Coeval intentions

Posted on August 7, 2013


eye-of-tornado-1Every word has three definitions and three interpretations: Costa Rican proverb

Fabián Dobles Rogdríguez’s  Los años, pequeños días is a haunting little novel.  I say little not only because it’s more a novella than a novel, but also because its scope is ‘small life’, made smaller by the novel’s structure and style.[1]

The novel records the memories of an unnamed 70 year-old (every)man as he returns to the village of his youth.  Part memoir, part letter explaining why as a teenager he left the seminary (inevitable abuse – perhaps they should be called semenaries), the novel charts the old man’s final reconciling of the duality of his father’s life – the later hard-hearted, cruel village doctor, the earlier idealistic medical student who ministered to the poorest blacks in Harlem. Perhaps we’re all the compound interest of idealistic youth and disillusioned old age.  And here is the key to the novel and what keeps you reading: past and present are coeval.  Stylistically, this is expressed through the use of tenses; the past is often written in the present tense and the present in the conditional or subjunctive.   To mix things up more, the protagonist speaks of himself in the first, second, and third person (although never in the plural, that would be slightly schizophrenic and thus, verging on magical realism).  At times the old man recounts events in a recognizably autobiographical style, at other times as dreams, half real, half imagined, for this is the nature of memory:  at best close to the truth though often, part-fiction, part conflation, part denial.

The structure and style of the novel owe a debt to many 20th-c. Mexican writers, particularly Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Juan Rulfo (especially Pedro Páramo), although I’m unsure what this nod northwards is about.  Whatever, this is the stomping ground of Latin American studies  – a fertile ground of memory and modernity, labyrinths, coevalities, and identity.   As the novel draws to a close and the old man’s gaze draws ever inward and as his memories jumble more quickly together these themes cyclonically twist around each other.  The time-shifts and simultaneous perspectives may be dizzying, but the novel stays with you long after your head’s stopped spinning.  The effect is not unlike looking for the first time at Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar. They are disorientating, unlovely, unsettling and yet somehow, they communicate what it is to be human, to be intimate, to love and to be loved.

Ultimately, this is a book about time passing, about aging. As the old man says when crossing an old bridge, ‘Down there the cooking-pots woke me up with their clinking in the current, but look at it now. It’s almost nothing but pebbles and boulders.’  How many nameless old men (and women) have we passed by, seeing only the dry riverbed of age?


[1] The English translation of the title, Years Like Brief Days, loses a key component of the Spanish title, namely, the pequeñez (smallness) of those days.