Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). Hispabooks. $16.99, 344 pp.
In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and Father and Son: A Lifetime, translated by Natasha Wimmer. In Paris, Giralt grapples with deceit, obsession, inexplicable love, and the limitations of memory, themes prevalent in his story collection. But the dimensions of a novel allows him to further develop these themes, so that in Paris we find a fuller, and patient, exploration of the nature of truth and human emotion.
The novel is delivered in monologue form by a middle-aged man reflecting on the marriage between his mother (aloof, stoic, saintly, and stubborn) and his father (a vain, promiscuous scoundrel). He is fixated on eight mysterious months his mother spent in Paris, when the narrator was a boy: if he discovers what happened in Paris he might make sense of his parents’ relationship, and, in the process, end the nightmares that still recur twenty-plus years after his parents split up.
When the novel opens the narrator’s mother is suffering from dementia and cannot verify his memories. What are these memories? It’s hard to say. Much of the novel “depends in large measure on what I [the narrator] don’t know, but intuit.” Even if he were to recount past events, would they be true? What is remembered rarely coincides with what happened. So, is it what happened that is haunting the narrator, or what he remembers?
He cobbles together a story from secondhand anecdotes, askance observations, and half-truths. In regards to what his mother has told him, about his upbringing, he states, “When our knowledge of a subject depends on the words of others, we can never be sure if they’ve told us everything or only a part.” This both contests his mother’s veracity and advises readers to be wary of the narrator’s story. We mustn’t settle for what is said, but search for what isn’t, the elisions, repetitions, and circumlocutions masking the story beneath its primary narrative.
Very little happens in Paris. What might serve as high drama tends toward the soporific. For instance, on the night his father is arrested for fraud, at home, the narrator peacefully sleeps in his bedroom. Likewise, he figuratively sleeps through his father’s absence. “I did not even miss him in the two years that followed, at least not to the point where one begins to have suspicions and seek answers.” Naïveté? A bit. But this also reveals a preoccupied mind. His main concern is his mother and what she is feeling: “What she felt and how she really was had to be covered up . . . I supposed what this revealed, deep down, was an intense shyness, an exaggerated rejection of any kind of exhibitionism.” When he does, finally, mention his father, the motive is clear: “I need to think about him in order to begin to think about her.”
After two years in jail the father returns, hardly reformed. He leads a double life, fabricating employment, sleeping around, and hiding fake business cards under his desk—which the narrator discovers. He doesn’t tell his mother about the cards. That would have made it “more real than it already was.” But later he seems to regret his decision:
What troubles me, basically, is the age-old dilemma of whether not telling someone something is the same as lying: Does real lying have to be deliberate? Are we lying from the moment we choose to conceal something from someone because it seems inopportune or inappropriate? . . . And this brings me inevitably to another question. However close we feel to those around us, can we ever be sure that what we know about them is true, if what they tell us is the whole truth or just part of the truth, and does knowing or not knowing change anything in our lives?
The narrator’s guilt is peculiar, but binding. His father’s a fraud, his mother is protecting a terrible secret, while he is troubled by a relatively innocuous cover-up. Through guilt, however, and the exaggeration of his misdeeds, he relates to his family. The “we” employed here is not in the universal “we” one finds in an author like Javier Marías but a restrictive “we,” linking father, mother, and son.
After his father leaves, his mother moves to Paris alone, but returns eight months later. Whatever normalcy her arrival restores ends when the narrator chances upon his parents together at a café in Madrid. Watching from a bus stop, he sees “evidence of a bond that did not include me, a bond that was no stronger than the one binding my mother to me, a bond that had undergone its own evolution, independent of me and my significance.” The narrator seems to accept his place outside his parents’ relationship. But Giralt creates a parallel between mother and son that complicates that relationship. Returning from the bathroom, his mother catches his father rifling through her purse for cash. Rather than confront him, she watches him search, as the narrator watches his mother watching his father. Mother and son mirror each other, forming a spatial intimacy more defined than the bond shared by his parents.
Where characters stand destabilizes our footing as readers. Truths asserted by the narrator are contested by experience. His early insistence that single events are not, as we assume, life-changing, initially feels accurate, but it becomes a hopeful rationalization after the narrator’s life-changing talk with his mother. Stylistically, Giralt relies on long, knotted sentences to convey the thought process of the narrator, a man confounded by the past, reduced to assertion, assumption, and reaching—with great irritably. As Giralt states, “The language [my characters] use to express themselves has to reflect the undulations of their thoughts and their mimesis of details and exactitude.”
Although Giralt fully explores his characters’ minds, he never cedes control. The narrator’s thoughts feel exactingly arranged to reflect the intent of the novel. After his parents leave the cafe, the narrator trails his father through Madrid—and realizes that he isn’t following his father, but his mother, through the alleys of his own imagination: “Seeing my father walking ahead of me . . . what I was really seeing was my mother, or, rather, my mother in the company of my father, as I walked the unknown streets of Paris, all the while thinking I was walking the streets of Madrid.” But as the pursuit continues, his father becomes his father again. “I saw myself in my father, and I needed for that figure, which was at once him and me, to become one with the figure that was only me.” Everything overlaps. The narrator is his father, his father is his mother, Madrid is Paris.
This blurring reflects the mind remembering. Events, locations, people, and feelings merge to give a sense of a moment, how the past was felt, and here readers swirl through the undifferentiated landmarks and persons prevalent in the narrator’s psyche. And as characters overlap, the narrator, whether he sees it or not, takes on the role of his mother.
Despite his father’s machinations, his mother continues defending her husband. She sells their apartment and gives him half the money, leaving her son without an inheritance. Her excuses echo those the narrator makes for her. In her insistence that “Whatever [her husband] may or may not have done over the years is no indication of his lack of commitment or of his feelings not being genuine,” we hear the narrator praising her commitment, courage, and sacrifice. Mother and son are identical in how they defend the beloved. So perhaps it is not the his mother’s love for her depraved husband plaguing the narrator, but his unconditional love for his mother, a woman who has fabricated the past—for whose benefit she has done it is disputable.
Paris reminds us that the stories we tell about others are always stories about ourselves. The attempt to understand another, through narrative, is like walking through a house of mirrors alone, hoping to catch, in one of those mirrors—the next one, perhaps, or the next one, the next one?—the image of another. Paris is an excellent first novel. Though its debt to Marías is obvious, Giralt’s world is more restrictive than Marías’s. The latter reaches in many directions—history, politics, the afterlife—whereas Giralt, in Paris, extensively studies the unique landscape of one character’s psyche. As we navigate the narrator’s cities—Paris, Madrid, La Coruña—we discover the limits of memory, the limits of knowledge, and our habit of testing, and forgetting, those limits: “Memory is a great temptation, and what could be easier than to highlight some memories at the expense of others and retrospectively draw up a synthesis adapted to what has endured rather than what actually happened.”
Alex McElroy is currently the international editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. His work appears in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Tin House (online), Diagram, and elsewhere.
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