In keeping with my desire to read more women writers translated from Spanish, I tracked down a used paperback copy of Ana María Matute’s Celebration in the Northwest (1963, trans. Phoebe Ann Porter 1997). I find it strange that the University of Nebraska Press currently only has this available in hardback (and crazy expensive at that), and also that there is so little Matute available in English. I would like to think her recent win of the Cervantes Prize will help motivate publishers, but I’m not sure whether that will be the case.
The most enjoyable thing about this book is Matute’s rather twisted but beautiful descriptions and comparisons. Here, for example, is part of protagonist Juan Medinao’s perception of his mother when he is a child: “The black beads of her rosary, like a caravan of ants on a business trip to her soul, looped over her wrist where her blood pulsed erratically.” Or, on first encountering a young priest: “As he watched him, Juan experienced a feeling similar to that which came over him before he ate a baby partridge.”
About the story itself I have somewhat mixed feelings: I enjoyed it most in the first half, where it was harder to get a grip on the allegorical element. Briefly, the story opens with the involuntary and disastrous return to Lower Artámila of Dingo, a traveling mimic, whose presence spurs the memories of Juan Medinao, the owner of most of the region. Yet, while Dingo features briefly in the past scenes, Juan’s memories center instead on his evolving relationship with his half-brother Pablo, a local laborer whose mother had an affair with Juan Senior. It is here where the novel’s allegory starts to become clearer, as Pablo comes to represent values of uprightness, self-sufficiency, and independence against Juan’s position as a landlord who really does nothing and gets his sense of self-worth from religion rather than action. I’m sympathetic to the critiques of class and religion, especially as they apply to the context of mid-century Spain, but an unfortunate side effect of the way Matute approaches them is that moral goodness is equated with “perfect” bodies and immorality with disability. Moreover and because of this, Juan’s feelings toward Pablo comprise an intense jealousy and desire—increasingly sensualized and homoerotic so that homoeroticism comes to be identified with a lack of self-confidence and honesty. In the last half of the novel, this gradually chipped away at my pleasure in the prose.
Still, the book makes me want to read more of Matute’s work and hope that I’ll be able to enjoy some of her other stories more. She clearly has a wicked streak in her understanding of children, and I am curious to see how that plays out in some of her stories geared to a younger audience.