The Last Days of Terranova

  • By Manuel Rivas; translated by Jacob Rogers
  • Archipelago Books
  • 400 pp.

This challenging, surrealism-adjacent tale rewards readers’ efforts.

The Last Days of Terranova

The Last Days of Terranova is not for everyone. A post-modernist novel translated from the Galician and full of references to literary works and geography that will be foreign to most American readers may not appeal to many. But it is beautifully written and well translated, so it can be quite enriching for those willing to give themselves over to it and go with the flow.

Galician, it turns out, is the language in that region of Spain just north of Portugal best known for the pilgrimage route ending in Santiago de Compostela. The language is closer to Portuguese than Castilian (which is how Spaniards refer to the dominant dialect of Spanish) and shares a medieval body of literature with Portugal. The author of The Last Days of Terranova, Manuel Rivas, is a prolific writer and accomplished poet who was a columnist for Spain’s leading newspaper, El País.

Terranova is a bookstore, and its owner, Vicenzo Fontana, is the narrator of a story that dabbles in magical realism and ventures occasionally into surrealism. The novel belongs to a non-English tradition that has more in common with Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez than writers in England or America.

Bookstores, however, are universal, and the best are repositories of civilization. The civilization in Terranova is one that defies Spain’s history of bigotry and oppression from the Inquisition to Franco. The narrative skips around in history, dipping back to the 1950s, the 1970s, and some other times that are hard to pin down.

Fontana was crippled by polio as a boy, spending time in an iron lung and still walking with a limp as a septuagenarian. He has posted a notice of the store’s liquidation ahead of eviction by the town’s leading landowner; the narrative consists of his reflections on the store, the books it contains and contained, and the history intertwined with it.

He is not the only character, however. Vicenzo’s father, Amaro, looms large, taking the nickname Polytropos from the description of Odysseus as a man of twists and turns. Vicenzo’s uncle, Eliseo, appears, too. He’s a closeted gay man in a time when homosexuals were sent to asylums to keep them from prison. They were hardly alone in being oppressed, though, as official intolerance also made victims of Communists and other freethinkers. Garua, another character, is a dissident taking refuge in the bookstore from the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance.

Rivas peoples his novel with numerous such figures, weaving them in and out of a narration that circles back to its beginning and the coming eviction. Each is drawn with precision, and their stories seem real, even if the reader is never quite sure of the context.

Argentina becomes a reflection of Spain, sometimes as a haven for those fleeing oppression, sometimes as a society sharing Spain’s intolerance. Eliseo’s supposed trip to Argentina provides many details, but it turns out they may have been imaginary. “The thing with Eliseo was that he spent all day opening up passageways across the limits of reality. But not like a madman. He spoke of a happy penumbra,” is one of the gems that leaps off the page.

Amaro founded the bookstore and managed it for decades. When Vicenzo is reading his father’s secret notebooks, he discovers a hidden side to the man. “Writing must have been created, among other things, so that we can put words to things we aren’t able to say aloud,” Vicenzo observes.

In the end, Terranova becomes a character in its own right. Speaking of Eliseo’s admiration for Bugs Bunny, whom he calls the hero of the Chicago Surrealist School, Vicenzo says:

“In his view, every bookstore was one of thousands of entrances in a universal burrow. He could travel to and from any of the tunnels, even the underwater ones, and if one were ever sealed, he could pop out of another.”

The store’s name is a play on Newfoundland, and Terranova becomes just that — newfound land — for those visiting it or hiding in its attic. The bookstore doesn’t deserve to close, but even if it does, its soul will live on to inspire future generations in their struggles.

Darrell Delamaide is author of the novels The Grand Mirage and Gold.

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