A Man of His Word by Imma Monsó

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Translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent

Reviewed by Jean Morris

I wonder if my daughter will forget the image of the rainy street where for years she used to wait for him when he was returning from seeing friends. She loved watching him slowly approach, his spindly shape at the end of the tree-lined street; he’d raise his arm with the newspaper in his hand to greet us and she’d run to hug him… I don’t know if she’ll forget that strange October night when she left the house at four o’clock in the morning… she’d suddenly turned around and seen the street glistening in the light of a useless ambulance.

The “man of his word” is the writer’s husband, who died suddenly and too soon amidst their rather happy life with an adored young daughter, and this is a book about their relationship and her survival. What writers do to survive is, very often, write. I read for comparison purposes A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates – a warm and vivid book that I liked more than her novels – and reread Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a beautiful account of a love affair and a young wife’s death which was already on my list of most memorable books ever. I wondered about the genre and its popularity: is it mawkish, voyeuristic, on a par with reality TV and those people on the bus who loudly blurt their most intimate business into their mobiles? And decided not, that it’s a small miracle of sharing the unshareable and more often moves and compels the reader for the best of reasons, not the worst.

A Man of His Word, by the popular and multiple-award-winning Catalan novelist and newspaper columnist Imma Monsó, is not in fact very much like those other books, but something all of its own. Her writing – this is the first to be translated into English – is much praised for its quality of close-up, precise, analytical intimacy. This delicately interwoven narrative of shared life, sudden death and coming to terms gets so close up that it doesn’t give the kind of full, detailed and realistic picture that Oates’s and Goldman’s books do. These characters never use each other’s names, only ever-changing nicknames that are just between themselves. So we never learn the dead man’s name, and we never get a full picture of what he looked like – only momentary images of someone tall and lanky, laconic but also fierce. What we get, however, is an extraordinary feeling for what he was like, the quality of their interaction and intertwining as a couple and later as a threesome after they adopted their daughter in China.

The book slowly builds into a wonderful evocation of how different but complementary these two clever, quirky people were, their different tastes and habits and rhythms; even closer-up than this, the different textures and surfaces of their lives and minds and how these bumped up against each other. If this sounds very abstract, it’s also full of strong scenes and memories and observations. This is very stylish writing (well translated) and subtly, engagingly structured.

They were teachers in a high school. He taught philosophy and – I know from elsewhere – she taught languages. He was somewhat older, long unmarried after an early divorce; a born teacher, suffering as the years went by from the increasing standardisation and bureaucratisation of the profession; a good cook, a music-lover, always playing recorded music or singing to himself. He was surrounded by friends who adored him – a big, close, noisy, very Spanish, band of life-long friends. Though rather quiet within this noisy group, he had a certain charisma – a confident, self-contained person of strong, persistent habits and enthusiasms, who never seemed needy. She portrays herself as energetic, lively, feeling herself fickle and easily bored, finding calm and commitment and endless passionate interest in their relationship – and only then did she become a writer.

And then the child and their astonished love for her, especially that of the man who never really thought he’d be a father, and the child’s response to death, her mourning and continuing, so well captured.

I was pondering whether to pass a truck when suddenly she said: “You know what I’d like more than anything? There was no need for her to continue, I knew what she would say. But she just had to verbalize it (that when we got home the door would be open and Papà would be there and he’d hug us)… I was starting to plummet into an infernal chasm when… I heard her voice again: “Poor pigs!” The truck we were passing was loaded with pigs…
That’s the thing with children. They leave you with a frozen grimace while they, unstoppable, continue to spin the vertiginous, multi-coloured wheel of remembrance and oblivion.

The heartbreak is made bearable by humour, irony and sharp intelligence. It’s now more than ten years later and this little girl must now be nearly twenty. I keep thinking of her and of her mother. As thought-provoking as it is moving, I don’t think I’ll forget this book quickly.

Madrid-based publisher Hispabooks is devoted to contemporary Spanish literature in English translation, with a growing list that features some terrific writers and translators. They have a new UK distribution deal and all their titles, already available from online outlets, should also be easy to order from independent bookshops.

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Jean Morris is a translator, editor and hispanophile and hopes to start blogging again soon.

Imma Monsó. A Man of His Word. Translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent. (Madrid: Hispabooks, 2014). 978-8494283031, 290 pp., paperback.

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