Manuel Rivas is a celebrated poet, novelist, film-maker and environmental activist from Galicia. The north-western region of Spain is mostly surrounded by sea, and the sea is a force in this novel. Galicia is proud of its Celtic connections to Cornwall, Brittany and Ireland. I’ve seen gallego musicians play historic bagpipes at festivals in France and Ireland, so it was no surprise that The Last Days of Terranova veers on the surreal, playful and otherworldly, in the tradition of Irish writers who write about the coast, like Flann O’Brien or Kevin Barry.
The novel begins in the autumn of 2014, with Vicenzo Fontana putting up a sign in the window of the longstanding Terranova Bookstore, announcing the ‘total liquidation of all inventory due to imminent closure’. The choice of the term ‘liquidation’ isn’t accidental – he feels the closing of the family bookstore is like an assassination, not just of the shop and its precious books but of his father and uncle, who previously ran it. The threatened closure is due to the landlords’ greed, and Fontana believes he must fight the decision, just as others fought against the suppression of the Galician language in Franco’s time.
‘My mind wanders sometimes,’ Fontana confesses early on in the novel, and it is a meandering work, jumping across decades. Chapters range from the rise of fascism and the Civil War in the 1930s to Fontana’s boyhood polio in the 1950s to the post-Franco Galicia of the 1970s, to the present. As such the novel is best read as a series of vignettes, basking in the joy of the poetical language. Favourite stories include Fontana’s experience of being treated for polio in an iron lung to help him breathe. In the next ward are a group of teenage girls who are tied to their beds for months in an attempt to cure them of their spinal scoliosis. Despite his reputation as a hospital snitch, the young Fontana does not divulge to the nurses how the girls undo their straps and escape in the middle of the night.
Recovered, but left with a limp, Fontana is eager to leave the small town and the bookshop. He describes his salad days as a pill-popping, Bowie-worshipping rock fan and antifascist activist in 1970s Madrid. His uncle, Eliseo, is a closeted gay man in a time when homosexuals were sent to asylums to keep them from prison. His father, Amaro, becomes ‘the biggest banned book provider in all of Galicia’ through Eliseo, who along with other smugglers, travels round the world with ‘false backs to their suitcases’ in order to carry the works of ‘anti-Franco publishing houses’. Especially poignant is the story of the dissident girl, Garúa, who hides from the agents of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance in the back rooms of the shop.
Vicenzo Fontana is a bookstore owner who likes to know what he’s selling and reads the titles on his shelves; in fact characters’ reading is an essential part of the book – the Odyssey, Julius Fučík, Graciliano Ramos, Ryszard Kapuściński, and Francis Jammes all come up in conversation. And even though a brief appearance by Jorge Luis Borges is entertaining, sadly for me, the lists of unfamiliar authors and book titles alienate rather than illuminate.
The Terranova bookshop is like the novel itself – full of rich stories, maverick characters and people who find comfort in reading. It’s a testament to the written word, a story about how books preserve history and instigate and drive social change.
Reviewed by Dymphna Flynn
THE LAST DAYS OF TERRANOVA
by Manuel Rivas
Translated by Jacob Rogers
Published by Archipelago Books (2022)
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Dymphna Flynn is development producer at Pier Productions and was a judge on the Costa Book Awards 2021. She reviews new fiction on Instagram @dymphnaflynn. Dymphna was a producer at BBC Arts for over twenty years.
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