I received an advanced review copy of this title from Other Press. The book was published in the original Spanish in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Mara Faye Lethem. This is yet another contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard. A special thanks to the both of them for hosting this literary event.
Beto is a landscape architect who, like many others, has been hit hard by the economic recession in Europe. Building and maintaining elaborate gardens and parks is a luxury that businesses and municipalities can no longer afford. In order to make some money to pay the bills, Beto enters a landscape architecture contest in Munich, where the first prize would be enough to keep him afloat for a while. Beto and his girlfriend, Marta who is also his assistant and partner in his landscape business, both travel to Munich to attend the landscape conference where the prize winners will be announced.
Beto is having a good time in Munich speaking with other architects and listening to their ideas and proposals. But one night at dinner Beto receives a text message from Marta that clearly wasn’t meant for him. He says, “Life changes when the love messages aren’t for you. That love message arrived like a lightning bolt, unespected and electric, and changed my life.” When he confronts Marta about the message, she admits it was meant for her ex-boyfriend with whom she has reconnected and she announces that she leaving Beto to go back to her ex.
Beto’s reaction to this awful news is one of denial and inertia; he doesn’t want to face his life again in Barcelona where he lives and works with Marta. He impulsively decides to stay behind in Munich even though he has no money and is about to be thrown out of his hotel room. Helga, who was serving as a translator for Beto at the landscape conference, steps in and saves Beto in more ways than one. Helga, at age sixty-two, is about thirty years older than Beto and her offer of help appears to be a natural, maternal gesture. Helga takes Beto back to her apartment in Munich and over a bottle of vodka Beto learns that Helga has been divorced for fifteen years and has lived alone ever since. Throughout the course of their conversation Beto is surprised to discover that he has become very attracted to Helga and he wants to kiss her.
Beto and Helga spend the night together and do much more than kiss. Trueba offers a brutally honest and at times graphic commentary on the realities of aging. Helga has sagging skin and wrinkles and Beto is ashamed that he is attracted to this woman who is so different physically and emotionally from Marta. As they spend time together after their night of passion, Beto feels that he should be embarrassed to be seen with an older woman in a romantic situation and he realizes that this reaction is hurtful to Helga.
Beto has to face reality and say goodbye to Helga and return to the shattered remains of his life in Barcelona. Their farewell at the airport is awkward because they don’t expect to see each other again despite two nights of emotional and physical intimacy that they shared. The last part of the book when Beto is back in Spain is narrated like a diary in months. Beto moves to Madrid and takes a job in a landscape firm where his career finally takes a positive turn. But Beto is not successful in finding another woman with whom he wants to be in a long-term relationship. The memory and pull of Helga and their unexpected connection always lingers in the back of his mind.
This book is a brutally honest commentary on age and love. I especially enjoyed the ending which was a bit of a surprise. Another unique aspect of the book are the pictures that the author includes to illustrate different pieces of the text. Beto’s idea for his garden that is entered in the Munich competition is illustrated as well as other important scenes from the story. Trueba’s character-driven story line with it’s straightforward prose is a great read to bring to the beach when it is released this August.
About the Author and Translator:
David Trueba was born in Madrid in 1969 and has been successful both as a novelist and as a scriptwriter. La buena vida was his widely acclaimed debut as a film director and was followed by Obra Maestra (2001), Soldados de Salamina (2003), Bienvenido a casa (2006), and La silla de Fernando (2007). He is also the author of two previous novels; his debut, Four Friends, sold over 100,000 copies with twenty reprints. Learning to Lose won the Critics Award in 2009.
Mara Faye Lethem is the translator of Spanish and Catalan authors such as Albert Sánchez Piñol, Juan Marsé, Javier Calvo, Jorge Semprún, and Pablo DeSantis. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she has lived in Barcelona since 2003.