Part fable, part evocation of the landscape of rural Asturias, part commentary of its inhabitants, Of Saints and Miracles defies easy description. What it absolutely does do, though, is pull the reader into a distinctive world all of its own. It’s a story that zigs and zags all over the place, narrated by ‘we, the words’. These words move across the countryside and through time, telling anecdotes and passing comment on the inhabitants past and present. It’s divided into three songs: ‘The Killing’; ‘The Worms’; and ‘The He-Goat’. The main outline of the story concerns Marcellino, a subsistence farmer whose brother has cheated him out of his holding. In a rage, Marcellino strikes his brother and then goes on the run when he realises he has killed him. For a while he lives as an outlaw, hiding in the forest and deserted buildings, unwittingly becoming near-venerated as a holy figure, attracting media attention and teenage fans before ultimately being arrested. Beginning with Marcellino, the story ends with his mother, telling him how she met his father. In between this are numerous other stories, verses and comments from the narrators. As the words swoop backwards and forwards in time, we gradually learn about Marcellino’s childhood, his mother, who had magical powers, his father and brother, both unpleasant characters about whom less said the better, and the lives and happenings of the village and surrounding area, and the sun, the moon, relics, and plagues of worms. Structurally, it’s fascinating: one narrative thread is picked up, and then another, then another, and so on, before going back to the first thread and carrying on with it, rather like a braid with added coloured ribbons.
There are many elements to this novel that feel timeless – with most of the characters apparently living in fairly traditional ways, and many of the stories having a legend-like feel to them, it is easy to believe that you’re reading about things that happened long, long ago. But then, just as you start to imagine an incident was set in the distant past, along comes a very specific reference that brings you to much more recent times: references to the Civil War, to Hitler, Princess Diana, and so on. A story about a plague of white worms dispelled by witchcraft sounds medieval – until there is a mention of the mayor calling SEPRONA, the nature protection service. One of the villagers declares Marcellino is a saint – on television. This is reflected by the translation too: linguistically, the text in Claire Wadie’s translation does an impressive balancing act between the language of fairy tales and legends and laconic modern prose, not to mention snatches of verse.
In some ways, Of Saints and Miracles feels like a song to the past. Marcellino is the last in a line of farmers, and it is clear that farming on a small scale has long ceased to be viable. Many of the characters are elderly, dwelling on the past. Meanwhile, young people have moved to the cities, and while the many empty buildings offer useful hiding places for a fugitive, they are a clear sign of a vanished way of life. The words, however, live on.
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford
OF SAINTS AND MIRACLES
by Manuel Astur
Translated from Spanish by Claire Wadie
Published by Peirene Press (2020)
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Darcy Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. Originally from England, she is now based in Belgium.
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