#RivetingReviews: Paul Burke reviews MEMOIRS OF A VILLAGE BOY by Xosé Neira Vilas

Memoirs of a Village Boy is Galician literature’s bestselling book – more than 700,000 copies have been sold since its first publication in 1961. It is widely considered one of the three great works in the language, beside The Carpenter’s Pencil by Manuel Rivas and Winter Letters by Agustín Fernández Paz. This first English-language edition, interspersed with simple but striking illustrations by Isaac Díaz Pardo, makes this captivating read available to a new audience. An intimate tale of a boy and village life, it is also a portrait of a long-gone time and place, yet resounds with universal and modern themes. As a Galician peasant boy, Balbino is growing up dirt poor in rural northern Spain during the dictator Franco’s reign. Like his contemporaries, and generations before him, Balbino is a nobody. The people of influence in his life tell him this, his family accept it and the gentry and the Church reinforce it. Mid-twentieth century Galicia is still a feudal society, much as it has been for centuries. Balbino’s family are of the lowest rank. But Balbino has dreams beyond the life of a labourer laid out for him. He wants to see the world. He keeps a journal but he doesn’t fully understand his urge to write – it’s not the done thing, and he feels ashamed as he reflects on local life, records events and questions his role in the village. 

His first teacher is cruel, and only when he is replaced by a young woman does Balbino enjoy school. She encourages his academic abilities, but Balbino learns far more from the outcast on the edge of the village, a free-thinker despised by the locals. Life for Balbino seems generally unfair. When he is drawn into a fight with the squire’s son and defends himself, the boy is injured. The squire insists Balbino is punished at his own father’s hand, and threatens the family with eviction too.

This is a coming-of-age tale about a boy learning the harsh lessons of life, becoming his own man and even falling in love. But it is also a portrait of a decaying society, rotten at its core, a world as yet untouched by technological change and the national and international identities that come with being European. It’s not just a portrait of Galicia, though; this is a universal tale about how feudal societies die, and class awakening engenders change, and as such it is an important social record. In fact, it’s remarkable that this book was able to be published during Franco’s rule in Spain, as it attacks the outdated societal values and the Catholic Church that underpinned the fascist regime. 

With clipped language, reflecting the boy’s thoughts, and gaining power from its simplicity, this is an emotionally engaging novel that invokes our sense of justice, our own memories of youth and our passion for life. It is also a manifesto for inquisitive youth, and will appeal now in difficult but very different times. A truly memorable read.

Reviewed by Paul Burke

MEMOIRS OF A VILLAGE BOY

by Xosé Neira Vilas 

Translated by John Rutherford

Published by Small Stations Press (2021)


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Paul Burke writes reviews, interviews, articles and features for the eurolitnetwork.com, crimefictionlover.com and crimetime.co.uk. He is editor and presenter of the Crime Time FM
podcast and is a judge for the CWA Historical Dagger.

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