Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wednesday, April 4, 2018: Maximum Shelf: A Million Drops

Other Press: A Million Drops by Víctor Del Árbol, translated by Lisa Dillman

Other Press: A Million Drops by Víctor Del Árbol, translated by Lisa Dillman

Other Press: A Million Drops by Víctor Del Árbol, translated by Lisa Dillman

Other Press: A Million Drops by Víctor Del Árbol, translated by Lisa Dillman

A Million Drops

by Víctor del Árbol, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Barcelona attorney Gonzalo Gil's life is far from perfect. His relationship with his teen son, Javier, is strained; his marriage is a series of rote actions with little to no emotion; and his legal career limps along in the shadow of his influential father-in-law. But Gonzalo has made peace with his place in life and, despite being fully aware of its deficiencies, he chooses to continue in the status quo. That is, until he's notified of the death of his estranged older sister, Laura.

It's been more than 10 years since Gonzalo has heard anything about her. He learns that Laura, a deputy inspector, is believed to have murdered a man before taking her own life; the man Laura's accused of murdering, a Russian mobster, was suspected of killing her young son. On the surface it all seems plausible--revenge and remorse--but as Gonzalo revisits memories of his youth, he struggles to believe the sister he loved and knew so well could be capable of these actions. His doubts are confirmed when one of Laura's confidential informants shows up with evidence that her death isn't what it appears to be.

Víctor del Árbol's A Million Drops pulls readers into Gonzalo's clumsy investigation of his sister's death and then opens up a history into Gonzalo's family--specifically his father, Elías Gil--developing a parallel mystery. As del Árbol alternates between the two--one taking place in Spain 2002, the other in 1930s U.S.S.R.--the suspense and emotion build.

Elías was a Spanish engineering student in 1933. He was also, like his own father, a proud Communist. Elías traveled to Moscow to finish his degree by helping in Stalin's Five-Year Plan, building bridges and canals. "Elías was curious about everything: the architecture of the buildings they passed; Moscow's history, literature, and music; and of course, politics. He wanted to know it all: who was who, how things had gone since the civil war. And he was drawn like a magnet to the omnipresent figure of Stalin." Despite Elías's passion for Communism, Stalin and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, he is unexpectedly arrested, accused of being a traitor and spy and shipped off to a Siberian work camp. Here Elías learns his horrors have only just begun.  

Del Árbol's dense novel continually compounds momentum, moving the plot faster and faster the further into the 600-plus pages the reader advances. As the two storylines come closer and closer to merging, the intensity skyrockets. As the events themselves escalate, del Árbol supplements them with vivid descriptions, poetic language and richly developed characters--both good and evil.

From the onset, Moscow is painted in a foreboding tone, "The job site [Elías had] been assigned to was, at the time, the greatest feat of engineering ever undertaken by man.... But he was also confronted by the harsh reality of the inhuman means by which it was carried out. The canal's construction was overwhelmingly supplied by forced labor, prisoners sometimes convicted on ridiculous charges."

Then, as the action of the novel ratchets up, so does the harshness and the darkness of the U.S.S.R., "In the summer, after the thaw, the steppe is a hot, steamy hell where the sweat sticks oppressively to your body and attracts flies and mosquitoes by the thousands.... They hound you day and night, attacking your body, crawl into every orifice they can find. It's like you're a rotting carcass, except they don't have the patience to wait for you to die; instead they eat you alive."

As dark and tortuous as the plot and setting are in A Million Drops, there's also an incredible beauty in the language del Árbol employs. He develops complex relationships between the characters, making them all the more fascinating and relatable. Gonzalo struggles with the fraying bond between himself and his son, Javier. A communication breakdown between the two keeps them at arm's length, but readers are privy to the passion Gonzalo holds in his heart, "Gonzalo should have told him the truth. Should have said I love you, and that the years of silence between them didn't matter, that he'd always be there for him no matter what he did, come what may. He should have told him that he was his son, and nothing in the world mattered more."

The English translation by Lisa Dillman must be noted for preserving the power of del Árbol's words, whether they are prophetic or ardent, blatant or subtle, determined or hopeless. The intense struggles, both physical and emotional, drive this suspenseful novel fueled by the incredible delivery of language. A Million Drops is dark, disturbing and a delicious treat for any fan of smart noir fiction. --Jen Forbus

Other Press, $19.95, trade paper, 640p., 9781590518458, May 5, 2018

Other Press: A Million Drops by Víctor Del Árbol, translated by Lisa Dillman

Víctor del Árbol: Literature Is My Homeland

Víctor del Árbol was born in Barcelona in 1968. He spent five years as a seminarian at Our Lady of Montealegre and later studied history at the University of Barcelona. He is a recipient of the Nadal Prize, the Tiflos Prize, and the first Spanish author to win the Prix du Polar Européen.

You spent time as a seminarian and then went back to school to study history--what brought you back to writing?

In essence, it was always the same reason: to understand the world, to understand myself and to find a way to fit in. Since I was a child, I never settled for the explanations that adults gave me. I suspected that appearances hide truths that are much more interesting. I come from a very humble family; I was the first to be able to go to college. My mother cleaned homes and I grew up in a tough neighborhood of Barcelona. To protect me, my mother made me go to the library. There I discovered the Iliad, and I realized that I wanted to be a hero. Not the kind of hero that Achilles was (invincible demigod), but rather that my vocation was to be like Hector (the antihero). Writing taught me to create a world where I could feel secure and happy, where I was free. History has always interested me, as do theology and law, because in my life and in my work there is always an obsession: Where do the roots of evil lie? Why is humanity its own Paradise and its own Hell?

You started out writing poetry and there is definitely a poetic sense in your prose writing. Do you still write poetry?

I still write poetry. Verse is the exercise of perfect succinctness. Federico García Lorca, Mayakovsky, Juan Gelman, Anna Akhmatova, Elizabeth Bishop... they've taught me to reflect on the word, the cadence, the rhythm. The stanza is a truth without rhetoric. It penetrates the most intimate reaches of the soul and beautifies everything it brushes against.

You worked for the Catalonia police. Has that experience influenced your writing?

Yes, I was on the police force for 20 years (I was a bodyguard for the president, I worked with battered women, abused children...). That work taught me to know myself better, to understand the difference between law and justice, and it helped me become close to the desperation and pain that men and women carry inside ourselves. It allowed me to explore the roots of violence, and the feeling of vengeance and of guilt. It helped me to ask myself whether it is possible to change, to leave behind the past. All of this is reflected in my novels.

Obviously your interest in history has also been very influential in your writing. What drew you to 1930s Russia and the concept for A Million Drops?

I dedicated many years of research to this period of history in France and in Russia, and discovered the history of Nazino camp and the influence of the Soviet Union on the Spanish Civil War. I followed the trail of a Spanish Republican who went to fight the Nazis in Russia and ended up being sent by Stalin to a gulag. All of that seemed fascinating to me. But my interest began when I was very young and discovered the poet Anna Akhmatova and I fell in love with Russian literature. Chekhov, Bulgakov, Pasternak followed. Russian literature from that period is painful and profound.

The period between the end of the Russian revolution and the end of the Second World War is fascinating because it exemplifies how the utopia of human liberation ends up becoming a terrible nightmare.

I'd like to note a personal reason as well: the discovery of my father and his life, our silences, and his absence.

Like your novel The Sadness of the Samurai, A Million Drops alternates time periods. What about this approach to your writing do you like?

It's a process that attempts to demonstrate that narrative time is circular. What happened will happen again unless we break that circuit. I believe that human beings live in the three temporal spaces at once: past, present and future. We live remembering, doing and desiring. And everything is connected; we are what we are because we come from some part of that. That connection interests me in a literary sense. The tricky part is maintaining the reader's interest along both timeframes.

Many people will read A Million Drops in translation. What differences do you see in the way the books are received in different countries or cultures?

Every country has a different sensibility that's expressed in linguistic usage and in aesthetic tastes and moral values. But there's one thing I've learned traveling throughout the world over the years: even though we use a different language, we all speak the same one; emotions have no homeland, they are universal. We give things different names, but they are the same feelings. Literature is my homeland because it has no borders. In literature, no one is a foreigner.

On the other hand, all societies and all individuals have scars and wounds that we need to heal. We live in a time of narcissism, of callousness, and of banality, a time of populism and of appearances. The literature that I aspire to demands putting the brakes on demagoguery, on cruelty as the only solution. It invites us to discover an individual in the other, not an enemy.

Have you ever been surprised or caught off guard by the way people have read your work?

I know why I write, the reasons that push me to do it. But I don't know why readers read my work. And that's the magic, that what's wonderful. A book has multiple levels of comprehension and every reader reads according to their own experiences. Once I put the final touches on a story, it no longer belongs to me. I'm happy when a reader arrives with me at the bottom of these questions, and doesn't remain alone on the surface. Some readers are more interested in the historical themes, and others in the psychology of evil, or the relationships between parents and children.

Very interesting questions and debates emerge regarding the nature of power; people I spoke to told me stories of relatives in the concentration camps, personal things in which they saw themselves reflected. That's what's most important to me, to feel that literature gives back to our lives our collective history as well as our individual histories.

You actually wrote A Million Drops several years ago now. With these new editions, is it like wine and the book gets better for you, or are you ready to move on to something new?

A good book improves with age. Through the generations it keeps returning with a useful and adapted discourse. That's how it turns into a classic. I know that A Million Years matures over the years, like a good wine waiting for its moment. Dystopia opposite utopia, the messianic discourse that delivers us into disaster, the sickness of callousness continues to be as prevalent today as they were then (or even more so).

After this novel, I continued with others (three, up to now) and I've explored other topics (childhood, madness) from other frameworks that are less epic and more intimate. I believe a writer should never be content with what he already knows how to do, that he should always seek new challenges. But it's a very important novel in my life and in my career. And I believe that it will be so for my readers.

Now that you're living your dream of being a writer, what goals do you strive toward next?

To be the best writer possible, to overcome my own impossibility. And that my epitaph be: "Here rests a man who had no fear of his own desires. Here rests a dreamer with his eyes wide open." I hope to deserve it. --Jen Forbus

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