I just finished reading a novel in Spanish, Esteban el Centauro
by Gilberto Flores Patiño (Atenas, Mexico, 1985). My first
ever. Admittedly it’s a very short novel: only 82 pages, coming
in at around 25,000 words. Barely a novella really. But as someone
who’s only managed to struggle through kid’s picture books, and
short simple stories and poems, it felt like a major achievement.
I read the whole thing through without an English translation by
my side. I read it and I understood it and it made me weep. I cried
and cried and cried and cried. And books hardly ever make me cry.
Except for Wide Sargasso Sea and Bridge to Terebithia
and Pride and Prejudice and In Cold Blood and,
okay, lots of books make me cry. But they’re all really good ones.
(Except for the really crap ones which make me cry for different
Esteban is the perfect book for someone with my level of Spanish who can’t cope with reading badly written exercises for people with my level of Spanish. It’s written from the point of view of a small boy, Esteban, talking to his constant companion, his wooden horse. (Hence the title Esteban the Centaur: half boy, half wooden horse.) There’s lots of first and second person (yay, my favourites). Hardly any subjunctive. Not a lot of new vocab, except for all the stuff to do with horses. And lots of repetition: "Because the sea is very big very big very big. Bigger than anything! It has lots and lots of water".
The clause structure is not complicated either, barely a "which" or a "who" in sight. It’s all this and then this and then this. Open any page and it’s littered with "ands", even more visible in Spanish because "and" is "y". An effect I will attempt to duplicate by using "&" in place of "and":
My mum & her friends & their girlfriends were walking & looking at the sand & they were picking up shells & one woman put a shell to her ear & she said she could hear the sea. Then I thought that the sea was talking & the voice of the sea came out of the shells, because all the señores & señoras & my mum were putting the shells to their ears & they started to laugh & say yes yes yes, I can hear it too. & because no one told me what the sea said, I looked for a shell & I put it to my ear, but I didn’t hear anything, & because they were all saying that they could hear the sea I thought that my shell was no good & I threw it away & looked for another & I still heard nothing & I looked & looked & looked, but none of the shells that I put to my ear had the voice of the sea.
I don’t remember the last time I read a story from a small kid’s point of view that so gorgeously captured the rhythms of a child’s speech, the endless stream of questions: "Who invents the words in dictionaries?" and their view from below—looking up at the grown-ups—trying to parse that strange adult world.
And to help my comprehension, Esteban el Centauro is partly set here in San Miguel. Esteban walks down streets I know, goes to Mama Mia’s looking for his mother, sits in the Jardin, looks at the Parroquia. Esteban’s childish eyes capture, too, some of the complex interractions between the Mexican and gringo inhabitants of this fine city. Something else I’m increasingly familiar with.
I’m not sure there’s another book in Spanish so perfectly designed for me. Following my teacher Alejandra’s suggestion, I tried Aura by Carlos Fuentes which also has the virtue of shortness, but it’s wham bam straight back to adult land: complicated structures, zillions of words I’ve never seen before. I can barely read a clause with even partial understanding. Fortunately my edition’s bilingual so I can cheat.
Still, I read a novel in Spanish! And I will keep trying to read others, the way I keep trying to have conversations with people, even though I stumble over verb conjugations, pronouns, masculine and feminine, and haven’t managed to fully erradicate my lisp. But if people don’t talk too fast or use too many unfamiliar words or phrases, I can understand them. And, on occasion, I can even manage a long conversation about tricky subjects, like the relationship between servants and their employers in San Miguel. I even had a shot at explaining cricket. Not recommended. But then I’ve never managed that successfully in English either. Amazing how many otherwise intelligent people fall apart when confronted with phrases like Hit Wicket and Silly Mid-Off. I shall never understand it.
San Miguel de Allende, 22 January 2004