[Other Press; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West

After her father died, Elvira Lindo found an autobiography he had drafted in his private diary. Manuel’s autobiography is sparse, matter-of-fact, driven by numbers: He notes the number of times he moved, his shoe size (10) and the dates his second wife is away from him (August 20 to September 20). It’s two paragraphs long and ends with the declaration, “And that is my life in a nutshell. Thanks, everyone!”

Manuel’s approach reminds Lindo, a Spanish writer, journalist, and actor, of what Anton Chekhov wrote about his own father’s diary, which detailed “his everyday tasks, the changes in the weather, the weight of the pigs . . .” and left the Russian writer “moved by his father’s inability to tell himself about himself.” Like Chekhov, Lindo is unsatisfied by her father’s version of his life story, and her newest book, Open Heart, recently translated into English from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, is in many ways an attempt to retell it. Like Chekhov, Lindo is frank about her father’s “brutal authoritarianism,” but tries to extend to him, in life and in her book, the “enormous humanity” she admires in Chekhov’s treatment of his father.

Lindo’s resulting narrative, about both her father’s life and her own, jumps between time periods and points of view with a frequency that can be disorienting. For the most part, she uses the first person, but she switches between the present tense, to relate how she felt at a given moment in her childhood, and the past tense, to reflect on how she remembers that childhood now. At times, she even uses poetry or the third person to assume greater narratorial authority over her father’s life. But even then, Lindo preserves the precarity inherent in relating someone else’s story. In one moment, she takes on the perspective of someone who sees “the boy leaving Atocha station” from afar and can only speculate about his feelings. West, the novel’s translator, is well-equipped for the intricacies of a narrative that covers the author’s own childhood and the often-separate lives of her family members. He translated Sibylle Lacan’s A Father: Puzzle about Jacques Lacan, and recently wrote his own novel about the ambiguous role of a suburban American father, My Father’s Diet. Many of his other translations have dealt with mixed narratives, and he shares with Lindo an abiding interest in what people “are really like.” As a result, West’s translation reflects the often repetitive but also contradictory or shifting language with which Lindo attempts to describe her father and her relationship with him.

Manuel’s childhood was shaped by the Spanish Civil War, which ended just a few months before he was sent away, at age nine, to stay with an aunt in Madrid. Lindo describes him as “the son of a soulless captain of the Civil Guard and a cold, authoritarian mother” who, burdened by too many mouths to feed, sent her most troublesome child to the city “most devastated” by Franco’s army. Yet, the war and its politics do not play a central role in Manuel’s story. All of his family members survive, his mother goes on to run a pension that accommodates anyone, regardless of political affiliation, and he becomes an engineer who travels wherever his work takes him. Through references to the war’s wide and lasting impact on cities and psyches, Lindo does remind us that this violence affected everyone in her father’s generation, even if peripherally, and, in turn, shaped her own childhood.

Elvira is the youngest of Manuel’s four children and suffers literal bouts of motion sickness during their many long car rides across the country. Her family is exasperated whenever they have pull over for her to vomit on the side of the road, a condition which a doctor attributes to “something psychological” and which she speculates, in hindsight, was simply the effect of being woken up at dawn only to be “smothered in the scent of gasoline and cigarette smoke” before breakfast. Like so many other parts of her childhood, Lindo finds ways to explain this motion sickness circumstantially while also making room for its more metaphorical and psychological meanings. Ultimately, Lindo adjusts to the family’s changes time and again, picking up different regional accents and playing different roles to match her location and her function in her family. In Mallorca, she is the last of the children left at home and finds herself split between the island and the mainland when her mother has to undergo heart surgery in Madrid. After her mother dies and her father remarries, she is left free and a bit unmoored. She finds her way to a career in radio, becomes a writer, and starts her own family. As an adult, Lindo hosts her father for regular lunches at her apartment in spite of his heavy drinking and incessant complaining. Her house has “too many stairs, damn it,” he declares, winded, having come from the bar where he had his first few glasses of wine and toting a leather man-purse for his many different brands of cigarettes.

Lindo struggles openly throughout her book with what kind of writer she wants to be. She wants to avoid writing “something nostalgic,” and doesn’t “want to write a memoir or a purely sentimental text.” Neither does she want to write fiction, as she objects to the way its “thumbnail sketches of a character, turns a complex person a book could never encapsulate into a stereotype or caricature.” But her book does retell the decidedly sentimental, nostalgic, and partly fictionalized story of her father’s childhood, when he was “small and skinny, hardheaded, underfed, badly clothed, poor, unattended to” in a Madrid “full of poverty, orphans, and cripples.” She also claims that she wants the book to be “the natural continuation of an exercise I had engaged in since I was a girl: observing, observing my father, trying to understand his erratic, unpredictable behavior, which could go from gentle to incensed before you had time to react.” But she doesn’t only focus on describing her father. She spends about as much of the narrative reflecting on her childhood and how it shaped her character. At one point, Lindo engages in an exercise her therapist recommended, describing her childhood self with the kind of tenderness she lacked after her mother’s death. Understanding her own behavior is clearly just as important to Lindo. And though she defiantly claims, “I don’t blame others for my shortcomings,” in the same breath she tells us that, “I could draw a straight line from his [my father’s] obsessions to mine, from his misgivings to mine, because you can’t help reproducing the mental schemas of the person who raised you . . .” As Lindo unfolded these contradictory reflections on her parents and different parts of her life, I found myself not frustrated but, rather, comforted; we all struggle to take ownership over who we are today while still accepting the impact our families had on us.

So what is Lindo offering with this book that is not memoir but not fiction; not a purely sentimental text but one that sentimentalizes much of her and her father’s difficult childhoods; not an attempt to blame her father for her flaws but also an extended meditation on his often destructive influence; not just about her father but also not just about her?

Through its mix of genres and perspectives, Open Heart shows us that our memories and our stories are inherently ambiguous and changeable. Her father is proud of obeying the law but a great admirer of mobsters, fiercely independent but incapable of being alone, a disobedient child but an authoritarian father. Lindo is tender toward the memory of her father’s boyhood in war-torn Spain but open about his eccentricities and cruelty.

She also gives us different versions of herself, not only through time but also through the various emotions that come with reflecting on the past. She writes powerfully about the real hurt and rejection she often felt as a child but humorously about her many relatable growing pains. In the same section that recounts her mother’s illness and death, her parents’ fighting and her role as their reluctant mediator, she also remembers reading Catcher in the Rye and deciding she’d “like to end up in the hospital with depression like Holden Caulfield.” Her naïve reactions to the adult world can be jarring, perhaps most so when it comes to her early sexual experiences. It’s easy to laugh or to relate when she remembers her friend teaching her to masturbate, or getting more turned on by page 120 of The Godfather than by her boyfriend. But it’s harder to know what to make of her earliest sexual experience, when she was nine years old and the cleaning lady’s little boy put her hand on his crotch and his on her pubis and they both stood there silently shaking “the way children shake in Japanese cartoons in moments of tension.” Lindo doesn’t always prescribe how we should feel or give away how she feels about ambiguous events like these.

Overall, Open Heart leaves readers with a vivid sense of the complexity of our relationships with others, and with our own pasts. What Lindo offers is not necessarily “forgiveness”—for her father, or for anyone else—but rather the privilege of being faithfully and thoroughly observed.

Hana Stankova is a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale writing a dissertation on travelogues about Central Asia in the nineteenth century.

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