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Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Swimmers - Joaquin Perez Azaustre (Translated by Lucas Lyndes)

Frisch and Co, a new independent publisher of works translated into English (e-books only) describes our novel as:

Jonás Ager is disappearing: a recent separation has left him aimless, his once promising photography career has ground to a halt, and his assignments at the newspaper are drying up. And an ever deepening mystery is threatening to engulf him. His mother disappeared without a trace two weeks ago; his gallerist can’t locate his fellow photographer Oliver; and every time he and his best friend Sergio visit the pool for their regular swim, another lane is empty. An entire city seems to be evaporating into thin air.

Our protagonist swims every day, 50 laps of a 50 metre pool, with his friend Sergio, their long distance endurance hobby reflecting their gaining strength and determination.

The two years after Sergio and Jonás started swimming together were good ones. Certainly neither of them had ever felt so satisfied with their respective lives, so sure of their potential, their plans built on a present in which not all of their aspirations were yet completely attained, but which gave every indication of a promise that would be fulfilled in due time. They discussed where they saw themselves in the future, discovering that the same attitudes and behaviors could occasion the same auspicious results in apparently unrelated occupations: photographer and executive at a major insurance company. They had grown used to demanding of themselves exactly what they wished, and they couldn't conceive of anything that might put a damper on the determination of two young men who were so sure of their self-control in a changing world, a world which, in its metamorphosis, would always find a place for them, for their ambitions and aspirations.

There are a few reviews, and a translator's comment, out in cyberspace that point out the references to 50 chapters representing 50 laps of a 50 metre swimming pool, so I'm not going to replicate a lot of the detail of those tales here. But what I haven't seen mentioned before is the effect of long-distance endurance swimming.

As always, the water reserves for him the ability to immerse within himself, a cellular withdrawal, the compression of his consciousness to a bare minimum.

Not being an endurance swimmer myself I could well be barking up the wrong tree, but having trained and run a marathon I think some of the similarities certainly exist in this work. Our novel is measured and steadily paced, a slow rhythmic introduction to the tale, an unravelling of the mystery in the centre and an almost psychotic dreamlike crèchendo.  As any endurance sportsperson will tell you, the beginning of any event has got to be measured, if you go out too fast you'll have nothing left in the tank at the end. Your middle section is about rhythm, maintaining a balanced focus. And towards the end you simply go into a world of pain where your mind needs to tell your own body to react, to continue. This section can contain dreamlike experiences, out of body moments, events that cannot be real.

Our novel contains all of these qualities, our protagonist slowly withdrawing into his own world, both metaphorically and literally as characters close to him disappear. He becomes singularly focused on the only task at hand, swimming, and concurrently people begin vanishing from the streets, he is abandoning existence.

Jonás comes out of the subway. He's used to boarding the cars at rush hour and flattening himself out, trying to make himself even more willowy, thin, nearly transparent if he could, straightening his spine among the thickset bodies, covered by overcoats, pea jackets, hats and purses, men and women who leave their work at noontime, who are coming from somewhere and seem headed somewhere else even more atrocious: faces wasted away by an exhaustion more mental than physical, all of them hanging from the horizontal bars or sitting, but meshed now with one another, as if all cut from the same ragged, mediocre pattern, overcrowded and quarrelsome, ready to fight for a sliver of space or a puff of air; such that when the door opens, Jonás must find a crevice in which to lodge himself, occupying and lining it with his body, filling it full of himself.

As a photographer he is working on a potential art piece that captures the emptiness of a once bustling scene, he wants to capture the essence of desertion. And our novel slowly unravels in the same manner, sparse, poetic passages that capture the essence of just being.

…and so, as he buttered his toast and looked at the street, Jonás thought of existence like an immense aquarium which he had never really managed to enter—that he was, at best, the man on the outside observing the lives of all those fish.

This is a very well-crafted novel, one that can be read on many levels, one that you can tell has been meticulously created and the translation seems to flow just as smoothly.

Another great work in translation and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Please visit if you’re interested in the often forgotten world of translated fiction. Our novel here is from Spain, I’m currently reading one from Argentina and have an Italian one lined up next. Understanding of our fellow world citizens awaits….

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