Eden is a Four-Letter Word

José María Merino’s El río del Eden (The River of Eden)

By Valerie Miles

According to the distinguished Spanish novelist, academic, and master of the short story José María Merino (A Coruña, 1941), earthly paradise does exist, and a river runs through it. The Altus Tagus National Park sets the tone for his latest, highly celebrated novel, El río del Eden, which won Spain’s National Book Award in 2012. The extraordinary scenery of gorges and river gullies, of recondite moors where clusters of ancient hawthorn grow, of needled limestone and red sandstone monoliths, summons reveries of legend and myth reaching back to the dawn of time. Eden as that place of innocence, before the passions and betrayals of adult life set in, despite the best of intentions (which as we know, are the bricks that pave the road to hell). These tales act as the warp and woof of Merino’s eager imagination, and with them he weaves a narrative skin for that inchoate space where life’s deepest mysteries dwell. El río del Eden is the third of a narrative cycle that includes the novels El lugar sin culpa (2006) and La sima (2009), set on an island and a mountain, respectively, all of which explore with the signature cadences of his scrupulously precise, chiseled prose, how a physical setting can capture, mirror and counterpoint his characters’ interior landscapes.

Though he was born in Coruña, Merino has always considered León his home. His father had been forced into hiding in Galicia during the Spanish Civil War, given his Republican affiliation. He met his wife, and José María was born there, but as soon as the war ended the family returned to León. Merino left for Madrid to study law and though his first published book was of poetry, in 1972, he quickly realized his destiny was in fiction. Distinguished by an astonishing capacity to change genre and register, José María Merino is of the few writers of his generation to cultivate and experiment with fantastic, and not only realistic forms of narrative. His first book of fiction, Novela de Andrés Choz, evades classification and was considered at once literary fiction, science fiction and even meta-fiction, depending on who was reviewing. His highly acclaimed, essential novels, El caldero de oro, La orilla oscura and El centro del aire are grouped as “Novels of Myths” and explore the uncertainty of life in a strange, world. He once said “Literature is the instrument that allows you not only to travel through the reality of the waking world, but also the reality of dreams”.

Merino also famously gives reign to the delightful paradoxes and sudden epiphanies that micro-fiction allows, in the vein of Lydia Davis, and his pieces like “The Fly” or “The Toaster” have become canonical examples. Together with other “León School” writers of his generation, Luis Mateo Díez and Juan Pedro Aparicio, they’ve revived an old tradition known as the Filandón, where women would sit around the hearth at night spinning thread, the men whittling, and tell each other stories and legends that were passed down from generation to generation. It’s become one of the Hay Festival’s particularly popular events, and they tour around telling tales of León like modern day troubadours.

I’ve had the occasion to hear Merino read his work twice recently, first at the University in Valladolid last month in a stirring act of homage for Dr. Antonio Candau who taught at Case Western and was a specialist in his work, and again at the Book Fair in Bucharest just a week ago, during the launch of the Romanian edition of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn (Open Letter, 2014) where a chapter is dedicated to his writing. To hear him read is a gorgeous thing, few writers are blessed with so enchanting a voice; seductively grainy, his bass register is like the red carpet for a perfect enunciation that’s the Castillian equivalent of the Queen’s English… precise, stately, and oh Lord those vowels.

Americans forget that one of the first modern road novels ever written is Spanish, thanks to Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and arguably unrivalled as the pinnacle of the form. I wonder, though, if we might consider Moby Dick a road novel? In any case, Merino’s novel El río del Eden, while not exactly a road novel in senso strictu, is nevertheless a bittersweet, Quixotic adventure drawing on the peripatetic tradition. A father and his down-syndrome son decide to fulfill the last wishes of mother and (ex)-wife, by spreading her ashes over the Taravilla Lagoon. The blue-green waters and perfectly round form make the body of water seem like a terrestrial eye looking up to the heavens, expressing a primordial loneliness, a paradise that exists somewhere in all our imaginations. “Those mysterious, greenish waters suggested a story of love, betrayal and atonement,” Merino explains. And as I read the novel, I could hear his deep, richly layered voice purring out the perfect cadences, a dangerous undercurrent pulling from beneath the placid surface of a whimsical, meandering river.

The story is told in the second person, and at times plural, since the main character, Daniel, realizes that often one of his identities come into conflict with another, adding psychological depth and a rich, unpredictable verisimilitude to the narrator’s voice: there’s the paternal Daniel, the sensitive Daniel, the intolerant Daniel, the lusty Daniel, the crafty Daniel, and then again Daniel the merciful. One Daniel talks to another Daniel, recalling together the time of his courtship with Tere, the betrayals, the reconciliations, the birth of Silvio, the divorce, the journey to scatter her ashes; time that is circular, that turns back on itself while moving forward, superimposing to remind how fleeting life is on earth, how important to make the most of the sparkling moments of plenitude, echoing Emerson in “The Oversoul”: “There is a difference between one and another hour of life in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. For this reason the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely the appeal to experience, is for ever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope. He must explain this hope.”

Merino’s choice to set the story at the Taravilla Lagoon is not an innocent one, no it isn’t; this is where Don Julián, Count of Ceuta, whose treacherous act opened the doors to the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th century, cast his sullied treasure in despair, to the bottom of these enigmatic green waters. Don Julián is the archytypal traitor, the villain, the Spanish Benedict Arnold. He’s one of the central figures of Juan Goytisolo’s novel, Count Julián, and he also captivated Washington Irving’s imagination, he of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” fame. Irving acted as U.S. Ambassador to Spain from 1842 to 1846, but he had already been steeped in Spanish history during an earlier period of time there, gathering information and writing The Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, and his Tales of the Alhambra, which became so popular they played a crucial role in restoring the Palaces, which had nearly fallen to ruin.

Merino’s employs the Conde Julián figure to remind us, as Irving did, that acts of betrayal are not usually isolated events, but have an origin in feelings of despair or the thirst for revenge that goes beyond the measure of consequence. And so we find that Conde Julián double-crossed Don Rodrigo because he had entrusted into the care of his Visigoth King, the education of his beloved daughter Florinda, but Rodrigo took advantage of her in the absence of her father. As the camera angle widens, we now see a Don Julián in the role of father, bent on achieving his sweet, bloody of revenge.

José María Merino is a masterful writer, who is wildly under-translated into English. His techniques in the short form are audacious, crafty little mechanisms that describe the tricks of memory, the bewilderment at how truly bizarre reality is when you stop to think, when someone stops to describe it with the utter command of language. Merino is the under secretary of the distinguished Royal Academy of the Spanish Language and spends his Thursdays splitting more than infinitives. Intuition is an indispensable part of his process, which he defends categorically as something that reaches back before science and philosophy existed, as being what allows humans to “conjure the hereafter” and a world presided by the idea of the divine. His work explores the labyrinths of identity, the fleeting moments of time when the sinister can hide behind the rubicund, a shadow, a double, a sentence that opens a story: “It’s a beautiful spring morning and we are going to have breakfast on the terrace.” And you just know…