Gudú, The Forgotten King is Ana María Matute’s masterpiece, and one of the great novels of this century. Full of fables and fantasies, it narrates the birth and expansion of the Kingdom of Olar, with a plot full of characters, adventures and a symbolic landscape: the mysterious North and the inhospitable steppe of the East and the South, rich and exuberant, that limit the expansion of the Kingdom of Olar, in whose destiny the cunning of a southern girl, the magic of an old sorcerer and the rules of the game of a creature from the subsoil participate.
The sons of Count Olar had inherited from their father his enormous physical strength, his grey eyes and wiry red hair, and his humiliatingly short legs.
Sikrosio, the first-born, had the reddest hair of all, and he was not only stronger and bulkier than his brothers, but braver and more skilful with his sword. He was also the weakest rider, thanks to those stumpy and slightly knock-kneed legs that made some people (behind his back) call him ‘donkey’. If anyone had ever been careless or malicious enough to say it to his face, he couldn’t or wouldn’t say it again.
It was clear from a young age that Sikrosio was neither shy, nor patient, nor scrupulous in his dealings with others. Brave and fearless by nature, he knew nothing of despondency or illness, cowardice or doubt, respect or compassion. He said only as much as was strictly necessary to make himself understood, and he listened only if someone happened to be talking about him or his horse. He didn’t dwell on things that weren’t battles, skirmishes or local conflicts, and he generally lacked interest in any chitchat that didn’t concern him. When he wasn’t fighting he would spend his day cleaning his tack, polishing his weaponry, hunting, or indulging in war games and private pleasures, activities that were neither very sophisticated nor, to be honest, exacting. He was naturally cheerful and noisy, and he was much more prone to laughter than conversation. His guffaws, they said, could shake the bowels of a rock, and though he suspected that one day the devil would take him, he had such a vague and unformed idea of what that meant (deep down he was wary of such notions) that he barely thought about it. He had an intense love of life – his own, that is – and he tried to squeeze all the juice and substance out of it he could. And in his own way, he did.
But one day, Sikrosio came to know fear. This fear began with a memory and culminated in a prophecy. The memory seized him unexpectedly and with increasing regularity, making part of his life very bitter. But the prophecy – which came much later – destroyed his life completely.
And this all began one morning, in the very earliest days of spring, on the banks of the River Oser.
That winter he had his nineteenth birthday. He knew he had gone hunting – though he could never remember when or in what circumstances – and that he had been tired when he lay down on the fresh new grass, very near where the ground sloped towards the river. There were still patches of ice and snow unmelted in the shadowy hollows, among the thickets that turned to wildwood on the other side of the Oser.
The source of the river was a mystery to the inhabitants of the region. The spring that was its fountainhead arose in the northern thickets, which nobody ever dared venture into. No one could remember how they knew the name of this place, but it made them shiver like the words of a forbidden book or some dreaded and unwanted encounter, the very thought of which filled them with foreboding.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, something made the undergrowth rustle, but it wasn’t the breeze, or a flapping of wings, or a human or animal footstep, or any other sound familiar to his hunter’s ears. For no reason at all – he knew this instinctively – a bird took off in fright; then it dropped at his side, as if it had been wounded. But there was no blood, either on its feathers or in the smell of the morning. Its death was incomprehensible, as if the bird had fallen, unharmed, onto itself, with only the wounds inflicted by the invisible weapon of its own fear. He watched its pulse fade as it lay on the ground, saw it shiver, gasp, and finally, stop moving.
Sikrosio didn’t so much as put out a finger towards it. A ray of light had fallen across the barely risen sun, across the brightness that went on spilling into the sky like a liquid. Then he felt the earth shake, very gently, under his body. For somebody less familiar with the ruggedness and delicacy of nature the tremor would have been almost undetectable; like a dull booming, only noiseless; like the beating of distant drums, only muted.
Sikrosio realised that he was drenched in sweat, though the weather hadn’t turned hot yet in those lands. As he had so often seen snakes and salamanders do, he crept into the thicker brush and leaves and pressed his spear against his side. Then he jumped as his horse, which until that moment had been grazing at his side, took flight in a frantic gallop. Its whinny pierced the sky, like an arrow of death, and Sikrosio smelt death, clearly and physically; the smell was all too familiar to him.
It took an enormous effort to stop his eyelids, which were suddenly heavy, from closing. He usually found it easy to stay alert, his senses primed; but at that moment a great heaviness, a terrible sensation of uselessness, overtook his whole body, and it was only surprise that stopped him falling headfirst into the dark and dense regions opening up in front of him. He thought he could feel his heart pounding against the earth. ‘Who or what is coming for me,’ he thought, ‘from over there … from the bottom of the river?’
Fear was, for him, a completely new and very bitter experience. Usually when he sniffed danger his heart would leap with something like joy at the imminence of battle and of killing. But this was different, this rough pulsing that shook him and which felt – though he could hardly believe it – like terror. He had never, even in the most daring ventures of his life, had the remotest sense that he was going to die, yet at that moment death brushed up against him, alone. And it wasn’t just fear, but something worse he felt: a damp sweat, a sticky coldness, as if he already knew he was dead.
By Ana María Matute
Translated by Laura Lonsdale
Ana María Matute. Excerpt from OLVIDADO REY GUDÚ. © Ana María Matute, 1996, and heirs of Ana María Matute
From OLVIDADO REY GUDÚ
(‘Gudú, The Forgotten King’)
by Ana María Matutè
Translated by Laura Lonsdale
Published by Destino (1996)
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Ana María Matutè was an internationally acclaimed Spanish writer and member of the Real Academia Española. In 1959, she received the Premio Nadal for her novel Primera memoria. The third woman to receive the Cervantes Prize for her literary oeuvre, she is considered one of the foremost novelists of the posguerra.
Laura Lonsdale is Associate Professor in Modern Spanish Literature at the University of Oxford. Her translation of Ana María Matute’s The Island, was published in 2020 by Penguin Books.