Father and Son: A Lifetime (translated by Natasha Wimmer)
(Sarah Crichton Books, 2014)
At the very beginning of Father and Son, as writer Marcos Giralt Torrente embarks on his first nonfiction project, he quotes Amos Oz, who writes, “he who seeks the heart of the tale in the space between the work and its author is mistaken: the place to look is not the terrain between text and writer but between text and reader.” At the very end Torrente questions “whether what I was writing would transcend the interest it held for me and take on literary substance.” Yet Torrente does not leave much space for the reader in this intensely inward-looking rumination on the past. It is obvious that the book is a therapeutic project: an exploration of his relationship with his father, Spanish painter Juan Giralt; an attempted explanation of his father’s motivations in his actions; and an expression of regret for the years wasted on resentment—for his father’s absences, his lies, his lack of financial support in times of need, his weakness in the face of his second wife’s dislike of Torrente, her greed, and her general irrationality. Torrente does exhibit interest in the exercise of rendering in writing the profound complexity of a familial relationship, which implies a reader, and still the reader feels entirely secondary since the heart of the tale for Torrente is so obviously between the text and the writer.
After all, what are the criteria for a compelling memoir intended for a general readership? An extraordinary life, a window into a particular historical moment, and, in the absence of those qualities, beautiful, insightful writing. A complicated father-son relationship, especially when the parents are divorced, is hardly out of the ordinary, especially in the annals of literature. Torrente admits as much himself: “everyone has parents, and all parents die. All stories of parents and children are unfinished; all are alike.” When it comes to historical context, part of the issue lies in the fact that Father and Son is written for a Spanish audience for whom the book’s historical landmarks and their connotations, social valences, and after-effects—the 1978 constitutional referendum and the assassination of Carrero Blanco, for example—need no explanation. But he also references the purchase, in 1982, of plaid pants, boots, and a leather jacket. Among a list of memorable events in that year, he recalls the trappings of the punk movement, assuming that the reader will recognize them, and, moreover, what they meant symbolically. And maybe that meaning is obvious and universal. But perhaps it is idiosyncratic. What these trappings mean to him remains unexplored. Whether or not his purchase indicates identification with the punk ideology remains unknown.
This is not the petty concern of a reader too lazy to go online in search of an explanation. If part of Torrente’s method for describing his life and relationship with his father includes the use of references, then he does not have the luxury of relying so heavily on the reader’s own knowledge to fill in the blanks. Otherwise the reader is left with an incomplete portrait. The heart of the tale can be triangulated somewhere between the reader, the text, and some greater context that the author assumes the reader shares with him.
To be sure, no familial relationship can be contained within a scale model; they are endlessly deep and complex. In the first half of the book, Torrente attempts multiple approaches to the challenge of representing a long-lasting, three-dimensional relationship: he briefly sketches his father’s upbringing and lists his father’s interests, aesthetic tastes, manner, culinary likes, way of being in the world. Mostly he separates his life into different eras in his relationship with his father: ’81 to ’83, ’84 to ’90, ’90 to ’02. He populates these periods with milestones from his own life as well, but the overall result is abortive. Mostly, they comprise one-sentence paragraphs and one-paragraph sections that make the majority of the book seem like a list, a draft, a sketch: “Between 1984 and 1990 I finish school and start college. / Between 1984 and 1990 I keep a list of the women I slept with. / [...] Between 1984 and 1990, I become increasingly convinced that my needs are of secondary importance to my father, as am I myself,” and so on for multiple (Kindle) pages.
On one hand, perhaps this kind of structuring is effective for demonstrating the problem before him: he is “aware that no single occurrence that I’ve described will explain who I am.” By repeating the same lines he fills out different facets in one period of his life. But he simultaneously undercuts his own methodology: “It’s just one more occurrence, as fortuitous as most of the others that constitute this timeline. I might just as well not mention it or bring other equally true-to-life events, and the substance of the story would be unchanged.” Indeed, the heart of the problem is that no event could encapsulate a relationship or an identity and yet it is the only material available. In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz writes that “facts have a tendency to obscure the truth.” In Father and Son,Torrente grapples with precisely this tension: how to express “the substance of the story” when the facts do not convey the reality? Fiction turns out to be an easier path to follow in this pursuit: “in my previous books I was able to explore in depth thoughts that he inspired, and [...] now, face to face with him, I miss fiction.” It makes sense, after all—in fiction there is space to create emblems, and life does not afford such easy symbolic legibility.
He comes closer to resolving the fissure between reality and truth in the second half of the book, which is devoted to Torrente’s reconciliation with his father and his care for him in the last two years of the latter’s life. The second half is cohesive and whole. The author doesn’t skip through time, he walks through it. He has finally reached the book’s core, which is mourning his father’s early passing, the loss of a potential future. By now he has done his writerly duty: he has made a labored accounting of their past.
Earlier, in the first half, he changes course while describing his father. “I have to pick up the chronological thread again,” he writes, “because otherwise I’m afraid that the distance I feel from the person I used to be will paralyze me and all my efforts will be in vain.” In the second half, there is no distance to traverse. He can devote himself to a simpler emotion, a longing for more time with his father, for his company: “at the end of the day, that’s our greatest mistake, from which all others spring: we think that time is much more forgiving than it is.” The rumination on loss is the book’s strongest section. Fortunately, it is the last.