First impressions of the children’s home

Human Rights, Street children

I was sweaty and exhausted when I arrived to the children’s home in Birgunj after a bumpy and long ride from Kathmandu. The first thing I noticed when I got off the Jeep and stepped in Terai for the first time was the extreme heat. Soon I met the Nepali staff, who came to pick me up and were really nice, and once in the house, I was welcomed with warm, curious and (at first) shy smiles from the kids. 

Later on, wandering around the house, I wasn’t sure what to do at first, but I started introducing myself in the few sentences I know in Nepali, and asking the boys names even though I knew I wouldn’t remember them later. One of the kids approached me and we started playing clapping games, trying to slap each other hands. That was it, suddenly many other kids were interested in playing as well so I had to make turns. After that, everything went smoothly and I soon felt at home. 

It’s impossible to come to the children’s home and feel indifferent.

I’ve hardly been here for about 24 hours and I have already fallen in love. The kids are amazing: sweet, funny, intelligent, cheerful, creative, active and extremely cute. They smile, play, joke and dance with so much energy, and seem really happy. It’s easy to forget that they used to live on the streets, that they have been through really hard times and that unfortunately they haven’t had a peaceful happy childhood as I have. They temporarily lost their childhood when, living in the streets, they had to grow up too fast. But finally Lady Luck was on their side and thanks to the NGO Our Sansar, not only they have a house to live in but also have access to an education and a big and welcoming family. And the future is theirs.

One of the boys proudly showing the table soccer board he made.
Playing with a kite.

*Article published on the website of Our Sansar, a british NGO helping street children in Nepal.

Discovering Nepal’s beauty

Human Rights, Street children

Deciding to go to Nepal to become a volunteer was a well thought decision. 

I didn’t take it lightly or without considering what it would imply. Long before setting a foot in the plane (and frankly, even before getting the tickets), I had pictured in my head what Nepal would be like. However, this didn’t make my arrival at Kathmandu any less shoking. 

The airport, was unlike any other I had ever been to.

Not the big, bright, clean, brand-new Terminal 1 of Barcelona’s El Prat Airport, but instead, small old buildings made of bricks, very very simple. After picking up my backpack, I headed to the currency exchange counter where, to my surprise,  I didn’t find any queue or any kind of organisation, but men pushing their way through to get their money. When travelling, you always have to adapt to the local ways, so that’s what I did without hesitation: push like a true-born Nepali, even though I was carrying a backpack that was taller than me. And I got my rupees sooner than I’d expected.

Getting a taxi was far easier than I anticipated (thanks, pre-paid service!). In the back seat, looking through the window, I couldn’t be more astonished looking at the streets of Kathmandu for the first time. The dust, the crazy driving, women dressing in colorful saris, some kids bare-footed, the street vendors, the abandoned dogs, the lack of traffic signs… 

I have to admit that when I arrived to my hostel I felt a bit relieved…

As if I had found a bit of peace in the middle of Thamel’s chaos. But now, a week after my first encounter with the city that will be my home for the next few months, I have discovered that its beauty lies in the simpliest things. In the sincere smile of kids when they greet you in English and you reply something in Nepali, in the Tibetan prayer flags moving at the rythm of the wind in some temples, in the contagious laugh of people dancing traditional music, or in the evenings in the terrace with the staff of the hostel, drinking Nepali beers, which might be a bit too big. Or not.

Celebrating the Teej festival in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.
Views from the World Peace Pagoda, in Pokhara.

*Article published on the website of Our Sansar, a british NGO helping street children in Nepal.

GOOD PICTURES TELL STORIES

Articles, Human Rights, Refugees

We are too used to seeing tragedies on the news; so used to it that it doesn’t disturbs our peaceful sleep and we are even able to eat dinner while seeing that, again, some refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In this context of dehumanization of migrants who we wrongly perceive are nothing at all like us, the work of photographers such as the Catalan Sergi Cámara, who is committed to denouncing social injustice, particularly towards immigrants, is essential.

Photography by Sergi Cámara.

At the moment, Cámara is working on a project he has called Refugees Not Welcome in order to show the cruel treatment they meet once in Europe. Some of the pictures are displayed in the gardens of the Palau Robert in Barcelona until the 31st of March, in a travelling exhibition that will move around Catalonia. Its name is “Refugees: Odyssey to Europe” and it has been organised by the Working Committee for Refugees, an organisation created last year by the Catalan Government to facilitate the refugees’ reception. This photo exhibition aims to raise public awareness of the refugees’ issue, now that a group of them is arriving in Catalonia.

This is not the first time Sergi Cámara has photographed immigrants: since 2004 he’s been taking pictures of human rights violations at Melilla’s border fence, an uncomfortable job which got him and a colleague fined. Yet, it didn’t deter him from his mission. To do so, he works as a freelancer, but also occasionally for organisations and institutions. Having the independence of a freelancer is essential, as he believes that to do good documentary work you have to be independent and unpressured. He isn’t interested in quick projects: he digs deeply into the subject, without rush, dedicating the necessary time to achieve a global and complete vision.

It’s important to highlight that he doesn’t consider himself an artist but a documentary photographer, meaning that instead of focusing on the aesthetic of his pictures, he focuses on their stories. I would say that most of the pictures of the exhibit are not beautiful, but that doesn’t undermine them: their importance goes beyond beauty, and there are some powerful images and metaphors as well. Like a picture of some refugees making their way to a reception centre walking on a road whose end is impossible to see, which made me think about the uncertainty of the refugees’ future.

A good picture has to tell a story”, says Cámara, and his photographs surely do. Not only do we see people immortalized in a photo, but we also learn about their dreams and fears. We meet people from different countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iran, that wish to reach Switzerland, Germany or Finland, among others. The story of a fifteen year old Afghanis who is travelling by himself and who wants to go to Austria to study is especially disturbing.

There are some sentimental pictures, such as tender familiar scenes – a father wrapping his children up warm, a mother kissing her daughter and a father helping his child out of the boat –, but only few tears. The main reason is that Sergi Cámara wanted to differ from the other photographers: he tried to find something new, not what most of his fellows sought, as he “didn’t want to go there to do what others were doing”, he “wanted to show the problem without resorting to sensationalism”.

Nevertheless, the exhibit is like a punch in the stomach: very painful. We are aware of what is happening with the refugee crisis, but it is easier to live peacefully with ourselves pretending not to know the tragedies that other people have to suffer. Cámara’s pictures are able to take us out of our comfort zone and make us acknowledge the affliction of people like us; we sympathise with them and they are no longer just ‘refugees’or a statistic, but they become human beings with a face and a particular story. They are not dehumanized anymore and when we read that “We could all be refugees someday”, we realise how true this affirmation is.

However, the impact and strength of the exhibition is not only the real heart-breaking stories that accompany the realistic pictures; it is also a matter of the contrast between colours. The whiteness of the light colours of the sky and sea provoke a feeling of calmness and quietness that is altered with the orange lifejackets and the warmth of people’s faces and kids’ clothes. Nonetheless, the location of the display – a peaceful garden full of trees and with some birds singing- also contrasts with its difficult and serious topic.

Still, these pictures cannot change you if you don’t pay attention to them. In a cruel parallelism with what happens in European politics, people walk through the palace’s gardens with indifference, without bothering to spend a few minutes looking at the pictures.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses has to face many trials on his attempt to return Ithaca, his home. He has to beat a one-eyed giant, the magician Circe, and he even has to enter the realm of the dead. In spite of all these difficulties, he manages to reach home, where his faithful wife is still waiting for her loved one.

Sadly, there is not always a happy ending for the refugees who live their own Odyssey to escape the misery of war and trying to reach a brighter future: in 2015 more than 3000 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, and 30% of them were children. And those who reach the coast safe and sound don’t find a welcoming Penelope, but a Europe who systematically closes her doors. Turkey built a wall to seal its border with Syria, and Austria announced that it will reintroduce controls on its southern border. But for Sergi Cámera, the obligation to help the refugees is very simple: “If we don’t do it, we die as a society and as people”.


*Article published in the website of Solomon, a Greek- based nonprofit organisation that “uses media for social inclusion“.

STREET ARTIST REVIEW

Articles, Culture

GIVING A SECOND LIFE

Everything can be art, it depends on the way you look at it. For example, someone can be moved to tears by seeing a Caravaggio painting or listening to a Beethoven symphony and then critisize some tags written on their door. But I can be mesmerised by the tag and not appreciate the painting or the symphony. As everything in life, it depends on your point of view, you know, your freedom ends when mine starts or where the police sees you paint”. That’s what Nain Fingers, a graffiti artist, believes of art. 

 Born and raised in Barcelona, Nain Fingers started painting with his friends because it made them feel like “badasses”. But soon he got hooked and realized that “if you do it in the proper space and you give the appropriate message, you can catch the attention of those who are not really into the graffiti world and make them think”. As graffiti are outside museums or art galleries, they take you by surprise so the impact is greater. He paints big graffiti in more or less legal zones like abandoned spaces or factories in ruins in order to avoid getting in trouble with the police. However, it’s not always like this and he bombards the walls with random paintings of his signatures until he runs out of paint or time. 

The pseudonim of Nain Fingers stems from a motorbike accident where he lost a finger. From that moment on, it became not only his signature but also his identity. However, as in Spain English is normally translated in a literal way and people pronounced [nine] instead of [najn], he decided to change it. 

Although doing graffiti is a way of channeling his emotions, he doesn’t do it just for himself but for the spectators as well. This is why he tries to paint graffiti “with an agressive message about something I believe in so you have to give it more than a look to understand it”. Paradoxally, when he doesn’t care about the message beyond the artwork and just lets his hand go with the flow, it’s when it doesn’t leave indifferent and, indeed, makes people think the most. 

Simple, strinking, rare and constantly evolving. This is how he defines his own style. He has always liked the chiaroscuro, that’s why his colour palette basically consists of black, white and grey. At first, he tended to draw only lines, outlines and shadows, without filling them. But afterwards, he became obsessed with realism, old photographs and its details. And that’s what he did. Nevertheless, he admits that another possible explanation for the lack of colour is his laziness. 

Birds are one of the recurring images that most appear in his graffitis. Although it may seem an aesthetic decision, it has a deeper significance. During an epoque where he was “screwed up emotionally”, he could only paint birds. It was as if he had “a strong longing for freedom or something like that”. He is not the first -neither the last- to paint birds. The brasilian street artist L7m, one of his biggest influences, also uses these feathered creatures even though they appear in flashy tonalities. 

But he isn’t the only influencer in Nain Fingers’ masterpieces. Vhils, a portuguese artist who has made a name for himslef in the artistic world with its unique method of carving walls, has contributed to the Spanish artist in the figures: they both paint faces. However, Nain puts more empashis on women visages. “Painting women has always fascinated me: their eyes, their wrinckles… I must confess that I’m an inconditional fan of women. All of them are crazy but if it wasn’t for them we would be really bored”. 

To conclude, Nine Fingers not only paints beautiful graffiti to express his feelings but also to give a second life to those demolished and unused spaces. As the american writer Jarod Kintz said:“Rather than demolish an abandoned warehouse, why not just cover it with graffiti and call it art?

MUSIC REVIEW – Hozier’s concert

Articles, Culture

2 YEARS, ONE TOUR AND 13 SONGS

Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the 25 years old Irish born and raised artist, came to Barcelona for the first time on the 19th of February, with the company of his six piece music band formed by a cellist, a drummer and a trio of vocalists. Razzmatazz was the concert hall chosen to host the concert, and it was great. The low-light atmosphere of the room was in perfect consonance with Hozier’s gothic settings and the sound quality was not bad.  I listened to all of the songs many times as I have the vinyl, but listening to it live was a really different experience.  I’ve always loved live music, but sometimes there are artists who play the same songs and change nothing, and it can be a bit disappointing. Hozier didn’t do that. He added a cover song and also gave much more important to the cello, which brought tenderness to the show.

Everything was great but the audience. I realized that most people were foreigners, but I couldn’t have possibly cared less. However, my discontent came when a soft lyrical song started and people started talking so loud I couldn’t enjoy the song completely. Why would you pay a 30 euros ticket and not listen to the music? The answer to this question is still a mystery to me.

Hozier seems a quiet and shy person, but when he is on a stage, he acquires more presence, security and confidence. As for his appearance, it is not what you usually expect of a singer, but much more casual and unpreoccupied instead. In fact, he seems not to care much about the clothes he wear or the way he looks. He is skinny and pale, and always wears a ponytail, even though his managers complain because they would prefer him to wear his hair loose. For someone like him, having the pressure of different clothes label who want him to support their designs is really stressful: “I’d never thought about how I looked, how I dressed, before all this. I had a winter coat and a denim jacket”.

There are many alternative singers nowadays, so what makes him so special? On the one hand his unique and incredible voice; dark, strong and powerful. He has been compared to George Ezra because they are both young but have a voice that seems of an old man. However, Hozier doesn’t share Ezra’s country-like sounds, but has a style that mixes soul, blues and rock –the song Jackie and Wilson is a good example-. His father was a local blues musician, so Hozier was very influenced by this kind of music, but also by choirs: he sang in a coral group when he was 15. When asked, he also pointed Leonard Cohen and John Lee Hooker as his influences.  

Hozier’s success came when his hit Take Me to Church video– about love, absolution, the Church and gay rights- went viral. The video shows a gay man being beaten up by homophobes in Russia. It came out in the context of the Sochi’s Olympic Games, as a protest against the anti-gay actions that took place in Russia back then, and which Hozier described as “no less than nightmarish”. Later, the ballet dancer Sergei Poulinin appeared dancing the song in a video directed by David LaChapelle, which went viral again. Until now, the hit has won an Ivor Novello, it became Spotify’s most viral tune in 2014 and has been five times certified platinum in the United States.

Nevertheless the song was nominated on the Grammys Song of the Year in 2015 but didn’t win. “The biggest reason “Take Me to Church” won’t win Song of the Year is that it’s ahead of its time. The Grammys (in fact the entire music scene) may not be ready for the strong lyricism that explores sexuality and its place in religion” said the writer Marilisa Sachteleben in an article published in AxS.

Like all of Hozier’s songs, Take Me to Church is really lyrical, metaphorical and with a strong idea behind it, that the artist wants to send to the audience. Consequently, he has been asked many times about the meaning of the song, and he answered “The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love.”  However, it has been criticised because it makes a point about how harmful religious doctrine can be. Hozier also claimed that “Sexuality, and sexual orientation – regardless of orientation – is just natural. An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation”, and that was what was sinful and offensive, even to God.  Growing up in Ireland, he had felt the power the Church holds over people lives. “For me growing up, I had a Christian upbringing and I just noticed this Catholic influence in school. It has an aversion to sexuality and to women and it institutionalizes sexism and homophobia”, he said.

As we see, Hozier is very critical with the Church, but still, he said he wouldn’t define himself as an atheist: “it’s too absolute. But I don’t have any faith. I think faith is an absurd thing but I’m OK with that. There are no answers because the universe never asked a question in the first place.”

After playing this afternoon in Istanbul, Hozier is returning home. It has been a long first worldwide tour for him, as it started two years ago. He has played in the States and Australia; Europe was his last stop. No one knows what is going to happen next, but I am not the only one who after more than two years longs for a new CD. He’s been singing the same 13 songs for a long time, so now might be time for new ones. Yet, having achieved fame and success on his first CD also has a negative effect, because fans are not going to be contented with less.  

ART EXHIBITION REVIEW

Culture

EXPRESSING THE INEFABLE

Dialogues of the gaze’, Fundació Suñol’s current art exhibition focuses on the importance that gaze has in art, where it is no longer only about the act of seeing but goes way further than that. Art can be a link between reality, imagination and symbology, and therefore looking at it is not enough, as it also implies understanding and feeling it. Art is something subjective, personal and intimate because it manifests emotions. Through art, artists are expressing themselves, communicating with the spectators using different objects, supports and techniques. In the Fundació, there are works by 28 different artists: some paints, drawings, photos, sculptures and installations.

On this occasion the Foundation presents pieces from its own collection, made by different artists on different periods of time, which are selected and organised into various sections related to seven different subject areas: Gazing, Reading, Covering up, Value, Walking-resting, Circles or holes and Red. Each of them gather completely different works, but this organisation makes sense and is not too difficult to see why they are grouped together. For example, on the section ‘Gazing: do we see or are we seen?’ everything is related to sight. However Zush’s Sabrina Eyeya painting was the piece that had a more obvious relationship with gaze: it is a woman’s body with eyes on it. Paradoxically, its soft colours are peaceful but I found the presence of the eyes quite troubling and disturbing.

All sections make a perfect union in which all elements are related and connected one with the other. However, there is one painting in ‘Red: image and matter’ which breaks the harmony: an untitled work by Max Bill is the only colourful piece we find in the entire exhibition, and its excessively bright colours are a bit too much.

I’ve sometimes found myself visiting museums so big it was impossible to see everything, and they left me with a feeling of emptiness and disappointment because I wish I had been able to see more. This is something that doesn’t happen in the Fundació Suñol, as it is quite small and you can visit the whole exhibition in less than an hour.

Theoretically, the exhibits provide “a reciprocal gaze that turns into a three-sided active dialogue: the work of art condensing the artist’s gaze; the spectator enquiring about the work from his or her own individuality; and the immensity of the world, understood as an unfathomable vessel where art constitutes an effort to put it all in order”. Nevertheless, you need to read the information sheet about the exhibition to understand that dialogue while you walk throughout the rooms. If not, you may find yourself lost among interesting but incomprehensible art work, because unlike other exhibitions, there is neither a single explanation of the work nor the meaning of the areas.

One of the sections I really enjoyed is ‘Reading: from the object book to the book-object’, where is Jaume Plensa’s Book of life. This book has transparent pages with silkscreen prints and poems by the Catalan artist and poet Antoni Tàpies, who also has works shown there. It is interesting because it’s a reinterpretation of the concept of the book and it plays with perspective. It mixes art and poetry, and in that sense it reminded me of the ‘visual poetry’ Joan Brossa did, an experimental type of poetry which contains plastic elements or images closely related to the text. “Visual poetry is not a drawing, nor a painting, is a service to communication” said Brossa, and it can also be applied to the Book of life.

But in my opinion, the most interesting section is ‘Value: from the poetical to the political’ because it proves that art and social critique are often related. Zush, one of the artists of the exhibition, creates an “imaginary, contradictory and real” ‘Mental State’, a space of freedom where everything is possible. Still, this state is not anarchy and it uses some symbols to guarantee order, although we only see one of them in the exhibition. At first I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but as I read the information sheet everything started to make sense.

The Foundation is a private non-profit organisation which aims “to promote, disseminate and spread art in general, but with particular regard to the Josep Suñol Collection, with the objective of researching, conserving and preserving art and the study of art, obtaining help for artists, students and scholars of Catalan art worldwide”. The General Manager Margarita Aguilar believes “culture should be accessible to anyone” and that is the reason why in 2014 they lowered the entrance fee and have not raised the price since.  The standard ticket is 4 euros and for students it is even more affordable, only one euro. Josep Suñol, founder, president and collector explains that he isn’t “pursuing or getting an economic benefit, but providing the necessary funds to face the activity and management of the Fundació Suñol, year after year”.

As for the location, it is really central, in the 98 of Passeig de Gràcia, where Josep Suñol was born. The building is classical from the outside but it is very modern inside. You might be blinded by the bright white walls and white floor rooms, but the art works stand out between this lightness. For Margarita Aguilar it is also “a place of meditation” and she points out that “it is quite impossible to believe that one can find a quiet space that allows you to see and learn from art in the middle of Passeig de Gràcia”. And she is right: if you visit the Foundation on a work-day you might be lucky and have the entire exhibition just for yourself. If that is the case, be sure to take your time to enjoy it. In the peacefulness of silence, it is easier to see, hear and feel Art. Art with a capital letter; Art as the expression of the ineffable.

*All translations from Catalan people have been translated by the author of the article.

MOVIE REVIEW – Suffragette

Articles, Culture

THE ONLY LANGUAGE THAT MAN LISTENS TO

On the 20th of December the citizens of Spain went to the polling place to choose the new Spanish president. We –men and women- queued, showed our ID and voted; there was nothing strange in that. We weren’t thinking that not too many years ago women weren’t allowed to do so, and that back in the twentieth century some women had to fight to get that right. They were called The Suffragettes and their struggle is revived on Sarah Gavron’s new film Suffragette

It needs to be remarked that even though the title is in singular and the movie focuses on the life of Maud Watts, it is also a testimony of the bravery of the women from the working class who risked everything fighting for their right to vote. They saw how peaceful protests changed nothing with disappointment, and consequently radicalised by turning to violence smashing windows and blowing up mailboxes. As “War’s the only language that man listens to”, vandalism was the only way to make their cause be noticed.  

Maud Watts is a young lower-class Londoner who works in an industrial laundry. Her daily routine is shaken up when she is caught in the middle of a Suffragette riot. It is very interesting to see how Maud’s character evolves throughout the film. At the beginning she is not a Suffragette at all and she criticises the vandalism. Later on, when she is faced with the brutality of the police and the lies of the government, she loses her temper and –a bit involuntarily- gets involved. It is the first time that her hair literally gets messy, yet she claims she isn’t a suffragette, but afterwards her innocence and passivity vanish, she sees her maturity and then affirms she is a Suffragette. Maud is no longer just what the patriarchal and sexist society has made her, a mother and a wife, but someone who stands up for her rights. The Suffragette’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech in a clandestine meeting had been of great influence to her. Pankhurst had said: “I would rather be a rebel than a slave”, and Maud is sick of being a slave: women didn’t have a voice in the Parliament, but neither in their work nor their home. She is determined to change that.

This screenplay was written by Abi Morgan, with whom Sarah Gavron had already worked before in 2007, when she wrote the script of Brick Lane, which is also set in London and focuses on a lower class family with a dramatic life who faces a melodramatic separation. Nevertheless, in Brick Lane there is also the exoticism of India and some rural scenery, whereas in Suffragette we can only see the industrialized London. 

The setting of the film is based in London 1912 time, and it has been perfectly pictured with its streets with antique cars and buses, a carriage driven by a horse, many puddles on the ground, some newspapers on what it looks like a kiosk, the façade of an old chemist, etc. There is a clear contrast between East London, where the working class lives and Central London, where people look wealthier and are dressed fancy. But, what is more impressive is the Glasshouse Laundry where Maud works: the steam that fills the atmosphere and the sweat in the clothes of the workers create a realistic ambience which makes you able to imagine very clearly how hard it was to work in such bad conditions.

But it wasn’t movies Gavron started filming. At first she started with documentaries, which seemed easier but what she really loved was narrative filmmaking. In Suffragette two of the characters are based on historical Suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst –performed by Meryl Streep- played an important part in helping to found the Women’s Social and Political Union, organisation that gathered the Suffragettes, and Emily Davison –performed by Natalie Press- was a WSPU militant. Yet, Maud Watts is a completely fictional character, and we musn’t forget that Suffragette is a film and not a documentary, even if the historical background is realistic. As Abi Morgan highlights, they did a lot of historical research, like reading original testimonies and public records about police surveillance operations. It took six years to get the film made. 

It is easy to find historical documentaries about women fighting for their rights, and specifically to have the right to vote, such as One woman, One vote. However, most of the documentaries are made in the United States, and consequently only refer to the movement in that country. In 2004 Katja von Garnier directed Iron Jawed Angels, a TV movie about north-American suffragists, but there aren’t many more examples. Suffragette brings this historical reality closer to a wider public who may not be interested in documentaries, but love a blockbuster. 

This film was clearly designed to be a blockbuster, and it is through the cast that the commercial aiming of the film is obvious. Not only a well-known actress like Carey Mulligan got the lead role –being named ‘Actress of the Year by the Hollywood Film Award- and Helena Bonham Carter a secondary yet essential one. But Meryl Streep also has her moment of glory and she even appears in all of the official posters. Still, Streep isn’t too important and her presence in the film only lasts few minutes. On the contrast, Anne-Maria Duff has an important role in the film but is absent on the poster, maybe because she isn’t as famous as the others. To me it seems that the choice of the actresses that appear in the promotional images was made to attract a larger public.

All of us know how the story ends; therefore I can say it without needing a spoiler alert: women got the right to vote. However, this victory is rather bittersweet as now, a century later, there is still a long way to go to reach equality between men and women. Furthermore, the film also makes you think about legality; in the twentieth century the law prohibited women to vote. That law needed to be broken, as sometimes disobedience may be necessary. Violet Miller, Maud’s colleague says to her: “You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable!”.

BOOK REVIEW – Les llavors del silenci

Articles, Culture

WAITING TO REACH THE SURFACE

There have been lots of historical novels written on the Spanish civil war. There is For Whom the Bell Tolls, written by Ernest Hemingway, or Soldados de Salamina by the Spanish writer Javier Cercas. However, Les Llavors del Silenci (Silence’s seeds*), novel by Àlvar Caixal, goes one step further and is no longer just about the war. Instead it goes in depth about the human condition, highlighting the importance that our origin has in building our identity and emphasizing how the past shapes our present and therefore demonstrating that oblivion always has negative effects.  

The Spanish civil war ended many years ago but in Spain there are still some open wounds, particularly in relation to what is known as “historical memory”. Many victims of the Franco-era were buried without being identified and some living relatives, frustrated by the Spanish government, have turned to Argentina´s judicial system for help to push the government to carry out exhumations.  Àlvar Caixal’s novel is more relevant today than ever: only last month, Ascensión Mendieta, a 90-year old woman, managed to see the reopening of the common grave where her dad had been buried after he was executed by Franco’s soldiers.

For people like Ascensión, the past cannot be buried and forgotten. Alfred, the main character of the novel, feels the same way which is something that troubles him deeply. After his father’s suicide he discovers some hidden documents that relate his mother to members of the International Brigade who went to Spain to fight for the republic. Consequently, Alfred starts digging into his family’s past searching for the secrets that had always been hidden from him. His search to discover more about his origin and identity leads him to England, the country where Emma Tavistock lived. She was a young woman who loved a British volunteer who fled to Catalonia and the reader learns her story through some letters that her niece has kept safe for many years.

Àlvar Caixal, as the main character, is a digger himself: he is an archaeologist and Les Llavors del Silenci is his first novel. When he won the BBVA Sant Joan award in 2013 he was completely unknown in literary circles. Him winning was quite surprising because in the previous years, the prize had only been awarded to famous authors. Being an archaeologist has certainly had an impact on his writing. Not only that he did an exhaustive documentation for the historical episodes and worked slowly, digging into his characters past layer by layer, but it even took him four years to finish the novel. He wrote and rewrote until he was satisfied with his work.

In spite of the apparent realism of the novel, throughout the story magic elements appear, such as dreamlike images and inexplicable facts. Alfred is convinced that a sort of “power of nature” is responsible for all of the strange things that keep happening to him and that seem to be leading him to the answers he longs for. It’s in that sense that the novel reminded me of the magical realism of the Latin American writer Gabriel García Márquez, who accepts magic as intrinsic in the rational world. These magical elements don’t undermine the credibility of the whole story but paradoxically they create an atmosphere of surreality that is really easy to believe.

In a world where everything is consumed at a high speed –fast food, tweets, instant news -, books like Les Llavors del Silenci can modify your reading habits; it is not something you can read on short journeys in the underground, but a novel to be read slowly, without any distraction. Only this way you won’t miss the delicacy of the prose, the exquisite, chromatic portraits of the sceneries and filled with plenty of adjectives. Every single word that appears in the novel seems to have been chosen very carefully and accurately. A novel written in such a poetic and lyrical style requires you to take time delighting in it. Even the title is poetic and suggestive: Alfred’s family had been silent about their past, but those secrets had germinated into the next generation, waiting to sprout out and finally reach the surface.

*Literal translation, the book hasn’t been translated.