La hija de la española. Karina Sainz Borgo. Barcelona: Lumen. 2019. 220 pages.
Where does one begin to lie? With a name? With a gesture? In memories? Perhaps in words? The success of a lie depends in great part upon its beginning. There are narratives that manage to not only set the tone, but to define the theme within the first half of the first line. That is the case in Karina Sainz Borgo’s La hija de la española [The Spanish woman’s daughter]. “Enterramos a mi madre con sus cosas” [We buried my mother with her things]. This is how the first novel by the Venezuelan journalist living in Spain begins.
Published in Lumen and sold in more than twenty countries, it tells the story of Adelaida Falcón in first person. She is the daughter of a mother who just died (they share the same name) after an agonizing cancer in a Caracas that is tumbling like a building in a warzone. Adelaida the elder was “a woman too young to disappear”; she was the “we” of Adelaida the younger, a daughter without children of her own.
A phrase is repeated throughout the novel that the protagonist, a literary editor, has read from Juan Gabriel Vásquez: “Uno es del lugar donde están enterrados sus muertos.” [One is from wherever their dead are buried]. But Adelaida will have to leave Caracas, her dead mother, and her own reserved tomb space behind.
Her home is invaded by the “Marshall’s wife” and her hangers-on when she goes out to buy tampons. The Mariscala is a merchant in hunger in a country governed by the “Sons of the revolution.” She puts on the butterfly shirt that her mother never got to wear, smashes the china, destroys the books, and does not allow Adelaida to come back in.
Fernando Iwasaki says that one is from where their children are born. Adelaida buries her country with her mother, because her mother is her homeland and her land is tearing itself apart like lifelines in its hands. It becomes the stage where something else, another person, will come to pass. That other person is Aurora, her neighbor. Aurora is, or was, the daughter of the española, a woman descended from the people who arrived in Venezuela fleeing the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath: “gente que solo tenía una cosa para vivir: sus manos” [people who only had one thing they could use to stay alive: their hands]. Julia, la española, began her business in La Candelaria. She died long ago, and now Adelaida finds her door ajar and her daughter, Aurora—la hija de la española—dead, with all of her papers ready to go to Spain, where she is expected. Adalaida does not know who killed her, but she doesn’t care.
It isn’t so much what happens as the way in which it is told; the good part is already decided. Sainz Borgo allows us to be a part of the little girl and the woman at the same time. She tells a personal and universal story of going and coming; she maintains the tension, calming the hunger of those who read to know what will happen, along with those who read to know what has happened. It is a novel that satisfies both literary and commercial readers. There are hopeful, tiny miracles; doors open in the midst of barbarity and money falls from the wall.
There are barely any tears. There are wild eyes, the sugarcane-colored eyes a brilliant child, a furious gaze, María Lionza’s eyes, muddy eyes, like those of a crazed snake, like plates the color of cooked yolk, empty sockets, a cyclops, eyes that point at green uniforms, eyes fixed upon the equipment truck next to the plane, eyes that give “la mirada que me diste, mamá” [the look that you gave me, mom]. There are no free tears; the whole-body cries.
“Enterrar mi madre, sus cosas” [To bury my mother, her things]. Burying is the opposite of what the protagonist does in Todo lo que tengo lo llevo conmigo, a novel by Herta Müller that the present book evokes. Its result is the opposite in the sense that Leopold returns home and continues carrying the burden of the place where he learned to cease being a person, dragging it along from the title page to the conclusion. Adelaida, on the other hand, carries the vocabulary of flight until the end because she buries; she begins by burying. She survives because she wants to survive; she is obligated, she says. She becomes a new woman.
Trying to objectify pain to cut it down or break it; smell as a refuge for memory; idealizing a lost paradise as something to hold onto when refuge stinks of iron. It is all a warning, the question of why someone decides that this is or is not your place posed by a little girl named Adelaida or a woman like the Imaginary Kati that did not grow from the whole. Bread, that which is sacred that becomes bread and the power of the man with bread when hunger is not hunger but leftover sunflower oil that someone will drink. The hunger is oil that sticks to the skin, and the skin is water, for both Müller and Sainz Borgo.
“El país vivía días oscuros, probablemente los peores desde la Guerra Federal.” [The country was living through dark days, perhaps the worst since the Federal War]. The narration is in the past, but it becomes a luminary present in Ocumare, where Adelaida lives during the summer with her aunts, and when she addresses her dead mother, with flowers and the word “rest” on the poor tombstone. They are moments that need someone who can read and write, even though the turtle named Pancho is screaming; they are going to sacrifice and eat him as if he were a pig in a slaughterhouse in southern Spain.
The scene is different, and Venezuela is the Caribbean, but the women play a supportive family role not unlike that of those in Andalucia. The sea is important. The sea separates or brings together. “Porque todas las historias de mar son políticas y nosotros trozos de algo que busca una tierra” [Because all stories of the sea are political, and we are pieces of something that is searching for land], says the author in her dedication.
The strength of these “mujeres rocosas, con corazón de pan duro y la piel curtida gracias al sol y la candela de los fogones y las planchas” [solid women, with a heart of stale bread and skin weathered by the sun and the fire of the stoves and irons] is also found in music, in the songs sung around the fountain, “una melodía que acompañaba la molienda bruta y sabrosa” [a melody that accompanied the rough, delicious grinding]. Writing is really also grinding, a way of making work’s moans into something beautiful.
There are joropo and reguetón, sensational Saturdays, trees and shrubs, the SEBIN, the television and newspapers, shackles and polka dots in packets of flour, a natural and cosmetic reserve of the sort that arrives from an another country and that which just is: barrios, La Pastora, helados Coppelia, aracas, hallacas, cachacas, hallaquitas and bollos.
The prose is resonant and sharp, with steps and shadows. One is not left with hunger, but with doubt. Where is Adelaida now? Where does she tell the story from, if she appears to be far from Spain even though the olives are fresh? Was there a hand behind the sweeping bringing order to the sunshine behind the door?
“I have always been on the border, watching, sliding off toward the exit; I hate to belong,” said Doris Lessing. But Aurora calls upon home because she is obliged to, as if her creator insisted on it; “my duty was to survive” – to tell the story?
There are women who tell stories about other women. There is silence meted out as punishment by mothers; it is our first home, setting, and biscuit. The home is the first system of government, where we disobey for the first time. Upon finishing this novel, one remembers Montejo’s poem that ends: “su espacio es real, impávido, concreto,/ solo mi historia es falsa.” [Her space is real, undaunted, concrete,/ only my story is false]. The poem is named Caracas.
Translated by Michael Redzich