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Monday, 9 September 2013

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra - Pedro Mairal (translated by Nick Caistor) - Best Translated Book Award 2014

Welcome to a new independent publishing house specialising in translating foreign fiction into English. I stumbled across New Vessel Press via a follower on Twitter and decided to give one of their recent releases a go via eBook. It is great to see more and more of these independents joining the scene, giving us an opportunity to explore the work from foreign writers, as they say they are “offering passageways to understand and embrace the world”.

Being an eBook Luddite and a sucker for the printed form I must admit I did approach this exploration with trepidation. But I’m about to go overseas and instead of lugging the printed form with me I thought dabbling in the electronic form couldn’t go astray. I did have issues with New Vessel Press’ payment system but a quick email and their response was fantastic. Within minutes I had “The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra” by Pedro Mairal sitting on the iPad ready to go.

From Argentina, our novel opens with our protagonist sitting in the Roell Museum observing his father’s painted masterpiece, a four kilometre long continuous canvas covering the full sixty years of his father’s life. The painting rotates through the full lifetime whilst you can observe seated as though you’re in an aquarium.

His father, Salvatierra had a horse riding accident when young and as a result was mute, he painted every single day for his whole existence and each year a massive canvas was finished and stored in his workshop, a shed in provincial Argentina, on the riverbanks separating his homeland from Uruguay. From the Museum we flash back to the beginnings of the painting and follow the story of two brothers struggling with what to do with the massive artwork after their father had died. As our story unfolds we learn more and more of Salvatierra’s life, the sadness of his sons leaving, his devastation at losing a daughter, and a whole lot more. The revelations to the sons become ours as they delve deeper and deeper into their past or into the mind of their own flesh and blood long after they’d left the provincial regions for Buenos Aires. As the canvas rotates so does our understanding of Salvatierra’s life. As the brothers gradually work their way through the years they discover that one whole year is missing and the piecing together of that part of their dad’s life becomes our thread.

Possibly because of this sense of the limitless flow of nature that the canvas had, I find it hard to call it a painting, because that suggests a frame, a border that surrounds certain things, and that’s precisely what Salvatierra wanted to avoid. He was fascinated by the lack of a limit, of a boundary, by the way different paces communicated with one another. Boundaries are suppressed in his work: each being is at the mercy of all the others, trapped within the cruelty of nature. They are all prey. Even the humans.

Many times I found myself wanting to view this imaginary masterpiece, the descriptions of the artwork so vivid I could imagine it unfolding before my eyes, the passing of time of one human fully captured for the whole world to see, voyeurism gone mad, but as an art form.

I looked at all this, asking myself so many questions at once. What was this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes? What did it all mean? What could my father’s life have been like” Why did he feel the need to take on such a huge task? What had happened to Luis and me for us to have ended up in our gray, city-dweller’s lives, as though Salvatierra had monopolized all the available color? We seemed more alive in the light shining from the painting in some portraits he had done of us eating green pears when I was ten years old, than in our current lives with their legal documents and contracts. It was as if the paining had swallowed us: both of us, our sister Estela, and mom. All those luminous provincial days had been soaked up by his canvas. There was a super-human quality to Salvatierra’s work; it was too much. I had always found it hard to begin anything new, sometimes even the simplest task, like getting up in the morning. I thought I had to do everything on a gigantic scale like my father, or nothing at all. And I confess that often I chose to do nothing, which also led me to feel that I was nobody.

This is a story of self-discovery, a tale of a family told through an artwork, a picture of a lost part of provincial Argentina. A simple tale which is, at times, told in very simple language and I must admit that it did distract me occasionally. However the slow peeling back of the truth, the infatuation with one missing year of sixty and the circular tale that replicates the showing of the canvas itself (the novel ends in the same Museum) just as the full tale of Salvatierra imitates the circle of life is a mesmerising read. A short book that only took one sitting and one that scratches the surface of the universal existentialist themes this is a nice introduction to Argentinian literature. I commend New Vessel Press for being bold enough to bring this work to the English reading public. For more dteails of their works on offer please visit

My edition was courtesy of the publisher.

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