Pick Language

EUPL reviews: where EUPL winners reflect on books from their co-laureates

  • Jasmina Kanuric
  • 15 juillet, 2020

In June, we launched this exciting series on #EUPLreviews, where our EUPL laureates read and review other EUPL winning books. In the latest installment, Raquel Martínez-Gómez, laureate of the prize for Spain in 2010, read ‘Canto jo i la muntanya balla’, the EUPL winning book from Irene Solà, our 2020 Spanish laureate. Raquel shares her thoughts on the book below. 


Raquel Martínez-Gómez on ‘Canto jo i la muntanya balla’ by Irene Solà

The Nobel Prix Halldór Laxness´s sentence which Irene Solà chooses as an initial quote in her novel When I Sing the Mountain Dances (Canto jo i la muntanya balla, in its original edition in Catalonian) has already announced to us the valley survival. The past and spectres are still dwelling on it, but the sun reminds us of the power of now, the importance of present.


We are in the Pyrenees, between Camprodón and Prats de Molló, a place of high mountains, and the borderline which links in our memory with a painful and brutal exile, with a Civil War which left grenade and bullet scraps lying in its forests. Artefacts a girl picks up, sediments of the past on which each new spring blooms.


Amongst so many dystopian and catastrophic visions coming from the loss of natural heritage and deterioration of ecosystems, the novel appears as a harmonious song about the relationship between living beings and their surroundings. It shifts away from an anthropocentric vision, showing us how beings which dwell in the mountains can communicate themselves as equals. It is not about domination but about the succession of the natural cycles: the fertilizer of inert substance comes back to life. “Because we always have been here –said the black trumpet mushrooms- and the spores of one of us are the spores of all. The story of one of us is the story of all”.


The narration allows other non human beings to take the floor, presenting their  points of view. The omnipresent mountain, a not always mute witness of the passing of time, prefers  silence, although clearly shows the insignificance of humans´ and animals’ existence. It has seen them die during centuries. Living near the mountain  reveals this smallness, and makes life and passions grow more intense. Perhaps it is the wholeness of our surroundings which brings sense to the world.


Clouds start to talk. “They are powerful people”, Dersú Uzalá would have said. Domènec knows it, knows what being caught by a storm in mountains means. He had left a house which was heavy for him, and he wanted to experience verses between those immutable stone witnesses. But lightning appears, flooding the drama with light and beauty, and then life goes on.


Nature doesn’t understand censorships or human laws. It follows its path and is generous with those who understand it. The spirits of water-women are living in the forest. They reclaim laughter and happiness. They were hanged because they were accused of being witches. But their scars were absorbed by the landscape, and their vile torturers disappeared.


Freedom is the enemy of domination and, to suppress it, men invented a cruel god. A god to whose curse a king turned to prevent his daughters from getting married with infidels, transforming them into mountains. He wanted them to marry Christian princes. The princess became mountains. Pirene, after whom the Pyrenees where named, was burned alive by Geryon and after that she was covered with big rocks. The mountains are still there, reminding us of the story of human intolerance, the persistence of a tradition often discriminatory, the male violence. 


Reality also includes all which we cannot understand. Legends explain things which surpass human limits. The present suggests. Human feelings appear, sometimes knotting, other times flowing. The passing of time moves everything, nothing remains.


Mia´s story closes the narration. She is Domènec´s daughter, the man struck by lightning – “because lightning goes wherever it fancies”. Jaume is going to see her after twenty-five years. A  deer crossed his path, and all his fears come back to settle in the stormy knots of feelings. He shoots, and his best friend become a ghost who write verses. 


The past impacts the present, what is come about never stopped, but language also challenges the inertia of the events. The human being has the word and this is as powerful as a lightning. Words which sometimes –as Irene Solá herself writes- “can be said one after another like a rope”, others “light up like sparklers….”, others burn, others are better uprooted… But all of them are pronounced while the natural cycles keep happening and while the mountain remains there, dancing.

Ioana Părvulescu on ‘A Spare Life’ by Lidija Dimkovska

Five reasons why I enjoyed Lidija Dimkovska’s novel A Spare life


Because of the author’s artistic courage, since I indeed believe that „all serious creation requires intellectual courage” – as Paul Johnson put it in the preface of his book Creators. It takes an inordinate audacity to choose as your novel’s main character one as challenging as the one in A Spare Life (and I even wonder if this has ever been done before in the history of literature): the Siamese twins, Srebra and Zlata, conjoined at the temple.


Because the dramatic life of the twins is intertwined with the drama of history. Srebra and Zlata grow up in a wild place in the Balkans (they had been born, as the author herself, in Skopje, in the former Yugoslavia). And the Balkans turn out, yet again, to be a most appealing literary topos. There one can only expect the unexpected, for this is where tragedy and comedy become so intense as to be, at times, impossible to tell apart.


Because this historical fresco follows the better part of 30 years, from 1984 to 2012, years I myself have lived through, history whose consequences I myself have felt. As Lidija Dimkovska stated in an interview in 2019, occasioned by the translation of her book in Romanian: „we are born into history, we live in history, and we die fighting history to the bitter end”. I see here a symbolic dimension of the connection of each and everyone of us to history: we are all conjoined with history, like Siamese twins. The attempt to separate ourselves from it is fraught with extreme danger and can ultimately do us in.


Because of the aesthetic panache of a novel so visual and so evocative. Lidija Dimkovska found not just the peculiar language suitable for her „double” character, but also a shrewd narrative solution. From a narrative point of view, the sisters are not Siamese at all, but as independent as can be. Zlata is the one telling, in the first person (singular!), the story of this plural life, but the limelight is stolen by her sister Srebra, more energetic, more uplifting, and more astute. Whether on love, politics or anything else, the sisters have conflicting opinions and feelings. This held true ever since their first childhood games – the book opens up with them – and applies all the way to the head separation surgery and the ensuing death of one of them. On the other hand, their physical lives, deprived of the very possibility of privacy, are necessarily overlapping, even during the most intimate of moments (and here the brave author takes unspeakable risks). This is then, undoubtedly, the novel of a writer in her prime.


Because the story does not come to a halt with the sister’s death. Somehow, as in the myth of the cutting in two of the original human beings, told in Plato’s Symposium, Zlata herself has been split in two. She is left to roam in search of the half she had once been so attached to. Is this not what befalls all of us, when death (or, sometimes, life) tears us apart ruthlessly from those we felt conjoined to – because we loved them? 


(translated from the Romanian by Cătălin Pavel)

Giovanni Dozzini on 'Average Happiness Index' by David Machado

To write a novel about happiness is just to write a novel, because after all when you talk about women and men you're always talking about this: about how we are, and how we can and try to be happy every day, and about how we usually feel we do not manage. But sometimes you play with an open hand, even in literature, and that's what Portuguese author David Machado did with his Indice medio de felicidade (2013).


The story of the main character spins around the suggestive idea that happiness can be measured out: parameters change for every single person, and calculations are tough, but it seems that everyone is able to find his own grade of happiness in a scale of one to ten, decimals included. Too simple, apparently. But no. Machado is good at building a solid structure that becomes more and more convincing, but it's plausible from the beginning. His writing is full, limpid, essential but never untidy. And his capacity to paint vividly his characters is undeniable. For some of them a few brush stokes are enough, for others, like the three 40 years old friends at the centre of the story, all of the 260 pages of the book are necessary. 


The novel is a sort of long letter written from the main character Daniel to his friend Almodôvar. A letter that won't ever be read, because Almodôvar, in the prison where he's locked up, doesn't want and cannot read it. Neither will Xavier, the third vertex of a triangle born so long ago and still standing, with all its cracks. Xavier is depressed, sociopathic, he's not been leaving his house for more than ten years, and the idea of the average index of happiness is an idea of his: he puts it in Daniel's head, he's the one that, paradoxically, will seem to be able to define the decisive advancement of the story. The three friends, before the inexplicable robbery that leads to Almodôvar's detention, had created a web site in which people could ask or offer some help. Something like a time bank. But the site doesn't work, and it never did, and this is a distress to the three of them, especially to Xavier. And when an unknown woman finally writes claiming some help, and nobody else seems ready to help her, the creators know that it's up to them. It's a matter of responsibility. He who creates expectations must do whatever he can not to disappoint them. This is the real core question: where are we supposed to arrive, how much should we sacrifice our needs and interests to satisfy those of other people? And which, and how many, are those other people?  The good thing, obviously, it's that there's no answer at all.


Last but not least, Indice medio de felicidade is a novel about the huge economic crisis that we were still facing when another one, bigger and more dramatic, was brought by pandemic. We are in the Portugal of 2010, more or less, and social ruins of the big bang of 2007/2008 are everywhere. The parable of Daniel is paradigmatic of the fall of middle class, of the slipping of reference points, of the general impoverishment that spared just those who stood at the top of the pyramid. Daniel has not a job anymore, not a house, his family is about to explode, his dignity is hanging in the balance, but his faith in future can't seems to fade. He's always fighting a battle against money, like anyone else, for the primary necessities and the need to save, despite all, even at the cost of lying to the others and to himself, the values on which he founded his existence. It's a hard job for everyone, for someone it's harder. The final picaresque part of the novel sheds light on this point, and some circles get closed, and, although the fundamental knots will remain unsolved, that's ok. Because this is how life goes on, and the stories that we tell one another are part of our life as anything else happens to us. 

Lidija Dimkovska on ‘Life Begins on Friday’ by Ioana Părvulescu

The story of the relationship between a journalist and the world he writes about is written in a wonderfully authentic style by the Romanian writer Ioana Părvulescu. Her novel Life Begins on Friday is a symbolic time machine from the future to the past in which the main personage, Dan Creţu, a contemporary journalist, under the alias Dan Kretzu, returns from the present back to the Bucharest of 1897.


People are usually curious and want to travel to the future, to see what will happen, not back to the past – in the case of Dan Kretzu, he finds himself in the world of the past as if in a museum, but with living exhibits, or maybe better, in a performance whose actors play the roles of inhabitants from other times. He feels at home in a world he does not know how he knows it, but he is also confused, dazed, and insecure, living in two (real) worlds at the same time, trying to adapt to this double life/world.


The story takes place in the last thirteen days of 1897 in Bucharest, which was at that time called Little Paris, and it is a wonderful narrative, a historical, anthropological, psychological, political and cultural description of the people and the city. The author clearly documented her work from newspapers and letters from the period known as La Belle Époque. It is clear from the novel that the last decade of the nineteenth century was marked by great hope for the future and we feel from the novel that optimism in those thirteen days at the close of 1897. Almost all of the characters in the novel are generally good, generous, helping one another, connected to one another, though not all coming from the same social position.


Even if the novel is not openly political,  it is obvious that the story is about royal Romania, its mental, cultural, political dimension, but, important is that the novel is also about Romania today, a Romania that is like an orchestra, rehearsing all the time on instruments while there is still no announcement for a concert.


The novel Life Begins on Friday (2009), a great reading in an unsecure time as the one we live in, has a literary curved mirror in the novel The Future Begins on Monday (2012) in which the inhabitant from Bucharest from 1897 falls into our time and has to live with us, contemporaneous with Dan Cretzu.