Cristina Sanchez-Andrade is a renouned Spanish writer whose book, ‘The Winterlings’ I spotted across the floor in Waterstones and knew – because I’m easily swayed by a good cover – that I needed to buy it. And what better excuse than needing to read some Spanish literature while in holiday in Mallorca? (OK – I know there are complications around whether Mallorca, as part of Catalonia, is Spanish, but I’ll make amends for this in a an upcoming review…honest!). Translated into English by Samuel Rutter, ‘The Winterlings’ is a wonderful book: told though a lens trained on the folklore and gossip of rural village life, Sanchez-Andrade presents a country dealing with its past and facing up to the future.
During the Spanish Civil War, sisters Saladina and Dolores are told to flee the village by their grandfather and eventually find themselves in England. Years later, they return home, bringing with them memories and secrets which many would prefer to forget: What happened in 1936 to force the girl’s grandfather to send them into exile? Why, before he died, did he buy the brains of the villagers, to be turned over to him on their death? What happened to Dolores’ husband Tomas? And just why are the villagers so keen on seeing the back of the Winterlings?
Violeta da Cuqueira let them prowl around without saying a word. After a long while, when she realised they’d never summon the courage to ask, she said:
‘You two hold a dark secret that crushes you like a boa constrictor, something dark…I can read it in the wrinkles around your eyes.
Sanchez-Andrade writes about peasant life with blood-and-guts physicality. Take the story of Esperanza a la Puerta de Nicholasa who, abandoned as a child, is taken in by a peasant and suckled by a goat, the creature becoming so attached to the child that, each day, she hunts her out and raises a leg to offer an udder. Esperanza is so concerned that her own child – Little Ramon – is short of nothing that she offers him ‘her huge veiny breasts, which tasted like curdled milk’ until he is seven. Or, consider the bathing habits of the sisters…
They scrubbed each other’s waists, breasts with erect nipples, behinds like mandarin skins, and legs with abundant flesh.
One day, just as they were rinsing off their hair, pouring water over themselves with a ladle, a nauseating gust wafted over, a rancid stench like gasoline or a wet jumper.
Sniffing the air, one Winterling said:
‘It’s the priest’
‘The Winterlings’ presents rural Spain as a culture seeped in folk tales and stories. But despite suggestions of magic realism, this isn’t a book which uses the form and structure of fairy tales to tell a story like, for example, Angela Carter. Despite sharing Carter’s wicked sense of vulgar wit, this book uses the folk tale as a context, to highlight the simpler, more innocent times when such stories helped us make sense of the world and explain the unexpected. One day a travelling show trundles into the village with, to the sister’s excitement, a talking donkey.
‘Hello, little donkey. I’m Sala, Saladina, the seamstress, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, I greatly enjoyed your reading, and I would be delighted to listen to you more often,’ she whispered.
The donkey shifted in his seat. He raised his head and looked at the bewildered Saldina through his spectacles. His eyes were glassy and bulging like those of a fish.
‘Even dressed as a donkey I wouldn’t visit you, you hag!’ pronounced the same velvety voice that had read the newspaper.
And therein lies the rub of this tale: how the old ways are slowly disappearing, innocence being eroded by the modernising forces of the twentieth century and the cynicism inflicted by war.
In the figure of Tenderlove we find a man made bitter by war but who finds a way to build his future: by stealing the teeth of the dead and becoming a ‘Dental Technician’. In him we also see the germ of future pride:
‘He hid his feminine side less and less often, and one day, he even dared to go into the tavern in a floral dress, with his hairy legs and high-heeled shoes.
By then he’d been called ‘faggot’ so many times that the word was hollow; it didn’t bother him any more.’
The influence of modernity also looms large in the allure which Hollywood casts across the rural stage. Dolores has ambitions as an actress and, when Hollywood comes to Spain to film ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’, she takes a part as a body double for Ava Gardner resulting in the director promising to take her away from the old world and into the glamour of the new by giving her starring role in his next film.
Meanwhile her sister, possessed by the spirits of the dead – of the old world – can have no place in the future. While the themes are profound and serious, ‘The Winterlings’ comes with a quick and twinkling beat and is, at times, very funny. It is packed with starting imagery, not least in the tale of Saladina’s teeth. Suffering in comparison with her sister, Saladina hopes that Tenderlove’s promise of new teeth will change her looks for the better. With his brace of teeth from the dead, Tenderlove delivers: with surprising and startling results:
Saladina had woken with her mouth aflame. Since the evening before, her dentures had felt strange. She didn’t eat, she devoured; she seemed as if overcome by a whirlwind that tore through food and made it disappear down her gullet, only to then search for more…her neck, her arms, her body were enslaved to her mouth. If Saladina tried to keep it shut, she ran the risk of eating her tongue, and whenever her sister tried to intervene, she was bitten ferociously. Other times her mouth lay still, playing dead until suddenly, snap, it opened and closed, or she started cackling like a madwoman’
As the books ends, we find ghosts laid to rest, mysteries resolved and a way of life fast disappearing. The Spanish Civil War looms large but the reader doesn’t require any prior knowledge to enjoy it, something to bear in mind as this book is also about the repercussions of our actions and how they can, at any moment, come back to haunt us – either as individuals or as a society
This is a great book: a surprising, funny, vulgar yet subtle: a thought provoking conundrum packed with full bodied characters; whimsical tales and startling images of a rich, pungent culture. It is generous and profound, guttural and poetic…
‘Saladina felt it arrive, with its violent stench of rotten apple. She felt it arrive and crawl over her sister’s flesh as she slept by her side. It’s just the wind, woman, blowing in from the north. She felt it arrive, dense and insistent. Who were you talking to? She felt it arrive, accompanied by its hushed music.’
…all wrapped in a beautiful cover.
** Cristina Sanchez-Andrade is appearing at the Manchester Literature Festival on 7 October 2016.