#RivetingReviews: Mandy Wight reviews UN AMOR by Sara Mesa

I really enjoyed Sara Mesa’s short story collection Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting), so was delighted to find that Peirene Press are now publishing her novel Un Amor in English translation. Some of the same themes from the short story collection are present in the novel – power in everyday relationships, claustrophobic spaces, the need to escape, miscommunication – but the unsettling atmosphere that Mesa excels at creating is drawn out here, expertly plotted and paced to maximise tension over 170 pages.

The book tells the story of Nat, a woman in her thirties who arrives in a small village, La Escapa, in southern Spain, where she intends to rent a house for a few months to work on a literary translation. She has numerous practical difficulties to contend with: the house is basic and ill-equipped and the garden, where she’s trying to grow vegetables, is dry and unyielding. The weather is intense: blistering heat alternating with ferocious storms, her nights tormented by mosquitoes, spiders and salamanders, her days by flies and ants overrunning the kitchen.

Relationships with the locals are no less challenging. There’s Nat’s landlord, an unpleasant, rude and leery man, whose presence has ‘the power to contaminate the house in just a few seconds’. He demands that she pay the rent in cash, so he can make monthly visits to stare at her breasts. There’s Píter, nicknamed ‘the hippy’, who becomes a friend yet is forever telling Nat what to do, one of those annoying people with a stream of bright ideas as to what she should cook/plant/grow. There’s the young shop assistant, keen to escape to the bright lights of Cárdenas, who gives Nat the lowdown on the locals, such as the elderly brother and sister suspected of having had an incestuous relationship, whose house now stands in ruins with ‘God’s Punishment’and ‘Shame’ graffitied chillingly across the walls.

It’s hard for Nat to know who to trust here, how to read the codes in this new community, and this is reflected in her difficulty with the translation she’s working on. The author is not writing in her native language, prompting Nat to wonder, ‘is each unexpected or ambiguous word an error based on a lack of knowledge of the language, or an intended effect resulting from intense consideration? There’s no way to know.’ There’s an awareness, too, of the emptiness of language, a performance with no meaning in the case of Roberta, suffering from dementia, who reproduces words from a TV programme, ‘learned words, seemingly unconnected, words with limited meanings.’ Sometimes it’s just the sound of language that draws attention, the German ‘with his odd way of speaking, knocking his syllables together, like he’s in a rush or being abrupt’. This is of a piece with the author’s finely tuned ear and her use of auditory detail to increase tension: ‘creaks and squeaks, air whistling through the shutters, the fan’s hum, Sieso’s toe-nails click-clacking on the old wooden porch, pacing around the stake.’

The plot takes a new turn when Nat’s predatory landlord refuses to mend the leaking roof, and she’s offered practical help from an unexpected quarter. The consequences of this are played out in the second half of the novel, and involve Nat becoming sexually infatuated with her lover, to the detriment of everything else in her life. She can no longer concentrate on translating, and takes her eye off the ball with Sieso, the hopelessly ill-trained dog that the landlord has left her. Suffice to say, a horrible accident occurs, and Nat is only saved from very serious consequences by her neighbours’ decision not to press charges. Suddenly we’re plunged back into an incident from Nat’s past that she confessed to Píter earlier in the book as the reason for her coming to La Escapa – an act of wrongdoing on her part, where the victim had forgiven her, but could at any time turn this into condemnation. Nat had come to La Escapa to escape ‘the power of the victim’, only to find herself, nightmarishly, in the same situation again.

There’s a clever exploration of power relationships in this novel, highlighted by Nat’s essential vulnerability as an outsider in the community and as the object of the predatory male gaze. But it’s Sara Mesa’s technical skill, her careful pace and plotting, her succinct but vivid language, which also keep our attention and unnerve us. And I love the way she can take us from the vastness of the external natural world one minute to the smallest of details the next: from the hulking form of the El Glauco mountain to the snake in the woodpile, ‘a snub-nosed adder with an insolent snout and scowling, concentrated expression’. It’s a powerful read indeed, and one that I thoroughly recommend.  

Reviewed by Mandy Wight


Written by Sara Mesa 

Translated by Katie Whittemore

Published by Peirene Press (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Mandy Wight has published several translations from German on the No-Mans-Land Website, including excerpts from novels by Ursula Krechel, Nina Jäckle, Ulrike Edschmid, Natascha Wodin and Monika Helfer. In 2018 she was awarded the Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation for her translation of an extract from Juli Zeh’s novel Unterleuten. She writes on books in English and in translation at her blog Peakreads.

Read Mandy Wight’s #‎RivetingReview of THE UNBREAKABLE HEART OF OLIVA DENARO by Viola Ardone

Read Mandy Wight’s #‎RivetingReview of KAIROS by Jenny Erpenbeck

Category: June 2024Reviews


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