Rolling Fields by David Trueba

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Translated from Spanish by Rahul Bery

Reviewed by Michael Eaude

Too often, reviews are distorted because they are written by someone who knows and likes the author’s work. One of the pleasures of this review is that I had never read anything but the occasional newspaper article by Trueba and so opened his novel with no prior bias. David Trueba is a well-known Spanish film director, script-writer, journalist and author of six novels to date (not to be confused with his Oscar-winning elder brother Fernando, an even more successful film director). This is his second novel to be translated to English, following Learning to Lose in 2011.

Dani is a successful singer who is taking his father’s body from Madrid to be re-buried in his village of origin. For the 40-year old son it’s a trip to another Spain he doesn’t know, back to discovering where his dogmatic father was born and brought up. It’s tempting to describe this as a journey from big-city modernity to roots in rural tradition, but this is not quite right, for the village, different as it is, is also part of globalized modern life. Trueba interweaves the trip in the hearse, driven by a talkative Ecuadorian, with key episodes from Dani’s life. It is a normally painful, often hilarious modern life and Dani narrates it in all its contradictions.

Dani’s relationship with his father is full of conflict yet intimate. Dani desires the excitements of the music world, while his father wants him to get a proper job. Trueba ably makes both father’s and son’s points of view persuasive. Theirs is the eternal conflict, but one sharpened by the very rapid change from the Franco dictatorship his father was brought up in to what became one of Europe’s freest societies in the 1980s.

Dani suffers from a sense of dislocation, unsure of where he comes from, not convinced he is any good as a singer, uncertain of his friendships, and thoughtful (which makes him insecure) about his sex and love life. Whether you think this is an existential lack that everyone has or just something specific to this character will depend on the reader, but I think Dani’s uncertainties and doubts are common to most people. Dani, among the many one-night stands near-intrinsic to his profession, falls in love with two women, including Kei the Japanese mother of his two children.

Trueba, and Dani, has a tragic and realistic view of relationships. Separating from his first great love, Oliva, is the closest thing to dying except actually dying. Yet there is no way to avoid such a near-death, is there? Dani does not believe relationships can last in that full flood of first passion. They can be transformed, though, and the novel opens at the end: with Dani living in the outhouse while Kei lives in the main house, the children moving easily between them just as they move between their parents’ two cultures. Dani and Kei have separated but are still together. They are calm.

All the many characters, women included, are original and believable. Most share Trueba’s frankness and directness, the most attractive aspects of the novel. The frankness extends to several very explicit, rather gruesome, but nevertheless gentle anecdotes of adolescent sexuality in school and village. The novel is sprinkled, too, with perceptions that, frivolous or profound, strike home with their accuracy: “they say the best test of your anxiety is if you flush the toilet before you’ve even finished pissing” or “Friends are never entirely sad about your sorrows”.

Such a colloquial novel with so many local references is a severe challenge for a translator, but Rahul Bery passes the basic test triumphantly: the reader forgets it is a translation.

The music group Las moscas (The Flies) consists of Dani and two diametrically opposed school-friends, Animal, crude, highly self-destructive and an absolutely faithful friend, and Gus, a bold and witty figure, glamorous in his dress and style, highly self-destructive too and absolutely unreliable. Their lives are always on the move; their songs are driven by pain. From Las moscas’ school-days to their success, the novel paints a great picture of the music world in general and of the Madrid movida of the 1980s in particular, when an explosion of youth creativity followed the repression of the Franco years. Drugs, alcohol, and failure to connect then destroyed lives, too.

Trueba has skilfully crafted a very readable novel, fast-moving and full of sparkle in its sentences and dialogue, but with a deeper pull beneath the surface. I laughed a lot among the many tough situations. It is the sort of novel that tackles the chaos of life nakedly and nobly, reminiscent of some of those Hollywood romantic comedies of the 1940s.

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Michael Eaude’s latest book is Sails & Winds (Signal), a cultural and political history of Valencia.

David Trueba, Rolling Fields (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2020). 978-1474612876, 384 pp., hardback.

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