March 4, 2013

"Summer of '38"

By Colm Tóibín
~6900 words

An elderly woman recalls her affair with a Nationalist soldier during the siege of a Republican stronghold in the Spanish Civil War.

Montse learns from her daughter Ana that a man from the electric company, who is writing a book about the civil war, wishes to meet with her. She is reluctant to do so but relents when he shows up at her doorstep. The man explains that a former general of Franco's, Rudolfo Ramirez, is coming to town for an interview and has asked to see Montse when he arrives. The news triggers a long flashback in which the young Montse has an affair with Ramirez as her village is besieged by the Nationalists. When the town is near surrender, Ramirez disappears and Montse discovers she is pregnant. She marries a local boy named Paco, who raises the child, Rosa, as his own. Montse comes to feel genuine fondness for Paco and has two more daughters by him, including Ana. The final scenes return to the present, where it becomes clear that Montse has never told Rosa that Paco (now deceased) was not her real father. Montse declines to have lunch with Ramirez.

The story is characterized by the type of quiet narrative that has been a staple of Irish literature since at least the time of Joyce's "The Dead": a highly reflective, internal meditation often revolving around a secret love or unfulfilled desire. In this case, it is Monte's muted love for Ramirez, whom she continues to see, long after he is gone, in the eyes of Rosa's three sons. In keeping with the theme of loss, Tóibín employs a classic framing device to embed the main narrative in a distant past that, despite the violence of the war, evokes a certain nostalgia for a lost way of life:
One night, there was a full moon and a clear sky. When the crowd moved to the edge of the water and let the fire die down, neither he nor she moved with them. When he spoke to her, she could not hear him, so he moved closer. She realized that no one had noticed that she had not joined the others by the water. Some of the soldiers there had stripped down and were swimming and splashing. Away from them, close to the dying embers, he touched the back of her hand and then turned it and traced his fingers on the palm.
For the most part, then, the story succeeds on its quiet terms. The characters are well drawn, the tension subdued. The storytelling, however, meanders a bit too much. We are introduced early on to two characters, Ana and the electric company man, who never reappear and thus feel contrived as a means of introducing the main narrative. It is debatable whether even one of them is necessary; we definitely don't need both. Would it not have been more effective to have the flashback triggered by a conversation between Montse and Rosa, given that the latter is the daughter most affected by the secret? As it is, Rosa is introduced very late in the story, and the reader does not have a chance to sympathize with her before learning the news about her father.

Another weakness is language. The understatement that Tóibín aims for in the plot is not reflected in the often clumsy and heavy-handed diction. Below are three examples with suggested deletions, followed by my comments in brackets.
Montse nodded calmly and then looked toward the window, as though distracted by something
[Nodding is calm by default; hence the adverb is redundant (as adverbs often are). "Then" is also redundant when used with "and" (one or the other is all that's required). Finally, there is a problem with the "as though" phrase. Since the narrator is in Montse's perspective here, he/she should know whether she is distracted and not have to speculate. At any rate the whole phrase is unnecessary because the distraction is implied in her looking out the window.]
And if he, who had been so enthusiastic, did not want her, then she was sure, absolutely sure, that no one else would want her, either.   
[A sentence choking beneath commas and unnecessary qualifiers. It feels as if the author is simply trying to fill the page.]
"The war was a long time ago." She was going to say something else and then hesitated. "It was fifty years ago. More."
[The fact that she was going to say something else is implied in the hesitation.]
Finally, it should be noted that the name Rudolfo (as opposed to Rodolfo) is extremely uncommon in Spain and most of the Spanish-speaking world. The American author Rudolfo Anaya is a rare exception. Also, Ramirez carries an accent over the i: Ramírez.

"Summer of '38" is a tender story with compelling characters. Many of my objections amount to quibbles, but the cumulative effect is enough to weigh down an otherwise strong effort.


Reader poll: I found "Summer of '38" to be ___.

1 comment:

  1. I don't agree with your point about Ana feeling contrived. She's the one who introduces the man from the electric company (which, yes, is a bit contrived, though I think Ana's character is separate from that), and obviously she is the one daughter that Montse sees the most - even though she would clearly like to see Rosa more, because of her connection to Ramirez. Sure, we don't see much of Ana, but she is drawn as the dutiful daughter, and I think that is enough.

    I like Tóibín's understated presentation of these family dynamics, allowing the reader to infer feelings, rather than stating them outright. It's much more in keeping with Montse's quiet character and her refusal to burden others with her own problems, plus it lets us figure out for ourselves why some of these characters perhaps seem less real than Montse's flashback to the war.

    The man from the electric company does seem contrived, but it's the hinge of the story, so probably any introduction to this random person trying to force the past upon Montse would be equally odd. He is there to provide a bridge between Montse and Ramirez, should Montse accept it, and I like that she chooses not to, creating her own lunch instead of poking around in a past she has left behind. It reminds me of people I know who have been adopted, but have no interest in finding out more about their birth parents. Those people are not interesting to them, because they haven't been part of their lives, been parents to them at all. So this story seemed truthful to me, in that sense of not wanting to return to a past that has long since been buried.