The Spanish Riveter: From SOBRE LA TERRA IMPURA by Melcior Comes, translated by Adrian Nathan West, introduced by Marina Porras

Melcior Comes’ novels are often set in his native Mallorca. In Sobre la terra impura, a naive and struggling writer is drawn back to the island. He has been asked to write the memoirs of Dora Bonnín, a recently deceased singer. She was also the mother of his childhood best friend, Leo, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Leo comes from a family legacy of powerful and influential shoemakers, and his father is the heir to the wealthy Mallorcan business. While working on Dora’s memoirs, the writer discovers hints of some dark secrets and starts a dangerous relationship with Leo’s stepsister. But the Verdera family are not at everything they seem, and the writer’s job becomes finding out what it is they’re hiding.

I learned of Dora Bonnín’s death on a train platform, peering at the newspaper of a man who was also waiting for the train to Barcelona. I lived at the time in a small town on the Costa Daurada, where I’d sought refuge after breaking up with my partner. What remained of the relationship was a three-year-old son, a lot of resentment and some debts. My mood swayed between a mild, non-dramatic meltdown and an impulsive and irascible cynicism (I’m a writer), a volubility that led me to undertake all sorts of literary projects. I lived from day to day: I hadn’t published a book in four years. I got by thanks to the increasingly scarce cultural journalism (forgive the contradiction) and various commissions I received from my editor, who must have felt somewhat responsible for my fiasco as a novelist. It was her idea to publish my last book in June, with a hideous cover and after cutting out five chapters that were, needless to say, wonderful.


My plan for that spring morning, when I learned of Bonnín’s death, was the following: I was going up to the city to interview a photographer and then spend the afternoon with my son in his mother’s flat until she got back from work. The visiting arrangements we’d agreed on included Thursday afternoons, as well as Saturdays and Sundays, when I took him to my small bachelor pad and we spent the days playing ball in the hall, or else going for a tricycle ride on the boulevard, or watching videos of Japanese kittens on YouTube until we both got sleepy.

I went and picked up my son at his school and took him to his mother’s home. I gave him his lunch, which was conveniently waiting for me, prepared, in the fridge, and while he took his nap and I nibbled on something I’d pinched from the pantry of what until recently had been my kitchen (a habit that infuriated my ex: ‘go buy your own food for once!’), I began to transcribe the interview; I had to get it to the newspaper by noon the next day.

But it was very difficult; I spread the photos of Bonnín out on the table and looked at them again, carefully. The memories of those almost legendary summers gripped me. Twenty years had gone by, or more, and still it was as if she was right there in front of me, in those short dresses covered with tiny flowers, wearing a scarf or straw hat on her head, singing for her husband’s guests there on the terrace of Son Gros. Her son and I gazing at her from the upper balcony, fascinated not only by her voice but also by the awe she produced in an entire, silent crowd of adults.

In the newspaper I’d bought after leaving the photographer’s flat there was an enormous death notice for Dora; it announced that at five in the afternoon a ceremony would be held for the singer at the funeral home on the Ronda de Dalt. While the boy slept, I let myself drift in memory, and when he woke up I was in such a cloud of my own that it’s possible I didn’t dedicate as much attention to him as he deserved. The boy began to cry desperately, he even went over to the door of the flat and kicked and pounded on it with his fists: he yelled for his mother with a fury I didn’t know how to calm. All my attempts to distract him were in vain; no song, ball or game, no funny face or bribe – a piece of cheese, Bruno? – could extract him from the crisis of longing and feeling of abandonment.

When his mother arrived, almost an hour later, the boy was still bawling; and she also got angry with me. She told me I didn’t know how to take care of him. I hadn’t even removed his diaper; he only wore it when sleeping and it was now damp with a big piss. The boy, when he saw her, immediately calmed down and started pleading for his snack. My ex was angrier with me than my son had been; she guessed (she knew me too well, Olga did) that the child had been crying because I hadn’t known how to be with him. She saw Dora’s photo spread out on the table in the dining room, next to the newspaper and my laptop, and began to tell me I was a Bad Father, who was always ‘spaced out’ and ‘fucking out of it’ and if I didn’t change, she wouldn’t let me see the boy, even on weekends. 

I made the mistake of responding and we argued for a good bit, shouts and reproaches, explosives and machine guns. The boy also began to yell, hugging his mother; I felt as if my head was filling with fog and my irritation became mixed with a confused sadness. 

‘And buy your own food!’ she let fly as I, dejected, exited the flat. 

Melcior Comes

Translated by Adrian Nathan West

From SOBRE LA TERRA IMPURA(‘On Impure Ground’)

by Melcior Comes

Translated by Adrian Nathan West

Published by Edicions Proa (2018)

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter page.

Melcior Comes is a Catalan writer. After graduating in law, he published his first novel, L’aire i el món in 2003, which won the Ciudad de Elche prize. His next novel, L’estupor que us espera, won the Premi Documenta, and his fourth work, El llibre dels plaers immensos won the Premi Josep Pla.

Adrian Nathan West is a writer and literary translator living in Spain. His criticism has appeared in the LRB, the TLS, and many other publications. He has translated books from German, Catalan and Spanish, including Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Country Doctor and Pere Gimferrer’s Pere Gimferrer: Selected Poems.

Category: The Spanish RiveterTranslations


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