Dec/Jan 2014

Absence Makes the Art

Marcos Giralt Torrente's elliptical stories of lost love

Benjamin Anastas


Marcos Giralt Torrente’s short-story collection The End of Love is haunted by an ellipsis. There it is in the first story, “We Were Surrounded by Palm Trees,” right where the eye rests, intervening with a pause before we’ve even read the opening lines: “. . . I remember when it started. There is one scene that comes back to me, frequently, though it seems arbitrary to focus on it.” The scene our narrator fixates on—hesitantly, with the attention, it seems, of a writer—takes place on an unnamed island in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa. It is familiar enough in fiction involving travel by Westerners to the tropics: A couple is settling into their room with the sour familiarity of tourists who’ve been gone from home for too long. There is a mosquito net to be hung, toiletries to be sorted, a bed to make up with whatever is at hand. The narrator and his wife, Marta, have a difference of opinion about another couple who have traveled to this remote island with them, Paul, a German “with the well-educated manners of a middle-aged lothario,” and Christine, his younger, more damaged partner, part “lover-nurse,” with the “devotion of a disciple.” The narrator is upset that they’ll have company for their two days on the island, which is known for its antiques at bargain prices; Marta is annoyed by his carping and wonders aloud where his sense of adventure has gone. It is all “fastidiously normal,” as travel goes, even the suggestion of sexual rivalry and the bottles of insect repellent spread out on the bedcover.

“It must have been there,” the story’s narrator recalls, “in the ensuing silence, that I felt the first hint of what was to come.” If that sounds too portentous for your taste, don’t worry, it’s just a sleight of hand. Giralt Torrente hardly ever delivers the expected, and his ingredients are always top-shelf: There is the ship’s opportunistic dreadlocked captain staying in a cabana down at the beach with his crew; a village chief who plays moral policeman and has the sinister habit of making house calls; the strange, free-love dynamic between Paul and Christine, who dresses in clothes so sheer that the “darkness of her sex sheltered between her thighs like a sea urchin among rocks”; the muezzin’s call to prayer sounding out across the island. The tension is so exquisitely built that I won’t play spoiler and reveal any more about the plot, but the ellipsis at the start has already let us know that Giralt Torrente is dealing in the realm of private mysteries, the different ways the heart is transfigured over time.

The four stories that make up The End of Love are so good at evoking absences that I would call them elliptical machines, but that would create the wrong associations and do this prizewinning writer from Madrid an injustice. Thanks to Katherine Silver’s translations, which hardly break a sweat (the one exception is the phrase “eloquent elegance” in the story “The Last Cold Front,” which sounds clunkier in English than it ought to), Giralt Torrente’s first publication in the United States arrives with the force of the unexpected, the nervous excitement of a first encounter.

The sense of loss pervading the stories only makes them linger more potently in the mind. In “Captives,” a writer traces his relationship to a favorite cousin, Alicia, and her wealthy husband over the decades of their mutually destructive marriage. The husband’s name—Guillermo Cunningham— is one of the flourishes that make Giralt Torrente’s characters so memorable; it’s also the first clue that his mystery has no bottom, that secret volitions and furtive appetites will allow the couple to squander their lives through globe-trotting. In “Joanna,” a boy living in a summer resort with his grandmother meets a girl carrying a book in a public garden; their infatuation is vexed by social class and ends abruptly, but she persists in his memory for many years until a caller on a radio show reveals the circumstances of her suicide at the age of eighteen—or it could be a story about someone else. “The Last Cold Front” is set in the early 1980s in Madrid, where a teenager tries his best to navigate the aftermath of his parents’ divorce, his loyalty his only reliable compass as the adults around him recklessly stumble onward.

The stories in The End of Love are not about the death of the feeling called “love,” or breakups on the exotic islands we vacation on, but the sense we try to make, after the shipwreck, when love has carried its storm clouds off somewhere else.

There is a balance to these stories that suggests they were conceived of as a book, rather than being merely collected, a formal and thematic unity that makes it feel, at times, as if you’re reading a novel. (Giralt Torrente has published both novels and short stories in Spain; his memoir from 2010, Tiempo de vida, will be published by FSG next year.) It certainly helps that Giralt Torrente’s narrators share a literary bent and are prone to making statements that call to mind the reflections of Graham Greene’s wounded heroes. The narrator of “We Were Surrounded by Palm Trees” doesn’t introduce himself as a writer explicitly, but his phrasing is meticulous (he refers, at one point, to the “exotic poverty of our accommodations”) and he even drops a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to try to account for the sudden change in Marta: “Kurtz’s evil, the sound of the jungle. . . . The invocation of the irrational as a useful solution. There are no guilty parties, only occult forces.”

The narrator of “Captives,” meanwhile, is busy making his way in Madrid’s literary world while his cousin and Guillermo Cunningham wander aimlessly from New York to Berlin to London to Tuscany. At an impasse after the “stingy reception” to his last novel, he accepts a commission from an ailing Cunningham to write a book about his life, though nothing ever comes of it (except, of course, for the story itself). The teenage boy in “The Last Cold Front” is being groomed by his hapless father for literary greatness, and the story can be read as a tribute to the only fathering that the man was capable of. Even the call-in-radio-show host from “Joanna,” abandoned to his grandmother’s care as a boy, cites Jean Rhys and Alice Munro—his show is titled Looking at the Street Through the Window. The stories all have the self-consciousness of written documents, the sense that they’ve been crafted by versions of the same authorial intelligence.

It’s the leaps in Giralt Torrente’s stories that I find the most thrilling, though, the moments of almost supernatural insight, the unspooling of time, the scenes that Giralt Torrente isolates and makes vibrate through the descriptive power of his prose. In “We Were Surrounded by Palm Trees,” as the narrator and Marta are coming apart on their tropical island, Paul and Christine go missing in the middle of a rainstorm. Are they with the captain and the crew down at the beach? Is the village chief stalking them for his own ends? Has Paul (“He is too free,” Christine has said to explain his trouble on the island) traded away her safety for a thrill? Here is Giralt Torrente’s narrator: “An hour later we still knew nothing about our traveling companions. The rain—dense, warm, torrential—had not stopped. We continued drifting on our life raft.”

And in “The Last Cold Front,” the young narrator endures a disastrous parody of a family vacation in the Basque Country with his mother and her new boyfriend, a professor of Latin American literature with a drinking problem who commandeers the kitchen to work laboriously on an essay about “the writers of the Latin American literary ‘boom’” (yawn). The boy and his mother engineer an escape to a hotel before taking the train back to Madrid. He is relieved to be going home again, and he watches her:

She did not open the suitcase even to take out her toiletries. She got undressed in the bathroom, and instead of walking to the head of the bed to get in, she crawled to the foot of the bed and did a complicated somersault that left her for a moment with her legs and arms in the air.

“Captives” ends with Alicia and Guillermo Cunningham leading separate lives in adjacent houses in the Toledo countryside, their travels over, Guillermo looking like a “starving tortoise” thanks to the ravages of a disease that is presumably aids, and Alicia looking much the same as she had before: “The years,” Giralt Torrente’s narrator says, “had simply made her smaller.” On his deathbed, slipping in and out of delirium, his sheets soaked with sweat, Guillermo listens while the narrator reads to him from Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Lucilius and launches into speeches (rendered in italics) worthy of the Stoics: “What a sad thing life is, and don’t tell me otherwise. We believe we have an impregnable interior, a place where we are defended, where we can steel ourselves, but then it turns out that even we can’t get in.

Without the relief an ellipsis brings, the truths that Giralt Torrente conjures would be too much to bear. How could we go on? The stories in The End of Love are a life raft and the ocean around us is wide. Here’s a hand, he says to us. Climb on.

Benjamin Anastas is the author of two novels and the memoir Too Good to Be True (New Harvest, 2012). He teaches literature at Bennington College.

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