Gerardo Rodriguez Salas – author of a recent collection of Spanish short stories: Hijas de un Sueño at his desk in Granada
One night in December 2001 I went to a party. It was in a grand reception hall at the University of Granada, and there I met Gerardo Rodriguez Salas, a PhD student of literature in English. We were both part of a conference on writing from the British Commonwealth. When I told Gerardo I was extra keen on the work of Lorca, he arranged for me to go the next day to the Lorca museum in Fuente Vaqueros, about half an hour by car from Granada. Dr Susan Ballyn from the University of Barcelona kindly drove me to the museum. So far, a sweetly orthodox tale. It could have all ended there. But since the party, all of sixteen years ago, Gerardo and I have been having a conversation, sometimes by email, occasionally face to face in Spain or Australia. So it’s a never-ending party.
In 2017 Gerardo published his first collection of twelve stories, Hijas de un Sueño which I choose to translate as Daughters of the Dream. Each story is given an epigraph, one of them being from Lorca, two from Katherine Mansfield – also a writer for whom Gerardo and I share a great love. But there is another writer (whose work was before this unfamiliar to me – my loss) who is highly significant to the collection, and that is Angeles Mora, the 2016 winner of the Spanish National Prize for Poetry. Angeles Mora provides a Preface, and also the epigraph for the book:
‘In the labyrinthine lights of your mind
I was the guest that stayed for dinner’
So the reader realises the stories will have a strong kinship with poetry. They are set, as a splintered discontinuous narrative, in the imaginary Andalusian village of Candiles, the name of which invokes the image of an old oil lamp. On the jacket of the book, the light from such a lamp fills the interior of a snow globe, the lamp being in the hand of a small adventurous girl who resembles an illustration in a picture book from the thirties. With a wonderful understatement and subtlety, the jacket is the flat colour of a dried brown leaf, the girl and her lamp lightly sketched in a darker shade of umber.
The title story, concerning the life and death of a grandmother, and the history of a family after the Civil War, begins with a riddling sentence that sets the reader’s mind off into a labyrinth of images, characters and situations: ‘When the grandmother was born, the world began to die.’ It is local; it is universal – funny, tragic, grand and sad.
Woven deeply into the whole fabric of the collection are inter-textual references to the works of Lorca and Mansfield. ‘Leftovers’ is a delicate re-visiting of Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’ (one of the finest and most heart-breaking short stories ever written), and the Spanish story takes as its epigraph a quotation from ‘Miss Brill’: ‘They were all on stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting.’ This foregrounding of the theatre of lived lives is the key motif and device of ‘Retales’, and the story rings with the deep pathos that it shares with ‘Miss Brill’.
Characters from one story will speak up in another. In ‘All Souls’, where the legend of a long-lost child provides the spine of the tale, people from ‘Daughters of the Dream’ appear, and play their part in the visit to the cemetery on a very windy day. I tell you, this is beautiful, entrancing stuff to read. Experimental, playing with light and dark, language and literature.
I should say that the collection has not yet appeared in an English translation, but that’s no reason for me to conceal my pleasure and interest in it from English-speaking readers. One of the stories, ‘Mirage’ was in fact published in an English version in Meanjin a few years ago, so there is a little Australian connection. The works of Lewis Carroll and of Virginia Woolf resonate in ‘Beyond Dreams’. ‘Twelve Butterflies’ is set in rural Spain at the start of the nineteenth century when the Inquisition was in its last stages, and it is a glorious feminist re-writing of the Grimm tale ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’. Imagine that if you will.
This collection is one of the great treasures of my bookshelf, and I am so pleased I went to that party in Granada.