As many of you already know I’m Spanish, but I tend to avoid Spanish literature as much as possible and have done so since I can remember. I read better and quicker in English, and I feel much more at ease in the Anglo-speaking world. However, last year I heard about a crime fiction trilogy called ‘the Baztán trilogy’ by Dolores Redondo. I was not that impressed until I visited La semana negra –’The Noir Festival’– where many independent bookshop owners recommended the trilogy to me the very same day the author was at the festival meeting readers and signing books. So, I bought the first installment in the series, El guardián invisible, got it signed, and I shelved it. Last week Harper Collins informed me that they are publishing the English translation under the name The Invisible Guardian – literal translation of the original Spanish title– and I thought it was about time I read it and shared it with you.
El guardián invisible, or The Invisible Guardian, tells the story of Detective Inspector Amaia Salazar, who has to go back home to the Baztán valley to investigate the brutal murder of teenager girls. This valley is located in Navarra, in the North-East of Spain, a place very similar to where I live, in which celtic and pagan traditions have merged with the more dominant Catholic ideology for which Spain is known for, creating a very special environment. Imagine cloudy, misty, and wet days for most of the year, deep forests, and an over-all image of green and humidity tainting your view. Welcome to the North of Spain.
The novel has one of the most complex and troubled detectives I have encountered in the last years. Even though Amaia is young, has a successful career as a homicides detective, and is happily married to James, an American sculptor, she has a troubled past. When she goes back to the Baztán valley, we are introduced to her two sisters, Flora and Ros, and her aunt, Engrasi, a wonderful group of women with very different points of view, but who stick together through thick-and-thin. Previous to my reading I had heard praise for the novels precisely because of these women and, although I had my doubts throughout my reading, now that I have finished the novel I can say that they are something special, and something never seen before in crime fiction. If the detective is usually a loner, or has a professional team in the best of cases, Redondo has created a detective with a close female family that will help her no matter how terrible the argument during last night’s dinner. Closely related to the family is the theme of motherhood, with which I had quite a troubled relationship while reading. Without giving anything away, Redondo makes motherhood a central theme for young couple Amaia and James, and since the victims are young teenagers, the reader is exposed to that terrible discourse of ‘asking for it’ that seems to be so prevalent in our rape culture.
The crimes were also one of a kind, with Redondo offering us very detailed descriptions of the bodies and the crime scenes. This is the moment when I warn readers about the gritty descriptions, because even though we access them through Amaia’s point of view, we are given all the information about what happened to the girls’ bodies. These details are never voyeuristic, and they are all relevant to solve the case, but I can see why many readers would not like them. But, if you are a crime fiction reader, you are more than likely to have encountered these descriptions before. You should be fine.
As I have mentioned before, the mix of the celtic and pagan traditions and mythology with Catholic ones is typical of the Northern provinces of Spain, such as Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country, and Navarra: Imagine Irish mythology and the old, obscure Catholic representations of the Saints and Virgin Mary. This has created a unique society, and a very interesting one for feminism. Redondo has been inspired by the supposed matriarchal traditions from these societies, even though this idea is historically inaccurate. Despite this, Northern women are represented in the collective Spanish imaginary as strong and resourceful, an idea that inspired all the characters in the novel, who move in an inbetweenness of contradictory pagan and Catholic role models for women: the mother of Christ vs. the strong, independent woman, the witch vs. the nymph, the whore vs. the Virgin. And so on, and so forth. Even though this was hard to read, it is an accurate portrait of the clash of two cultural constructions, and the clash between tradition and modernity. I had a hard time making up my mind about these issues, along with that of motherhood, because although they are terrible views on womanhood, they reflect the actual conflict in contemporary Spanish art in which women are caught between very different representations in which the guilt-ridden Catholic imaginary is still very present, and very powerful.
And, finally, Baztán, the real main character in the narrative, shaping everyone’s identity and coming out of the pages as a haunting place. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the forests, the rain, and the cold weather, and they have remained with me. British readers will find themselves at home, maybe a bit too much. Forget flamenco, forget sunny Costa Brava. This is the Spain of deep forests, bagpipes, the Camino de Santiago, hot chocolate, and 200 rainy days a year.
I throughly enjoyed reading in Spanish, and reading something by a Spanish woman writer who is enjoying a massive success. The Bazatán trilogy is on its 32nd edition, with more than 600,000 copies sold only in Spain, and ready to be adapted into movies by the produces of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Both Redondo and Detective Amaia Salazar have changed Spanish literature forever, and they have made this Spanish reader regain hope in her country’s literature.
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The Invisible Guardian will be released by Harper Collins in the UK on the 23rd of April, 2015.