Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra—which I read in Nick Caistor’s translation of a book known in Spanish as simply Salvatierra—is a wonderful sliver of a novel narrated by a man who returns to his hometown after his father’s death. He comes back to sort through his father’s art but the skeleton of the story, which is a mystery of sorts, is fairly (arche)typical—return to childhood places, family secrets, and so on—so it’s Mairal’s details, atmosphere, and vivid description that keep Salvatierra intresting.
Juan Salvatierra loses the ability speak as a child then becomes a postal worker and artist as a man, painting one huge mural a year to depict events in his life. After Salvatierra’s death, a European museum buys the rolls of canvas, which have been stored away in a shed and would measure a total of two miles, unrolled. Everything’s there but one roll, the missing year of the title: 1961, when the narrator was ten.
In Salvatierra, art imitates life, life imitates art, art imitates art, and art helps resurrect lost memories. Through his art, Salvatierra also shows his sons his life before they were born, including his own wedding, where veins—bloodlines—join and even flow into the river. The bloodlines also flow from the past into the present, and the river plays a key part in solving the mystery of the missing mural. It’s not just blood and the river that flow: the whole book flows, flows, flows, through memories and murals and old acquaintances.
Best of all, the flow of Salvatierra is a lot like the flow of Juan Salvatierra’s paintings. It feels silly to write much about Salvatierra when this one line sums up the book’s effect so concisely:
He wanted his painting to encapsulate the fluidity of a river, of dreams, the way in which they can transform things in a completely natural way without the change seeming absurd but entirely inevitable, as if he were revealing the violent metamorphosis hidden within each being, thing, or situation.
Bonus link: An interview with translator Nick Caistor, from World Literature Today.
Up Next: Joshua Max Feldman’s The Book of Jonah.