girl has no way of understanding her world, but the reader will piece together a adult and entirely unmagical tale of theft, arson and betrayal, not to mention prostitution, adultery and murder, as Montero gradually reveals more and more of the Neighborhood (yes, it’s capitalized in the book) and the history of the family, including a woman called Airelai who calls herself “a Lilliputian” and whose dwarfism makes her tales of occult gifts seem entirely plausible to the girl and Chico.
One blurb on the back reads, “Beautiful and Dark is a masterfully synthesized blend of sordid social realism, existentialist orientation and the mysterious, magical terror of the unknown,” and that certainly describes a large portion of Montero’s work. The setting, in a vaguely unrecognizable western European city and in a neighborhood that’s down on its luck but not as terrible as the shantytown to which the girl trails one of the mobsters one night, creeps around the edges of everything the girls sees and feels.
Meanwhile, as she goes through scenes that no child should have to experience, the mystery (that’s the sordid part) continues to unravel. Parts of it never become clear to the girl or to the reader. The wonder of this book doesn’t necessarily lie in the magical realist parts that frankly feel somewhat worn; the wonder lies in the fact that Montero isn’t actually attempting to write a magical realist tome. Instead, like Emma Donoghue in the new and heavily praised Room, Montero depicts a child’s vantage point with precision. Children see portents and signs and magic in many things that adults, living in a less surprisingly connected world, find normal.
At the same time, a sympathetic reader longs to rescue the little girl (and Chico) from her terrible situation, waiting for a criminal father to come get her, waiting for Segundo’s wife finally to take her abused child and abused self and get out from under the yoke of the oppressor, waiting to understand what “Violet Street” is and why she can’t go down it in the dark, waiting for something to change. When the changes occur, they’re more awful and sad than adult readers would expect, in a violent conflagration of the world in the Neighborhood and the world of global threats.
Translator Mitchell writes that Montero’s words “are alive, visceral, juicy, sparkling.” The translation certainly throbs with dark energy (sparkling seems a bit off). Readers are lucky that Mitchell and San Franciso’s Aunt Lute Books brought this novel by Montero (who’s famous in Spain and obviously deserves more attention in the U.S.) to print.
As part of the Readings by Local Translators evening, Adrienne Mitchell reads from Beautiful and Dark at 7 pm Thursday, Oct. 14, at Tsunami Books.