With some frequency, we hear readers ask authors how much of their novels they’ve pulled from their own lives, assuming that some if not most of the content must be autobiographical. One of the fascinating things about this memoir by Xesús Fraga is that readers ask the same thing, because it seems simply impossible that this magnificent work of literature could possibly be anything but a novel. In part, I’m sure this has to do with his portrayal of his grandmother, a larger-than-life force of nature, who he gives such depth, pathos, hilarity and personality that readers must assume he’s made her up. But what makes Virtues (and Mysteries) – the title is a play on his grandmother’s name, Virtudes, (‘virtues’) – so uniquely brilliant is how it takes the raw material of an utterly commonplace story – Galician poverty, emigration, and in many cases, disappearance – and moulds it into a universal tale of struggle and sacrifice. Very few Galician-language books have won Spain’s National Narrative Prize; it comes as no surprise that this did just that in 2021.
Anytime my grandmother got angry, her eyes would flash with a feral gleam, and she would clench her teeth in a grim rictus, lips pursed, jaw quaking. She reminded me, in these moments, of a bulldog sniffing out your slightest weakness, your slightest misstep. She would crouch into a squat and eye you from this low vantage point, which, rather than undermine her authority, was a clear sign she was primed to attack. When my grandmother got angry with me specifically, it was almost always because I’d either questioned her infallible opinions, or because some problem had arisen which (according to her) was my fault, but which (from my perspective) was purely a misunderstanding. She didn’t care what I had to say, batting away my defences with an unmatchable argument:
The angriest she’s ever been with me, the nearest I’ve ever felt the bulldog’s fangs to my face, was one morning outside her flat in London. We were on our way to the airport to catch a flight to Galicia and had lugged our suitcases down to the vestibule. ‘I’m going to see if I can find a taxi at High Street Kensington. You stay here with our things,’ she had ordained, before opening the door and descending the steps down to the pavement, still deserted and lit by the feeble yellow of the street-lamps at these early hours of the morning. Watching her walk in the direction of the faint murmur of traffic from the main road, I felt a sudden, irrepressible urge to follow her. To this day, I still don’t know why I acted on it; maybe it was an impulsive, childish fear of being left alone. Whatever the case, I rushed down the five steps separating the pavement from her front door, which I’d made sure to shut, I guess out of some instinct not to leave our belongings unattended.
‘Wait, I’m coming with you!’
My grandmother had already set off walking and didn’t hear me. I nearly had to run to catch up. She couldn’t have been more incredulous when she saw me.
‘What are you doing here? What if someone shuts the door? Didn’t you see I left my keys back with my purse?’
I confessed that the door had already been shut, though I neglected to mention that I was the culprit. Predictably, her incredulity turned to rage, followed by a litany of vehement curses, which I immediately set to work repressing. Any attempt to reproduce them here would be an exercise in memory, and exercises in memory are always more of a reinvention than a retelling, and anyway, I’d never be able to do the experience justice. Things weren’t looking good for us, stuck outside my grandmother’s building at four in the morning with no key and all our bags inside. The only bright spot was that, thanks to my grandmother’s perennial insistence on arriving three or four hours before take-off, we still had loads of time.
As was her custom, as soon as my grandmother had finished discharging her anger, she solved the problem. She rang the bell for the housekeepo, as she called the housekeeper who lived in the street-level flat. After a few minutes, he finally peeked his black face grumpily out from behind the curtains. He was even grumpier when he came out and opened the front door, returning us to the security of the vestibule and the relieving sight of our luggage; I let out a silent sigh of relief while my grandmother placated him with a self-interested (albeit accurate) version of events:
‘My grandson! He go outside with no keys! And closed the door! He is stupid! Crazy! Stupid!’
Have I mentioned yet that this is an exercise in memory?
These castigations were but one of the many and varied manifestations of my grandmother’s famous temper. If you showed any signs of lollygagging, or simply couldn’t keep up with her, she would unleash the full force of her wrath upon you, no exceptions.
‘Chop, chop, María Isabel!’ she once shouted at my mother, who had fallen behind with the heavy shopping bags, and this teasing command even made its way into our family lexicon. We found it funny to see these rare displays of maternalism in my grandmother – hidden by her living abroad and by the inflexible, impatient shell the self-sacrificial tend to armour themselves with – and it was undeniably tickling to see my mother briefly turned into the docile child she hadn’t been for a long time, ever since circumstances had forced her to become a mother not just to herself, but also to her two young sisters. Of course, that was long before I was born.
Another part of the humour, for us, was in how odd her expressions sounded to our young ears; having grown up in a predominantly Spanish-speaking milieu, we couldn’t help but be simultaneously fascinated and amused by her old-fashioned-sounding Galician.
‘These nuts are balorecidas,’ she once said, for example. My cousins and I, who had never in our lives heard the word balorecidas used to indicate mouldiness, burst into peals of laughter.
And then there was her repertoire of composite words. Between her vehemence and our never having heard these words before, we always assumed she’d simply made them up.
‘You’ve got to esmachucalo,’ she would say, doubling the impact that the Galician ‘esmagar’ or the Spanish ‘machucar’ (to crush, in both cases) would have had on their own.
Not to mention the ferocious refrains that left us equally tittering and terrified:
‘God knows what came over that woman, walking around like a whore at Lent!’
Twenty-five years in London – which she was already well into by the time we were kids– hadn’t stopped a certain understratum of her formerly rural life from cropping up occasionally in her speech, and she still used old phrases from back then (‘It’s like Korea out here!’ she would say as a catchall for a negative sort of surprise), which reinforced her natural expressiveness. Her phonetic adaptations of place names in the British capital – Édua (Edgware) Road, or Jaimesmí (Hammersmith) – also coloured her British Galician, but nothing was as liable to send us into an uncontrollable fit of laughter as her awe-inspiring, high-powered collision of curse words:
By Xesús Fraga
Translated by Jacob Rogers
From VIRTUDES (E MISTERIOS)
(‘Virtues (and Mysteries)’)
By Xesús Fraga
Translated and introduced by Jacob Rogers
Published by Editorial Galaxia (2020)
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Xesús Fraga is a Galician journalist and writer. He studied journalism at the University of Salamanca, and is a journalist for La Voz de Galicia. He has published a number of books across various genres and in 2021 he received the Premio Nacional de Narrativa for his book Virtudes (e misterios).
Jacob Rogers is a translator of Galician and Spanish. His translation of Manuel Rivas’s The Last Days of
Terranova was published by Archipelago Books in autumn 2022, and his translation of Berta Dávila’s Loved Ones is forthcoming from 3TimesRebel Press in late 2023.