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‘The war didn’t seem much like a war’ [book review]

A review of The Others by Raül Garrigasait, translated from the Catalan by Tiago Miller

Ambitious young indie press Fum d’Estampa is rapidly making a name for itself by publishing carefully crafted Catalan literature in translation, often bringing little-known masterpieces back into the public eye in the process. Though less overlooked (it won the Best Catalan-Language Novel Prize in 2017), Raül Garrigasait’s The Others, in an elegant English translation by Tiago Miller, is no exception to the rule. Written in lucid prose that at the same time admits a dreamlike quality, this quiet but assured novel offers an unusual perspective of the Carlist Wars and a philosophical take on conflict.

Cover image The Others

Expecting the novel to open in 1837, deep in the midst of the First Carlist War, I was surprised to find myself being spoken to by a thoroughly modern narrator: a man named Raül, who may or may not be the author himself, tasked with translating the memoirs of one Prince von Lichnowsky, a Prussian supporter of Charles Maria Isidre de Borbó (to give him the name used in the book; he is also known as Infante Carlos). On the search for source material in a dusty Berlin archive, Raül stumbles upon notes written by Rudolf von Wielemann, a young Prussian nobleman who almost unthinkingly joined the Carlist forces with the aim of making a name for himself as a man of action. These scribbled fragments describing life in the embattled city of Solsona become a source of fascination for the translator and form the backbone of the novel, allowing us access to a personal history – but only ever at a remove. Wielemann’s words come to us filtered through the double lens of history and translation (both real and fictional, in this edition of the novel), a fact that the reader is never allowed to forget. As vivid as the events of 1837 may seem on the page, we are continually hauled back into the present by Raül, whose presence, though realistic, reminds us that the novel is just a novel, that Wielemann’s experiences are not necessarily representative of the truth.

This blurring of the bounds between fiction and reality, story and memory, opens a bottomless pit of questions about how and by whom history is written, what deserves a place in the annals and what gets consigned to a forgotten corner of the archives. Wielemann’s presence in Solsona is almost an accident, and his actions have little impact on the course of History, yet the conflict leaves its mark on him both physically and emotionally. As the novel unfolds, set in ‘a new calm, made up of toppled walls, ossified ideas and wounded men’, Wielemann forms tentative friendships with Foraster, a doctor, and Soler, a verbose local Carlist, and finds himself beginning to question the nature and purpose of conflict, as well as social mores, friendship, religion and even his relationship with his family. The action flashes between sun-baked countryside and the mysterious gloom of the widow’s house in which he lodges, with detours into the humble homes and crumbling, once-grand buildings of Solsona. It is an intimate view of ‘a normal life in an abnormal time and place’, where a single scene can oscillate between tragedy and farce, and nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Garrigasait’s balancing of the novel is masterful – realism and surrealism are given equal weighting, which serves both to comfort and continually wrong-foot the reader. Though the subject matter is often dense (Wielemann and Foraster in particular enjoy long, philosophically inclined conversations), there is a certain precision to the writing that carries the reader’s understanding and allows us to keep pace with Wielemann’s struggle to comprehend his own feelings, not to mention the state of the world around him. Light relief is provided in the form of classically comic scenes stoked by the kind of buffoonery that might appear in Shakespeare – a hapless band of soldiers known as the Shambolic Six make regular incursions into Wielemann’s sections of narrative. Yet for all these well-placed interludes and the clarity of his prose, Garrigasait is far from immune to creating atmosphere, and the occasional line stopped me in my tracks with its unusual, breath-taking conveyance of a very specific feeling. All the adjectives in the world couldn’t have had the same effect as calling up ‘one of those days that made breathing seem more than a mere automatic mechanism’.

Besides its particular flow and the clear, at times balmy nature of its prose, The Others has much to offer the translator-as-reader, from the humorous to the high-flown. Translators may well give a knowing smile when Raül describes his wilful procrastination, his strung-out ‘battle’ with the text seeming to reflect the siege of Solsona, ‘the war [that] didn’t seem much like a war’. At other points, we are offered more earnest insights into what translation is: what it enables, and what it causes to be lost. Even as he is writing, Garrigasait seems to be engaging with his novel on multiple levels, which again contributes to the unnerving yet oddly pleasant feeling of being continually plunged into the action, only to once again find ourselves dragged up, gasping, to the surface.

With all its talk of language and translation, not to mention the events of the novel that are separated from the reader by almost two hundred years of history, it is fitting that The Others should itself have undergone the process of translation. Tiago Miller’s text is graceful in tone and structure, differentiating slightly in style between the present-day and historical sections, and giving us a sharp narrative voice that wavers between humour, melancholia and, just occasionally, a hint of bitterness. Though this line refers to one of the characters in the novel, Miller as well as Garrigasait has proved himself more than capable of ‘making his words fall in with the style of a competent commander’. The result is a coolly immersive and thoughtful novel that asks some of life’s big questions, but is of itself an absolute pleasure to read.

The Others by Raül Garrigasait is translated by Tiago Miller and published by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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