Espido Freire’s Irlanda

March 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Before I tell you about this beautiful book, let me pose a question to you, you intelligent readers.

Espido Freire

Though Espido Freire, now 38, is a literary celebrity in her native Spain, we—perhaps unsurprisingly—aren’t too familiar with her work here in the US. She published her first novel, Irlanda, at age 24, and went on to win the Premio Planeta and Premio Ateneo de Sevilla awards for her subsequent novels; the French version of Irlanda, translated by Eva Calveyra, won the Millepage Prize. Now, twelve years after its first publication in Spain and several translations later, we can finally read a Spanish literary celebrity’s debut novel in English.

Why did it take so long?

You know as well as I that the question has several possible answers—the US publishing market, the seemingly absent word-of-mouth that exists between us and everything beyond the Atlantic Ocean (with the exception of a few musicians), the list goes on.

But let me toss another possibility into the mix—could it have to do with the subject matter? Namely, fairy tales? This past weekend at AWP, in between dodging sleeping writers in the hallways and imbibing a good bit of the flavored vodka Chicago has on offer, I had the fantastic good luck to sit down with Kate Bernheimer, editor of The Fairy Tale Review (whose press has just published Irlanda) and she shared her frustrations with what she perceives to be a prejudice against fairy tales as a form, and as subject matter in the world of publishing and academia. Earlier in her writing career, she told me, she was often highly praised for her writing, but advised by various mentors or editors to whom she submitted her work to “cut out the fairy tale stuff” in order to “go to the next level” with it.  But without what editors were calling “the fairy tale stuff,” she said, her work withered, and ceased to hold potential for her. Just as, without “the fairy tale stuff,” most forms of literature that we enjoy today have no backbone, no history, no context. She couldn’t cut them out of her own work for this reason. “Fairy tales are like air,” she said.

So they are too for Natalia, the protagonist telling her story in Irlanda—fairy tales frame Natalia’s story, not only for us as readers, but for Natalia herself, who consciously thinks of her cousin Irlanda as a perfect princess in a tower, and herself as an outcast orphan.

Natalia is a contemporary teen—she mentions TV and prep school—but her voice is decidedly of another world. Grief-stricken and literally haunted by the death of her younger sister Sagrario, Natalia is sent to live with her wealthy cousins Roberto and the lovely Irlanda, who, along with a group of gossiping friends, are cleaning up their parents’ country estate for possible sale. Natalia is drawn to Irlanda’s beauty and vivacity, but she herself is withdrawn and odd, and prefers to press flowers and study plants rather than try to compete with Irlanda’s cruel prep school friends. Without parents to supervise them, the teens throw lavish dinner parties in the estate, dressing in their dead grandmother’s old party dresses. They take long walks in the sprawling grounds, fall asleep on one another’s laps in the sunshine, and wound each other the way only teenage girls know how.

Irlanda bears slightly more resemblance to works of Gothic romance and horror, such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,than it does to the spare prose and logcal illogic of the traditional fairy tale—but as I said, fairy tales are the context without which Gothic romance and horror would not exist. And like Jane Eyre—another tower-climbing Gothic heroine who narrates her own tale—Natalia refers often to fairy tales and folk superstitions to explain her actions and reactions in the story. For example: “I said my name seven times, and the strange feeling began to lift.”

But Natalia’s increasingly Poe-like first-person narration drives the tale even further in the direction of the Gothic. As Natalia is willing to confess more and more to the reader, a dread mounts that doesn’t dispel by the end of this short novel: it explodes. Irlanda also eschews the traditional fairy tale logic that evil is cut down and only good rewarded in the end, and instead offers the reader a bleaker worldview, in which the protagonist is rewarded—but did she deserve it?

Natalia’s projection of fairy tale imagery onto her own story complicated the experience of reading Irlanda for me, since I could so easily see Natalia’s delusion and growing madness. Though Irlanda certainly has her faults, Natalia’s subtle description of her story as a fairy tale gives her an excuse for her actions, which causes an unsettled feeling in the reader, rather than a cathartic one. When Irlanda and Natalia finally face off at the climactic moment of the story—set atop a crumbling stone tower, a gothic trope indeed—I felt little satisfaction at watching the final move take place. Instead, I was left with wonder, and a lingering dread.

Irlanda is a quick read, at a mere 130 pages (the type is thickly set and a little small, enhancing the feeling that one is reading an ancient tome rather than a novel about contemporary Spanish teenagers), and though Freire’s densely lyrical prose occasionally threw up a couple of roadblocks, I found myself greedily speeding through it. Toshiya Kamei’s translation is dreamlike and haunting, though at times confusing—whether this was the fault of the translation or not is hard to tell, since so few of Freire’s works are available in English for comparison. I found myself re-reading several passages, especially when Natalia seems to be speaking to herself, wondering what, exactly, was being worked out. But my desire to watch the progression of these strange cousins on their ghostly estate toward inevitable tragedy kept me skimming over the passages of impassable prose, and speeding to the finish.

So, can we think of Irlanda as one more push back against those who’d advise us to “cut out the fairy tale stuff”? Maybe—this advice to cut them out seems to stem from a presupposition that fairy tales have no power, to move or affect a reader. But Irlanda seems to me to be another example preaching the volatility of fairy tales, rather than their immobility. Like film director Catherine Breillat, Freire uses fairy tales in a twisting—and somewhat twisted—way, showing their power over the mind, but their flaws when used to frame a psychological situation. They represent a history and an inheritance, as Natalia shows when she perceives her cousin Irlanda as a symbolic representation of their cruel ancestor, Hibernia, about whom the family has told tales for generations. This might mark Natalia as a perceptive girl, but when taken too far, it also has a hand in her moral and psychological downfall.

Tricky things, those fairy tales. Let’s leave them in.

Espido Freire’s Irlanda, translated into English by Toshiya Kamei, is available from The Fairy Tale Review Press. The first chapter was also published in The Fairy Tale Review’s Violet Issue. The stunning cover design is by Nicoletta Ceccoli.

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