JAVIER FERNÁNDEZ DE CASTRO
Javier Fernández de Castro (Aranda de Duero, 1942) studied journalism in Pamplona and Madrid. He has turned his hand to many jobs, from translating and publishing to lecturing at the Faculty of Philosophy in San Sebastian, besides a stint as press correspondent in London and sporadic work in television, chiefly writing scripts.
His first novel, Alimento de Salto, came out in 1972, since when he has published Así en la tierra (1977), Laberinto de fango (1983), La novia del capitán (1987), La guerra de los trofeos (1991), Tiempo de Beleño (1994), La tierra prometida (2000), Crónica de la mucha muerte (2001) and Tres cuentos de otoño (2008).
Tres cuentos de otoño (Three Autumn Tales) was published by Wagenbach in 2011 under the title In Erinnerung an einen vorzüglichen Wein (Memories of an exceptional wine). Tiempo de Beleño has also been published by Wagenbach as Die berauschende Wirkung von Bilsenkrau (2013).
Fernández de Castro also writes a literary review section in the Spanish-language literary blog El boomeran(g) and in Babelia, the weekend culture supplement of Spain’s El País daily newspaper.
He has translated several novels of Georges Simenon from French although the bulk of his translating work has been of English-language authors: Daniel Defoe, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Ian McEwan, Tom Sharpe and others.
His latest translations include The River by Rumer Godden and The Decay of Lying and Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde. All three have been published by Acantilado.
He has just finished his latest novel, entitled En brazos de un hongo traidor (In the arms of a treacherous mushroom).
He currently lives opposite the sunny slopes of the Serra del Bolet or Mushroom Mountain Range (mushrooms again, but much more civilised) where all he needs to do is to climb to the top of a small hillock for a sweeping view of Catalonia’s Alt Penedés district.
En brazos de un hongo traidor (on submission)
After striking up strong bonds during a turbulent period spent in a centre for wayward youth, three teenagers meet up again a few years later.
All three are on the brink of decisions that will determine their future. It seems too late to rekindle their old alliance but in a last-ditch attempt to revive old times they try some shock therapy and eat a magic mushroom. As one of them puts it, when it makes you trip, “you see Hiroshima with one eye and the Fiestas del Pilar with the other”.
Over a couple of days, amid all sorts of entanglements and hallucinations, they look back over their respective pasts and talk openly about more than a few blunders. When free of the enticements of the treacherous mushroom, they say goodbye and go back to their lives, good friends as ever, but each embarked on his own destiny.
Tres cuentos de otoño (Bruguera, 2008)
The three stories in this book open with pastoral simplicity, set in the wilds or remote pokey little towns where gentle mannered characters venture only to find themselves entangled in complicated, insoluble situations within minutes, like when they try to retrieve a bottle of wine from under the hooves of twenty cows frenzied with cold while a murderer lurks in the dark. With the precision of the mechanics whizs who people his novels, capable of stripping down and reassembling a BMW 900 piece by piece while talking, drinking and chain smoking all at once, Fernández de Castro’s stories achieve a degree of technical intricacy that seems impossible to unravel. But then, in just three pages, everything unfolds. The end of the maze appears, the cows wander away, the infernal imbroglio clears, the sun comes out and the characters quietly get back to savouring their wine and cigarettes as they set out again on their way until no doubt plunged into fresh ordeals a few miles down the road.
Fernández de Castro's writing combines the skill of the virtuoso with natural ease, like the violinists whose fingers seem to multiply as they play improbable scores while winking at a lady in the front row.
Félix de Azúa
Foreign rights sold to:
Verlag Klaus Wagenbach (Germany), 2011
Crónica de la mucha muerte (Plaza y Janés, 2001)
Crónica de la mucha muerte is the second part or follow-up to La tierra prometida. Several years have gone by since Severo made his untimely arrival at La Fatarella, a sumptuous shooting estate which has become his promised land by paternal imposition. Things have changed dramatically from the state of affairs a few years earlier when Severo turned up not really knowing what he was doing there, or what he was going to do in the future.
At the start of the novel, a bunch of tramps – the Balanuses, a tribe of itinerant workers who have already appeared in earlier novels – take up abode as squatters in an abandoned farmhouse belonging to the estate. The manoeuvres of the Balanuses to legitimise their claim to the misappropriated house and the forceful efforts made by Vidal and his employees to kick them out make up the first part of the novel over which hover two very different characters: Clemencia Balanus, the alpha female among the squatters, and the Fayona, the huge female wild boar that Severo ran into when he arrived at La Fatarella and which has become a legend among local shooters. In the second part, one of the narrative pivots is Tina, the autistic child born of the relationship between Severo and Clemencia, who has serious problems in finding her place in the world. The other is the difficulties that Severo has in committing himself to La Fatarella and defending it from the serious threats that are on the verge of devastating it for ever.
La tierra prometida (Lumen, 1998)
Ciudad de Barcelona Prize, 1998
This intriguing novel is a story of initiation, the initiate being Severo Vidal Dalt, the son of Severo Vidal Casas and grandson of doña América Casas, who will be familiar to readers of La novia del capitán.
Severo is the typical product of the industrial bourgeoisie of Barcelona that grew up in Franco’s time. Though only seventeen, he is physically and mentally much more developed than for his age, and so everyone takes him for much older and more educated than he actually is. The crux of the matter is that although he doesn’t have much reason for it, Severo feels physically and spiritually removed from the customs, values and goals of the social class he belongs to, and his ill-though-out rejection of that world creates a family atmosphere of growing conflict and aggressiveness. For some reason not altogether clear, his father – known as Don Severo out of deference to his standing – has decided to leave a huge, high-tech shooting estate as the sole inheritance for his firstborn, despite the fact that Severo has an almost sick hatred of anything to do with nature. As the narrative course of events picks up speed, Severo inevitably ends up going to the shooting estate, where he arrives in the dark of night, completely lost. A fortuitous encounter then occurs with a huge female boar with which he spends the night at the bottom of a well. The encounter proves to be half desperate, half amorous, in other words extremely unsettled. In the early hours, Severo finds his way to the estate – the promised land – soaked to the skin, with his clothes in tatters and hard-to-explain scratches on the nape of his neck. He realises that it will be years before he understands what happened that night in the well and the reasons for his amorous behaviour with a creature that arose out of the very nature he detests much.
Tiempo de Beleño (Plaza y Janés, 1994)
This novel, the work farthest removed from the usual writing of Fernández de Castro, tells the story of two motorcyclists caught in a storm. When they think they’ve got away from it (or at least that’s what it looks like), it turns out that the storm has really driven them to a very peculiar place. That place is a remote inn where several locals and a few strangers (including the two motorcyclists) have taken shelter from the elements. To kill time, the shelter seekers tell stories by the firelight and have a feast, rounded off by a tisane made with a potion provided by one of the bikers, Chema Salinas, a maker of plant essences by profession. The tranquil gathering soon turns into a mind-blowing chase through the woods when a group of Civil Guards (who tried the potion to keep warm) mistake them for an armed gang. Imperceptibly, the reader slowly realises that the situation is a ruse of destiny. The day before, Chema had driven recklessly at one point; in normal circumstances, that carelessness would have cost him his life. The fact that it didn’t was because the lorry he ought to have crashed into fatally at top speed on a bend was held up by the same storm the bikers thought they were avoiding. Twenty-four hours later, when traffic gets back to normal on the roads, Chema Salinas will drive round the same bend at exactly the same time as the lorry when it resumes its route. This is a thought-provoking book about willpower, free will and fate in the midst of mad psychotropic goings-on.
Foreign rights sold to:
Verlag Klaus Wagenbach (Germany), September 2013
La guerra de los trofeos (Anagrama, 1991)
In this book readers re-encounter Sileno Campa, the leading character in an earlier novel, Laberinto de fango. Several years have gone by since then. After being forced to give up competing on health grounds, Sileno wants to make a come-back, but the Spanish Diving Federation refuses to give him his licence unless he completes a long rehabilitation and fitness programme. Sileno turns for help to Régulo, his former manager, whom readers already know from Así en la Tierra and Laberinto de fango. Régulo offers him the use of a spa in the heart of the Monegros desert which he uses to get away from it all and to breed racing greyhounds, his other business facet. In exchange, until he gets fighting fit, Sileno can give a hand to Santos, Regulo’s private vet who looks after the resident greyhounds. Taking such a simple approach, the author characteristically develops the plot. At the spa, a solid alliance grows up between Sileno and Santos (two born survivors who think they are firmly in control of their own lives); outside, life follows its winding course and, unbeknown to them, maps out their destiny. The reader looks on from a privileged position as a powerful mechanism beyond the control of all those under its influence sets into motion and even seems to have a will of its own in guiding the characters towards their own destiny.
La novia del capitán (Mondadori, 1986)
La novia del capitán begins the saga of the Vidal Casas, the tale of a family of highborn ship owners from Barcelona (the Casas) who are literally and metaphorically besieged by a bogus pirate captain (the handsome fortune-seeker Gabino Vidal), who ends up leaving them utterly penniless. The adventures of the Vidal Casas resurface in La tierra prometida (1999) and Crónica de la mucha muerte (2000). The story opens as Doña América calls a family gathering to break the news that they are completely ruined and have to brace themselves to see the head of the family publicly branded as a cheat and swindler. When the gathering is over, the youngest members of the family, Carolina and Gabino, shut themselves in the playroom where Carolina sums up the situation in her own peculiar way by saying that being poor will be exactly the same as being rich, only without money. From that point onwards, the story aims to find out whether it is possible for people to keep their dignity when shed of their riches, or whether they merely become an amalgam of misfortunes and yearning. In the end, it turns out that Carolina was not altogether right. But she wasn’t completely off mark either, because the family eventually recover their dignity and honour, albeit at the expense of serious, disheartening losses. At the same time the book pursues the adventures of the other members of the Vidal Casas family in a powerful narrative structure that moves towards a crescendo, driven by the imaginativeness and unique technique of the author.
Laberinto de fango (Argos Vergara, 1983)
The narrative thread of Laberinto del fango forks in two opposite directions, only to join up inevitably in the end. The first traces the experience of Sileno Campa. Emulating the trials and tribulations of a hero taken from a tragedy, Sileno subjects his body to a punishing routine to accomplish the mission he is to be entrusted by his parent community, even going so far as to spend time in the desert to cleanse himself. In actual fact, Sileno’s “punishing routine” is the normal routine for any professional sportsman, the sport here being subaquatic diving. Unluckily, during a competition Sileno has an accident that nearly costs him his life, and later, while convalescing, he has another accident that again nearly kills him. Being saved from the clutches of death no less than twice is the clear signal that he is ready to jump into action.
The second strand of the story takes place in the community Sileno belongs to, which for some time has been under extremely serious risk of extinction owing to external circumstances and to the resultant internal tensions. Sileno Campa is chosen to confront the cause of all the community’s ills and to equip it with the means of fighting for its future hindrance-free.
This outline could be penned by any writer of tragedies, but here it is set in a dislocated scenario where the hero is a diver who takes part in a unique attempt to turn subaquatic diving into mass entertainment; his descent into hell is a crazy race through a system of sewers until he is spewed into the sea; and the threat to the community is the opening of a factory which unknowingly competes with another identical factory located in Papua New Guinea. The sole secret to the fact that the whole tale seems probable is the well crafted language of the author and his impeccable technique.
Así en la tierra (Barral Editores, 1978)
Así en la tierra is Javier Fernández de Castro’s second novel. Of all his works, it is considered the one charged with the most symbolism.
Régulo and Cástulo are the two mouthpieces of events (it would be overoptimistic to call them protagonists). Both breed racing greyhounds and reappear in later novels, for instance in Laberinto de fango (1983) where they try to open up new horizons far removed from greyhounds as they set their sights on turning subaquatic diving into mass entertainment. And they make another appearance in La guerra de los trofeos (1991) where they’re back into greyhound breeding but still keep their business interests in transforming diving into a source of mass entertainment. Aspirations and future plans wind in and out of the plot alongside petty grudges and traditions and selfless and even heroic gestures, set against a backdrop of a legitimate desire to survive and get ahead. The members of the group are Régulo, the real alpha male type; Gravinia, his partner and the female guarantor of the group’s survival and reproduction; Cástulo, who lives beyond the confines of civilisation and culture and is the ideal complement to Régulo in breeding greyhounds with which he seems to enjoy a mysterious, secret relationship; and Gedeón and Santos, Régulo’s employees.
The struggle to gain control of the group comes to a head when Gravinia is fatally attacked (whether by man or beast is not clear), so dashing all hopes of reproduction (survival). This demise of the group is celebrated in a lavish banquet where the main dishes served up are the very dogs whose triumphs were meant to cement group unity.