Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín

Stories for Old Dictators
Them mendez ferrin
Them Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín
As part of Transcript's perusal of writing in bilingual worlds, Mary Ann Constantine makes a comprehensive comparison of two collections of short stories, Them by Galicia's Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín, and Y Dwr Mawr Llwyd by Wales' Robin Llywelyn, two writers resisting the grey uniformity of worlds where exceptions are not tolerated.

Read The Sea is Full by Robin Llywelyn on the author's personal website. For more information on Y Dwr Mawr Llwyd, see the Welsh Literature Abroad website.

There is a short story by Italo Calvino which begins, `Three naked men were sitting on a stone'. It is neither folktale nor allegory but, it subjects reality to a kind of mythic x-ray. It has the inherited bone-structure of a traditional tale, and a clean, intelligent simplicity of style that somehow conveys the complex brutalities of human relationships during war. It is exactly the kind of story one would want to read aloud on long winter evenings to former dictators in grand hotels, to soldiers accused of war crimes, and to all those trying to unravel the guilts and complicities of the past.

The Galician writer Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín and the Welsh writer Robin Llywelyn, though very different from each other, are recognizably akin to Calvino. Both have something like the same double gift for crystallizing realities into familiar patterns, and for giving the fantastic a plausible, real voice; both are technically inventive, sometimes challenging. And while Llywelyn is a much more comic writer than Ferrín, both, in different ways, are political.

I began with Calvino really to avoid the assumption that minority-culture writers talk only to and for themselves or each other: the images of loss and the acts of violence and repression in these stories are relevant to anyone with the thinnest understanding of twentieth-century history.

There is an obvious aptness in bringing together these two minority-language writers from Western-pushing peninsulas. There are connections, of course, some of them `Celtic': Galicia's self-reinvention as a country with a Celtic past has left its mark on the work of Ferrín, who is clearly familiar with Welsh and Irish medieval literature, while Llywelyn's fondness for odd names gives him plenty scope for playing games in Breton.

Ferrín's own experiences under Franco are most directly reflected in a story like `Elastic Boots' (1991). The premise of the story is both pitiful and absurd: a man hides from the military police for over a year in a den scraped into the side of the cesspit of his own house. The story is told by three voices, interleaved, rarely more than a few lines each. A girl remembers events that happened when she was eleven: `Only Mummy and me knew that Daddy had come to Augela too..' A third-person narrator, initially neutral, supplements her account with factual information, `Augela is on the Chaira moors..' But opening the story, and eliciting the girl's answers throughout, is an anonymous voice represented simply by a question mark: "...?" The girl's responses occasionally give these questions some body -

`No sir, Daddy never dug the cesspit with that idea in mind.'

`No. I didn't dare tell my mother that I'd spoken to that man.'

- but the questioner and his reasons never take on a character beyond this insistent (though never, despite the format, brutal) `sir'.

The life of the man in the cesspit seems to depend on the relationship between the little girl and a civil guard who arrives at the village in the spring, wearing black elasticated boots which fascinate and repulse her. He gives her presents and she grows to like him, to look forward to his visits. But his patient attempts to make her betray her father fail because of his black boots: `Those boots made me feel sick'.

The authorities lose their patience and send soldiers to the house one night; they drag the girl's mother out into the yard and set about raping her. The girl is made to watch, and she runs to her `friend' for help: he has a final attempt at making her speak, promising to save her father, but again she is paralysed by the sight of his boots. The father soon emerges from the cesspit, is beaten up and dragged away; the guard leaves in fury: `Why didn't you tell me where he was, you little bitch?' The narrator then describes the girl's realization that he had known all along where her father was, and had simply wanted her to tell him so that she would be permanently scarred by her betrayal. His failure, we learn, `was a great disappointment to him'.

This revelation blurs the trajectory of the story. The reader is now uncertain exactly what has been at stake: has the girl really resisted the taint of a complicity `as filthy as the slime flushed down the pipe'? Is this traumatic account somehow a secret victory for integrity? The games played in this story and others in the collection are characteristic of the language and methods of repressive regimes. Here, the failure of the guard to make the girl speak is shadowed by the successful, but troubling, interrogation that produces the story itself.

Ferrín's depictions of authorship often suggest that cruelty is inherent in the act of writing itself. The early story `Philoctetes' (1958) allows a character to `escape' from the pain and horror of imprisonment into the stories he reads in hospital: his attempts to save a character's life only fulfil the terms of the story by killing her, yet he writes to the author with praise and gratitude for his marvellous art, and for the freedom he has given him.

Cruelty is such a predominant theme with Ferrín, and scenes between victims and torturers are at the core of so many of his stories, that it is hard to avoid the now rather clichéd concept of a 'tyrannical' narrative broken up by subversive technique. In `Them', for example, a group of four fascist soldiers stop for `a bite to eat after the dawn purges'. Over breakfast the Porter, the peasant of the group, tells them that his child is incurably plagued by lice. Drawn out by the leader, Salgueiro, who is teasing him, he admits to thinking that a neighbour has put the evil eye on the boy. But when Salgueiro hears that this woman has a son in hiding, he decides that they will pay the witch a visit.

As the woman emerges from her hovel in terror, the narrator, one of the four, is convinced that her `clean face' and `clear eyes...could not belong to anything but a good woman'. But he and the fat untidy doctor can only watch with distaste as the others work themselves into a frenzy of violence, graphically described. When she is finally beaten unconscious Salgueiro pours petrol over her body and her house and starts a fire. In the release of tension that follows, the men laugh `as if we wanted to get something out of our systems'. Then Fernando runs his fingers through his hair, and the others begin scratching: `It was then that the lice took us over for ever'.

As an ending this seems curiously blatant; but it does a number of interesting things. If the lice are the obviously appropriate symbolic punishment, their materialization, within the existing terms of the story, also troubles certain assumptions made by the reader: that the woman with the good clean face has not harmed - could not have harmed - the little boy, or that the Porter's world of superstition is a comical subplot serving Salgueiro's more sophisticated `political' hatred. As in `Elastic Boots', a relatively simple line of narrative is blurred; and, as in the futuristic 'Partisna 4' (in which another elderly woman is tortured to death), the unsubtle final twist is both an act of revenge on behalf of the victim and a warning to the reader to stay alert.

A similar violation of fictional boundaries occurs in Robin Llywelyn's `Crafu Ffenestr' - although here the transition is effected more traditionally, through dream. As with `Them' there is a flattering gap - wider in this case - between the character's perceptions and those of the reader. Adolfo Scilingo is a retired naval captain, irritated, as he settles down to sleep, by a scratching at his window. He tries to find out the time (he cannot bear clocks in his bedroom) from the radio, television and phone in succession, but none are working: all he gets is a hissing interference `like the waves of the sea'. Scilingo gets more and more irascible (what is the matter with this wretched country; doesn't he always pay all his bills on time?). When he can't even work the handle of his bedroom door he decides to go back to bed.

He turns out the bedside light, and, as he settles, the grumbling monologue is broken up by strange images. There is a wonderfully subtle shift in the narrative:

'His breathing, nevertheless, was regular, like the breathing of deeply sleeping prisoners. Their breathing was always regular and smooth as they flew through the night sky.'

An almost imperceptible movement here turns the indefinite image of `sleeping prisoners' from simile into a recollection of the past: the sleepers become definite (`their breathing'), and, as the tense switches again, this time to the present, there is a memorable description of the fifteen naked bodies (`seven men and eight women') lying on the floor of the plane, each with their own pattern of breathing. Voices give commands into his helmet, the hatch opens and, with the wind and the white moonlight in his face, he helps unload the sleepers one by one into the sea far below.

The dreamlike sequence that follows has Scilingo falling, landing in a wood, and following a road to a castle in which he gets trapped. At this point he notices that he has actually woken up, and that it is pitch black in his room: but now even the bedside lamp fails to work, and his feet, which cannot find his slippers, hit cold flagstones. He gropes his way round the unfamiliar cold walls of his room, and when he loses even his bed, lies down on the stone floor. His monologue becomes defensive: it was not his fault, he was only obeying orders, the Friday night shifts were part of a rota... The images of flying grow nightmarish, and the story closes with Scilingo's realisation that the scratching is back, accusing him in whispered voices, the hissing of the sea. It closes on him and he meets a (rather unnecessarily) gory end; the final image is of night flowing through his veins instead of blood.

Though again there is more than a touch of melodrama in the ending of this story, the scratching, like the lice, disturbs borders. It exists, quite plausibly, outside and inside Scilingo's mind, just as his experiences shift between dream and reality until that particular dichotomy also dissolves: `Gwyr nad cysgu y mae o a gwyr na chaiff ddeffro eto ychwaith'. (He knows he is not sleeping and he knows he will not wake again either). In this at least his end resembles that of the most haunting image of this piece, the peaceful naked bodies going to their deaths asleep.

The prisoners are referred to once as desaparecidos, and there is a brief glimpse of mothers and grandmothers in black, carrying banners, but there is no sustained attempt at tying the events or the memories to a time and place. Much of Llywelyn's writing plays in this way with the local and universal; one of the delights for the Welsh-speaking reader is the way his very specific Merionethshire dialect - in the tradition of the best science-fiction programmes where all extra-terrestial life speaks perfect American - goes boldly into worlds beyond the quarry and the chapel. He has a similar technique with time, putting legendary names and plots into modern or futuristic settings. This fusion of local/exotic, past/future is nicely epitomized by the Italianate village of Portmeirion on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, a place with which Llywelyn has close links. The village was the location for the 1960s British science-fiction series The Prisoner; the theme of the eternal prisoner also happens to be one of the oldest in Welsh literature.

Though his thematic preoccupations recur, Ferrín's past and future worlds are more clearly demarcated: the collection has a number of futuristic pieces, complete with space craft and elaborate architecture and inbred ritual-governed elite ('Labyrinth', 'Partisan 4') . But of particular relevance in this comparative context are a number of stories about a legendary country of Tagen Ata, its political subjection to and fight for independence from Terra Ancha. An obvious metaphorical vehicle for the relations between Spain and Galicia, these stories are a particularly subtle exploration of the complex interrelationships of political and personal feeling and action. One of the most intriguing aspects of this group (written over time and appearing in different collections) is the shifting time perspective, and the way the Tagen Ata world flickers in and out of focus in quite different contexts. In some stories its struggles are expressed as a present concern (`Return to Tagen Ata' 1970); in others it is offstage, perhaps a generation distant, in a world of expatriots and exiles. It has a language (used to especially eery effect in `A Family of Surveyors', 1982), and a mythology, which surfaces in the story `Cold Hortensia' (1982).

This piece, remarkable for its length and its extraordinary technique, is a tour-de-force: the pages are woven tight, no gaps, no paragraph breaks, no speech marks, and two narratives twined in a kind of medieval entrelasse but with almost none of the usual markers (`and now we return to our hero') to help the reader or listener differentiate. Reading it is like doing back-stitch, the eye at intervals flicking back to re-absorb just-read sentences, now connected to what follows rather than what has gone before.

The narrator's story is of `the most unforgettable of summers' when he and his cousin Maribel and a small group of other young people gathered in the evenings to hear Cold Hortensia tell them of the war between A Nosa Terra and Tagen Ata. Her story, the old one, the myth, is not exactly framed by his - that implies order and perspective - but it is his account, his recollection, that allows hers to happen. His summer of yearning and melancholy and intense sensation is admirably evoked: events and relationships are refracted through the peculiar distanced vision of adolescence.

Cold Hortensia's story is initially disconcerting for any reader with some knowledge of medieval Welsh literature, as it is a transplanted version of the second tale of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Ferrín's use of this text presumably reflects the period of Galician claims to `Celticity' (which have, as far I know, no basis in historical or linguistic fact, though they nicely reciprocate a medieval Irish origin - legend of Ireland being peopled by the descendants of the 'soldier from Spain'). But I think he would have been attracted to the story wherever it came from: the devastating war between Wales and Ireland is a story of deep mythic layers - involving the loss of a cauldron of regeneration and the death of the giant king Bran - but also of bitter modern relevance. It is a powerful reminder of the terrible fragility of `political settlements', of human speech and agreement, in the face of acts of violence, and Ferrín exploits its bitterness to the full.

There are moments of precarious overlap between the two twined narratives - cousin Maribel seems to understand the story at some deep hidden level, and household objects in Cold Hortensia's hut threaten to take on mythic status - but nothing so direct, so clumsily significant, as an explicit connection ever happens and the story retains its strangeness and subtlety to the last sentence, when the end of the holidays marks a return back to `days of sorrows and certainties.'

The giant Bran is also the inspiration for Robin Llywelyn's superb title story, `Y Dwr Mawr Llwyd'. The piece is simple: the narrator, up to his neck, describes the huge expanse of water around him. His language is informal, his tone undramatic, and he is simply fed up with it all:

'But what's really awful is its monotony. It's just so unchanging, so like itself, so consistently, boringly flat.'

He remembers when it wasn't like this; how very gradually the world disappeared, the lowlands first, with their decent hardworking people, at about the time the water came up to his knees. He regrets not taking much notice of them at the time - it is hard now to recall them clearly. Much more vivid are those last brave little farms on mountain tops turned to islands, which went under as the water reached his neck: `Perhaps I'm wrong but I'd swear it was about then that the sun drowned too.'

It is because this voice has the convicti

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL