The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas
Widely received as one of the great recent literary debuts, Manuel Rivas's The Carpenter's Pencil is a supremely well-written and exquisitely translated love story. Principally set in the summer of 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Rivas tells the tale of Doctor Daniel de Barca. A Republican and a revolutionary, the doctor is in love with Marisa Mallo, and she is totally in love with him. But family prejudice and the bitter, wrenching effects of the civil war keep them apart. Herbal, our narrator, a Francoist bully and soldier, has killed a Republican painter. As a keepsake he holds on to the artist's pencil and, as if not willing to be separated from it, the ghost of the painter remains with Herbal, whispering in his ear throughout the story. Herbal, himself in love with Marisa, follows the Doctor from prison to prison and tells Maria de Visitacao, who listens to him in the bar where they both now work, what he saw, what the prisoners said, and how the love between Daniel and Marisa deepened and managed to stay alive in those awful days.
Rivas' story is slight but the telling is magisterial, the depth utterly honest, his touch unerringly light, the resonances of his writing wide and the characterisation vivid: prose this poetic and this devoid of sentiment is as rare as it is breathtaking. War's abominable nature is the background to the work and its machinations move the Doctor away from Marisa, onto a train full of victims of TB and into a military hospital. Herbal is there all the way as guard, and witness, and occasionally as actor, intervening in ways he sometimes hardly understands himself. This is one of the first Galician novels to be translated into English and the book's sense of place adds wonderfully to the poignant work Rivas gets his relatively few words to achieve. The Carpenter's Pencil is a hugely moving, seductively readable, absolute triumph.