Friday, July 13, 2012

María Dueñas

Image from
It was fitting that I should be in the middle of reading Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls when I made my way into the auditorium of the Decatur Library yesterday to hear María Dueñas speak about her debut novel and bestseller, El tiempo entre costuras, or The Time in Between. Having spent three months in Spain recently, I have noticed that Franco's specter still hovers over the country, and even the young people who have no living memories of the dictatorship feel its weight like the bruise left by a claw clamped tight on your shoulder. And it all began in those crucial years of the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, which Hemingway tells of so vividly in For Whom the Bell Tolls. You can learn history from the history books, but where will you learn of how the fascists were killed, one by one, in a small peasant town? Or of the illiterate wisdom of the horse trainers who made a revolution? Or of the soldier's urgency to make love before his probable death? This sort of thing you learn of in a novel, guided by the hand of a peerless storyteller such as Hemingway.

El tiempo entre costuras begins just before the eruption of the civil war and continues into World War II, following a young seamstress as she learns the ways of the world and sheds her naïvité, sewing herself deelpy into the canvas of her society. The novel bridges Spain and Morocco, lower-class humility and upper-class power. María Dueñas spoke romantically of the pre-independence Morocco that the older members of her family still remember vividly. She spoke of her creative process, making it clear that she had deemed this project a necessary step in the consolidation of her family's stories and the stories of a whole generation, which would otherwise be lost. A professor of English language and literature at the University of Murcia, she was trained as an academic and applied these same research methods to her book, consulting histories, memoirs, and old newspapers, in addition to the oral histories of her family. She was a living illustration of the ultimate compatibility of academia and creativity; the divide between the two, which separates scholarly analysis from the creation of fiction and often elevates one above the other within the ivory towers, can be dispelled like a smokescreen, if only we have a little courage.

She was also a living illustration of a successful female author. As a woman, I am grateful to her as a role model. To Isabel Allende also I am grateful. Hemingway told us how Robert Jordan's heart beat against the snow that melted and wet his shirt beneath him as he lay watching Fascist cavalry through the sight of a machine gun. Now Dueñas can tell us how at the same time Sira trudged with the weight of pistols strapped to her body under a burka to smuggle them to a man in a bathroom stall of the train station in Tetuan, Morocco. There are many stories about men, and in the still-patriarchal society of Spain, I am glad that a woman is telling a woman's story.

Dueñas pointed out that Spain and the U.S. have long had a curious and sometimes intimate relationship. She herself as well as Hemingway are examples of this. Her next novel, Misión Olvido, deals directly with this intercontinental relationship. We should pay more attention to what connects us. As one who straddles the two continents out of a visceral necessity to do so, I am more than content that the Georgia Center for the Book has brought an author from Murcia, Spain all the way to Decatur, Georgia.

The following is an image of my mother's 1982 edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls, which she bought in Salamanca, Spain, and which I am currently reading. I love the yellowing paper that is both soft and coarse like the pages of King Arthur and His Kinghts, Little Women, and Treasure Island that I also read as a child from my mother's library of those books that escaped the fire to her Charlottesville apartment years ago. I love especially the pages in the middle where the spine has cracked--the ones that want to turn themselves loose from the brittle glue like golden autumn leaves and that I must hold in place very gingerly as one holds a sleeping baby's head.

Image from