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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
Not our style 
8th-Aug-2012 10:52 am
YedikuleCastle

These days, we all tend to write a lot like Ernest Hemingway — which is not a bad thing: his style mimics spoken speech and shows more than it tells. It’s often called transparent.

I like that style, and I like Hemingway. Sometimes I drink in the same bars he did in Madrid hoping it will make me a better writer. But I don’t like the way his style seems to have become the only acceptable writing style in English today.

Other styles exist. I want to show a more embellished style that you can sometimes find in Spanish. What follows are extracts I have translated from the first story in Perlas para un collar [Pearls for a Necklace]. The book is a collection of thirty stories about Christian, Moorish, and Jewish women in medieval Spain. Half were written by historical novelist Ángeles de Irisarri and half by co-author Toti Martínez de Lezea — both highly considered Spanish writers. The story about Adosinda is by Irisarri.

Is this writing less vivid or less evocative than a transparent style? Or are the sentences too long, the style too “telly” and to “writerly”? Could this be published in English?

*****

[The story is set in Pravia, a town in Asturias, in northern Spain, in the year 790. The Moors invaded Spain in 711.]

When Adosinda returned to her hometown, Pravia, with her clothes in rags, dead-tired, drenched to the bones, and dragging her feet, she was surprised because the town’s inhabitants looked out of the windows of their houses and many of them, mostly women, came out to the street and converged to embrace her, their faces thanking her for this unexpected good news, and to offer her a swallow of wine, but above all to ask how she had escaped from the Saracens. This despite the pouring rain.

The girl was not surprised by the rain, since downpours were customary and proper to that region, but she was amazed that there were men, women, and children, all of them still with their heads on their shoulders, and that Pravia had not been burned down but instead remained as she had left it, or better said, as she had been made to leave it.

[She collapsed into a bed in the home of a widow. While she slept, the people of the town entered its dim, fortress-like church to profane the tomb of King Mauregato, dead for a few months. Earlier that year, he had ordered ten maidens from Pravia and a total of one hundred from his kingdom of Asturias to be given to the Moors, as he did every year so they would not attack. Since the Moorish invasion, his subjects had had good kings and bad kings, but none so bad as Mauregato.

Adosinda awoke the next day, asked about her mother, and learned she had died of a broken heart. She wept, then asked to go to her grave, and townswomen accompanied her to the church.]

The honorable women of Pravia were surprised, as they walked, by Adosinda’s festive ease as she gathered flowers, the most beautiful flowers along the roadside that, because it had stopped raining and the sun had come out, shone more lovely than ever, or so it seemed to the women, as did the bouquet she gathered, and, accompanied by the widow who took her by the arm as if she were her mentor, she knelt before the tomb of her good mother, withdrew into herself, prayed with fervor, then deposited the bouquet of flowers, and arose. But next, instead of leaving the church, she walked to the sepulcher of King Mauregato and did it again. She knelt and prayed and even laid a little flower or sprig or weed on the tombstone, whatever it was that she had kept in her hand, shocking all the women present and everyone who was absent when they found out what the girl had done.

[The women insisted that she tell what happened to her, since none of the other maidens had returned. Adosinda recounted, in spare words, how they had been roped together, marched away, and eventually raped by the soldiers. Days later, after more marching, when the captain tried to rape her again, he was repulsed by her menstrual blood. She was tied to a tree and left behind.

Eventually she freed herself and wandered, lost, praying to the two Saint James of the church of Pravia, until she arrived at the town, but during those months alone, she had found time to forgive everyone, including the king.

Two weeks later, after Adosinda had moved into the empty home of her mother, the priest called the townspeople together to say that a miracle had occurred.]

And everyone, including the girl, heard from the mouth of the sacristan that, Lord in Heaven, on the tomb of Adosinda’s mother, the bouquet she had left had not only not wilted, but in addition, beautiful violets had grown over the tomb and covered it completely, even though this was not the season for such flowers, since September was halfway through.... And one more thing, on Mauregato’s: nettles, which also covered it.

[She became known for the miracle, and soon people from all around flocked to see her.]

During her flight from the Moors and the trip back home, she had completely discarded the idea of marrying a good young man, having many children, forming a family, and being happy within what can be happiness in this world, both for what she had suffered, having been violently used, and because she realized that no man would want her as a wife after what had happened, so when people came to her to ask her to pray for their families, whether ancestors or successors — since many expectant women came to her — and because they gave her gifts and even considered her blessed by the two Saint James and soon called her “Saint,” that turn of events suited her, given that she had to make her living somehow, and this required no effort, for, after she had been taken from Pravia, she had done no other thing than to pray to the Baptist and the Evangelist to save her from the Saracens, which they had done.

*****

— Sue Burke

Comments 
9th-Aug-2012 01:16 pm (UTC)
Fascinating! I can't see anything wrong with this kind of writing, in fact I love it, but I do think it would be difficult for most of us writing in English to construct such long sentences so elegantly and with such apparent naturalness, because we're just not used to writing that way. (But perhaps it's catching; I note I just wrote a long sentence.)
9th-Aug-2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
It's difficult to write this way in Spanish, too, and it is considered a formal style. Spanish grammar helps a little, but this kind of writing takes a lot of work and revision. I know because I've done it for some compositions in Spanish. Actually, it's not hard to write long sentences, it's hard to write long sentences that read beautifully.
9th-Aug-2012 08:16 pm (UTC)
Yes, it would be! Thank you so much for raising this matter. At the very least, it's given people a lovely read and some new ideas.

Hemingway was an innovator in his time, of course. But I agree: universal Hemingway would get very boring. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, so hadn't noticed a trend.

Well, this is something to share with my writers' group at the next opportunity!
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