Luís Berenguer, Leña Verde

January 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Life is a tricky creature to capture in media, whether it be film or the printed word.  The gestures endemic to one place and time do not always map out well when transported into a static medium.  The petty gestures and grandiose quirks of people often become distorted when transcribed.  Writing a story “true to life” is a much more daunting (and all too frequently, unrewarding) task than most readers realize.  This is especially true when the author is foolhardy enough to start his or her tale by looking at the lives of several people.  When done correctly, such tales have a profound power because we can see in them the people around us, their foibles and their triumphs, their dreams, aspirations, and most of all, their grounded actions and expressions.  Some great writers express this spectrum of humanity in picturesque terms, with characters that might be slight modifications of those that appear in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.  Others, however, dig into our collective quotidian muck and dredge something profound out of it.  Ugliness can yield a repulsive beauty, sometimes, and this can be seen in some of Faulkner’s works or in some of Joyce’s tales.  Whenever a writer manages to achieve, even partially, this elevation of the vulgar to a artistic verisimilitude, it is a work to be cherished.

Luís Berenguer’s 1972 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Leña Verde (Green Firewood), is one of those novels that has pretensions to achieving this difficult feat.  Set in Spain of the author’s youth of the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath, Leña Verde is the tale of Juan Antonio Carvajal’s return to his Andalusian village after being gone for four years.  Last in a line of rich landowners, Carvajal observes the changes that have occurred in the interim, as well as the enduring problems of class divisions.  The effects of these inequalities are seen throughout the novel and they drive the plot.

If reduced to simply providing a synopsis of the main plot, that of a frustrated love and the tragedies that follow, Leña Verde would be merely yet another variation on a well-worn theme.  Yet the characterizations and Berenguer’s use of imagery and symbolism make this a rather remarkable novel.  When I read it several days ago, I found myself thinking of Faulkner’s use of place to create deeper connections between the characters and also with the reader.  Berenguer’s countryside setting is rich with those “little things” that make this tale feel “true to life.”  From the ways that the characters spoke to their actions, every little thing felt vital, imbued with a liveliness that helps the reader to identify with these characters and their situations.  The rivalry of Carvajal and Donaire is played out in such a fashion that when the final sentence is reached, the reader has the impression of lives lived out before them.

Berenguer’s prose is fascinating in part because of the author’s background.  Unlike most of his peers in late Francoist Spain, Berenguer was not an academic critic or trained artist.  He was a naval officer who was largely an autodidact in literature.  His writings show traces of Faulkner and Joyce, particular in the use of language to create a setting and setting to establish character.  His characters, based in part on people he knew in his youth of the 1920s-early 1940s, feel like they have walked into a novel rather than being created by their author.  Leña Verde, however, is not an “easy” novel; it does not yield up all of its treasures in a single reading.  In reading it, I was struck by the sense that there were hidden depths that I was missing.  Certainly it will be a novel that I will revisit, likely several times, in the years to come.  It may not be the most famous of the Spanish novels of the 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly is a tale that deserves the accolades that it has received and hopefully there will be a new generation of readers that will discover this fine novel in the years to come.

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