The luminous exploration of “A Fifty-Year Silence”

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France

Here’s the thing about being an avid reader who also dabbles in writing:  every once in a while you come across a book so finely crafted, so compelling, with such luminous prose, that you think, “I’ll never be able to write like this, I might as well stop even trying!”  A Fifty-Year Silence, by Miranda Richmond Mouillot (Crown, 2015) is one such treasure.  I received this book for free from “Blogging for Books” for this review, though, so I have to at least try to write something that adequately communicates how extraordinary this part-history / part-memoir / part-biography really is.

Richmond Mouillot subtitles her book “Love, War, and a Ruined House in France”, which gives you a glimpse into the arc of the story.  But if you approach it, as I did, thinking it will be another in the seemingly endless stream of “World War II Survivor” meets “I went to France and tried to fix up a house in a lovely medieval village” literature, be prepared to be surprised, or as I was, astonished.  At the beginning, Richmond Mouillot  tells this story from her childhood:

Take the day my friend Erin and I locked her brother in the bathroom, and Erin began belting out a loud rendition of “The Farmer in the Dell” so her parents wouldn’t hear him hollering for us to let him out:  one minute I was singing along with her, and the next I was clutching Erin’s arm for dear life, as if she might pull me out from under the avalanche of fear now suffocating me.  “Stop,” I begged her.  “We have to stop.  They played music to drown out the screams of the children when they were killing them” Years later, Erin recalled that she’d been so upset by what I’d said that she’d run crying to her father.

“What did he say?” I asked her.

“He told me you came from a family of Holocaust survivors with a lot of bad memories to cope with.”

All I could think was, I wish someone had told me that.

It turns out that this silence, this not talking about what happened to family members, is what the book ends up actually being about.  As the author grows up, she starts trying to piece together the story of her maternal grandparents, two Jewish refugees who married sometime during or after the war and then divorced in the fifties, after which they never spoke to each other again and never re-married.  Shortly before the divorce, they purchased a house in a small southern French village, a house Richmond Mouillot falls in love with during a visit with her grandfather and eventually tries to renovate.

The Holocaust aspect to this story does not become readily apparent until late in the book, when Richmond Mouillot begins investigating her grandfather’s role as a translator during the Nuremberg Trials.  Because I spent thirty years teaching language, I was particularly moved by the evaluation of what that experience might have done to him.  The way in which the pieces of her grandparents’ history fall into place makes this read at times like a mystery, but since the author is also a Harvard-trained historian, the attention to even the smallest detail makes this a solid addition to the historical record.  Finally, the dialog is exquisite, making the book as readable as the best fiction and capturing the personalities of the author’s grandparents with subtle mastery.  Witness this exchange in the airport, as Richmond Mouillot is escorting her grandmother from the United States to France:

…I squeezed her hand.  “You’re such an extraordinary person.  I’m so glad to be going on a trip with you.”

My Godt.” She pulled her hand away.  “Go walk around or something.”

The story of Armand and Anna is horrific, fascinating and compelling.  In the hands of their granddaughter, it turns into a lyrical, evocative piece of literature that haunts me days after having turned the last page.

Hiding from the world for a few days in “Misión Olvido”

I actually read another book in between my last post and this one.  Unfortunately, it’s not something I would ever presume to review.  I tackled Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time because it was what my book group had chosen to read…and even though I finished it (unlike some other members of my group), I really have almost no idea what I could possibly say about it.  I don’t think I’m necessarily stupid, but I’m sure not smart enough to wrap my mind around string theory or, well, pretty much anything else in the book.

Fortunately my next reading choice immersed me in a world I found much more comprehensible.  While I read it in its original Spanish, Misión Olivido, by Spanish novelist María Dueñas (Simon & Schuster, 2012), is available in English translation as The Heart Has Its Reasons.  The title change is, in my estimation, an unfortunate American marketing decision, since it makes the novel seem like something less than it is.  Yes, there are several love stories, but they are woven through an academic setting, a cross-cultural premise, and a historical trajectory that I found transcended the trite implications of the English title.

Dueñas reached international publishing stature with her first novel, El tiempo entre costuras (The Time In Between), a book I enjoyed immensely.   (It turns out there is also a Spanish television series based on it…do I sense another obsession to replace “Isabel” here…?) Both novels touch on the Spain of the 1930’s and 40’s, but the characters and plot lines are very different.

Misión Olvido weaves several narratives into one, along the way showing how interconnected we all are in our human yearnings and disappointments.  The protagonist is Blanca Perrea, a professor in Madrid whose marriage has just fallen apart.  Looking for a complete change, she comes to California in 1999 to organize the papers of compatriot professor Andrés Fontana, who was exiled to the United States after the Spanish Civil War and died thirty years ago in a tragic accident.  At Santa Cecilia University she also meets Daniel Carter, an American Spanish professor with a mysterious connection to the university.

All of the characters are believable and compelling.  What I found I liked most were the cultural observations and academic interactions.  The Modern Languages department politics are handled subtly and, in my experience, quite realistically.  Seeing the United States through the eyes of a Spaniard was fascinating, and Dueñas does an excellent job of capturing and contrasting the Spain of before, during, and after Franco.  The character of Daniel Carter, in particular, had me remembering my own first exposure to Spain, in the early years of the post-Franco “Movida”.  I often wonder what I would have done with my life with just a bit more confidence and courage during that year I spent in Madrid, and Carter’s trajectory as an American who becomes a world-renowned hispanist had me imagining an alternate reality for myself.

This novel explores the myriad ways in which we invent and re-invent ourselves.  Don’t let the English title put you off the book.  This is a finely crafted story, with smart and subtle dialog.  For the several days I was completely subsumed in Misión Olvido, I visited college campuses and offices in California and Madrid, centuries old Franciscan missions, the back streets, foods, and homes of Madrid, and the Mediterranean coast.  When Spaniards corrected Daniel Carter’s grammar, I winced to remember my own painful (and/or embarrassing) errors.  One of my favorite authors, Ann Tyler, has said “I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place.” This novel let me live several lives, in several places.

Iphone to 10-2-13 369

A trip through Spanish history with “Isabella, The Warrior Queen”

You may not know this about me, but I’m a major Spanish history and literature nerd.  Specifically, I love the medieval and early Renaissance period.  And I’m obsessed with Isabel I (as in Isabella of Columbus and Ferdinand fame), which means I’ve also been obsessed with the Spanish television series about her.  I’ve been unsure what to do with my Monday afternoons now that the series has ended, but fortunately  just in time to help me deal with what the Spanish media calls an “Isabel hangover”, a new biography of Isabel has been published in English.

Isabella, The Warrior Queen, by Kirstin Downey (Random House, 2014) is a solid contribution to the Isabeline bibliography.  While Downey is not specifically trained as a historian, her journalism background and writing style make this biography eminently readable, and she brings fresh insights into the thinking of an extraordinary woman.  I found myself at the beginning somewhat annoyed by Downey’s assumption that the reader knows very little (do modern readers really need an explanation of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions?), but as the book progressed I found that I quite appreciated the way she clarified fifteenth century Iberian peninsular politics.  I’ve read A LOT about that period, and I found that her approach served to clarify relationships and events across Europe and the Middle East that were still somewhat muddled in my mind.

A quick word about names.  I much prefer the original Spanish “Isabel” (or “Ysabel”) and “Fernando” to the Anglicized “Isabella” and “Ferdinand”.  It seems odd to me that Downey would use the Spanish names of most of the rest of Isabel’s family (her brother, Enrique, and her father and son, Juan, for example), but I suppose since she’s writing for a predominantly non-Spanish speaking audience she choose the more widely known versions of the names.  I just have to say that I find it historically and linguistically annoying.

That said, once I got past the name issue I found much to recommend in this book.  Downey’s suggestion that the behaviors of Isabel’s father and half-brother were perhaps the result of childhood sexual abuse was especially interesting.  I think it’s dangerous to try to analyze historical figures psychologically, especially at a five hundred year remove.  After all, it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate diagnosis even when the person is sitting right in front of you.  But Downey’s parallels with what we now know about the results of this trauma are worth considering.  And she is especially effective at explaining aspects of Isabel’s character that have bothered me.  While I have always admired her as a strong woman moving adroitly in a male-dominated world, I have also always struggled to reconcile that admiration with actions that I find reprehensible.  Isabel was, after all, the monarch who – along with her husband, Fernando –  presided over the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish and later, Muslim, populations.  Downey takes special care to explain what was happening in the Mediterranean world as a whole, and concludes:

She was a religiously fervent Catholic, living in an era when the Ottoman Turks seemed on the verge of wiping Christianity off the map.  I am convinced that much of what she did was a reaction to this perceived threat, and to her belief that she was being called upon to bolster the faith against a very formidable enemy.

Downey’s analysis of other members of Isabel’s family, in particular her husband, Fernando, and her daughter, Juana “La Loca”, are also worthy of note.  The author certainly doesn’t see much to admire in Fernando, concluding that “when he ruled with Isabella, he could rank among the great kings of Europe and be viewed as a man of consequence.  Without Isabella, he produced almost nothing of significance and frittered his time away in pointless international intrigues.” Her conclusion:  “Love can be inexplicable.” Ouch.  She also clearly tends toward the modern view that Isabel’s  daughter, Juana, was not so much mentally ill as abused, maligned, and marginalized for political ends, first by her husband, then by her father, and finally by her son.

I read and study history not only because I’m a nerd and find it fascinating, but also because I find lessons there to help me understand my own world and life.  Isabel had characteristics that I can admire, and in her flaws I discern permission to confront and accept my own.  She was a highly educated and erudite woman of indomitable will who achieved  a power and influence rarely granted those of her gender at that time.  Yet she still experienced seemingly unbearable loss and heartache.  In the last four years of her life, Isabel  suffered the death of her mother, her two oldest children, and two grandchildren. She also saw her heir, Juana, exhibit behaviors that made her doubt her daughter’s capacity for rule, and she died unsure of whether what she had accomplished could be maintained.  Isabel’s dignity in the face of events she could not control makes her, in my estimation, worthy of respect.

Isabella, The Warrior Queen is a book I can recommend to anybody with an interest in European or Latin American history, or to anybody interested in strong female characters.  It makes a complex woman and her story accessible, and that might be Downey’s best accomplishment.

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Just in case you’re interested, here’s a link to the series “Isabel”:

http://www.rtve.es/television/isabel-la-catolica/

And these are two books in Spanish that I cherish and consulted as I read:

  • Itinerarios de Isabel la Católica:  15 rutas de una reina viajera  (Guías acento, 2004).
  • La España de Isabel:  Un viaje por los lugares que marcaron la vida de una reina, Teresa Cunillera Tugues (Editorial Planeta, S.A., 2014).