Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Bilingual Book Club: El lápiz del carpintero/The Carpenter's Pencil

Salomé and a furry friend, photo by Elena
To research a novel about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic during World War II, I've been learning Spanish. Unable to travel, I connected with a conversational partner in Spain through the language exchange website Mixxer. Salomé lives in Galicia in the northwestern corner of Spain. Like my rural state of Maine, Galicia's geographic isolation protected the large elderly population from the higher Covid infection rates of more urban areas. Our pandemic stats have been remarkably similar, even though I was fully vaccinated by May 1st, and Salomé was only able to receive her first dose today. Another key difference: 87% of Spaniards want to be vaccinated and only 4% are anti-vax

Americans should learn about the benefits of universal health insurance from our European allies, who view health as a right of citizenship, not as a divisive political issue. Still, the pandemic dealt a hard blow to Spain too, especially at the start, and vaccine scarcity has created additional challenges. During these stressful times, Salomé and I have found that learning another language has been an excellent diversion. 

We also share a passion for books. I recommended that Salomé read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a Pulitzer prize winning novel set in a fictional version of my coastal town. For our bilingual book club, I've been reading The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas, a Galician classic about the Spanish Civil War. This short (166 pages) historical novel was written in Galician/gallego, a regional language which is more similar to Portuguese than to Spanish. Galician was banned under Franco and become the language of the resistance but returned to the school curriculum after the dictator's death. 

Nearly trilingual Salomé read the book in Galician, but I needed the English and Spanish translations. Both were excellent, but the Spanish version was closer to the original and had interesting footnotes to explain the history. Salomé gave me more context and found photos to illustrate the narrative. I'm learning as much history and culture as grammar and vocabulary from our two hour weekly video chats. Our international friendship has been the silver lining of the pandemic.

The old prison island in Ría de Vigo, Galicia reminds us of Alcatraz in San Francisco.

The Carpenter's Pencil shows the brutality of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of prison guard Herbal and his political prisoner, Doctor Daniel de Barca, whom he is ordered to kill. Fortunately, the spirit of a murdered painter gets inside Herbal's head, educating and manipulating the guard. Herbal represents the harsh sensibility of the Franco regime while Dr. Barca is nearly a saint in his selfless efforts to minister to the physical and emotional health of his fellow prisoners. From inside prison walls, we can best understand the horrors of the Franco regime of 1936-1975. To balance the darkness, there is a lovely romance between Barca and Marisa, a rebel with a cause, whom Herbal secretly adores. 

This most original novella has more depth than books twice its length. It took me 6 weeks to finish only because I read very slowly in my third language. Although I can now understand Spanish newspapers and podcasts, the more literary language of novels is still beyond my intermediate level of instruction. Every night, I read a few pages in English and then again in Spanish. Now that I've finished, I'm listening to the Spanish audiobook to cement my comprehension and to appreciate the beauty of the language. I now understand why young children often want the same bedtime story over and over again! I'd recommend The Carpenter's Pencil to everyone in any language since its empowering message transcends translation. Me encantó esta novela histórica, y recomiendo que todos la lean. 

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@Barrie Summy