I didn’t know Manuel Rivas had written a new novel, even after I’d read it. I only learned this when I turned to the cover blurb and saw that The Low Voices was a ‘coming-of-age novel’. The coming-of-age aspect isn’t in doubt. Rivas recalls his life from the time he was a toddler in A Coruña until his first job as an apprentice reporter on Ideal Gallego.
The book reads like a series of memories, vignettes describing moments in the author’s life. These are carefully chosen moments. That’s clear. They not only relate sometimes apparently insignificant details, such as how the young Manuel and his sister lay quietly on their corn-husk mattress at night, but they also reveal what it was like to live in Spain, and more specifically in Galicia, at that time, under Franco’s dictatorship.
We therefore also get the stories of priests who ‘had the courage to say a funeral mass for two shipyard workers shot dead at a demonstration’ and of the young man, Chao, who would climb a nearby hill to read his book and was later arrested as a member of the anti-fascist brigade and went on to take part in a clandestine school for inmates.
The stories come originally from a series of articles Rivas had written over the years for the culture supplement of the El Pais newspaper. That explains the disjointed nature of the book and why it doesn’t read like a novel.
Is that a bad thing?
No. This is Manuel Rivas. His shopping lists probably read like poetry. Take, for example, his description of how his Uncle Francisco cut hair:
‘He wasn’t heterodox when it came to the dominant haircut. The scissors and mowing machine advanced implacably over the skull’s lawn.’
Or a rock, called the Cuckoo’s Crag, near his childhood home:
‘The cuckoo was large, sculpted by the weather’s imagination in the free workshop of the elements.’
And remember, this is the translated version. I imagine it’s worth learning Galician just to read how wonderful the original must be.
On reflection, The Low Voices does read like a novel after all. Our young protagonist learns and grows despite all the obstacles before him, and he gradually develops his skills – journalism and writing in general – to take on the bad guy: Franco. The young Rivas doesn’t defeat his foe this time, but that only leaves room for what surely will be an eagerly awaited sequel.
Any Cop?: Novel or not, the nature of this book means it can be enjoyed as a single straight story or as individual chapters. It’s one to leave by the bedside, to dip into every now and then, and enjoy over and over. Something, I think, I’ll be doing a lot.