Reviewed by Kate Lynch
Granta introduced the anglophone world to Elvira Navarro by naming her one of the best young Spanish language novelists in 2010, but Rosalind Harvey’s translation of her second novel The Happy City marks her first full-length work in English. The 2009 Spanish original earned both the Jaén Fiction Award and the Tormenta Award for Best New Author. Stepping into The Happy City, I felt that I had gone back to a former version of myself, empathizing with, even enduring, the pain of one of life’s inevitable metamorphoses. We find Navarro’s protagonists cracking through late childhood’s barriers into early adolescence, confronting the often formidable awareness that emerges as children naturally rebel against adult sentries whose control over their subjects conversely slips. The adolescents roaming this cityscape are presented in two separate novellas. One story relates the immigrant experience of a working class family through Chi-Huei, a young boy longing for maternal love and affection. The second is narrated by Sara, a comfortably middle-class, only child smothered by overly attentive parents. The city in question, Madrid, is the only character in the book whose growth is not measurable. More than merely comprising the story world, it connects the two tales by playing the role of an omnipresence holding the burgeoning adolescents captive in a determined quadrant of city blocks. Although not branded as Young Adult, it fits the bill.
The first novella begins with Chi-Huei in China. An unaffectionate aunt, “the old woman,” fosters him for a fee while his grandfather, step-grandmother, parents and older brother set up a Chinese restaurant and rotisserie in Madrid (13). They call the business Happy City, hopeful nomenclature. The family toils to establish itself and sends for the boy as the story unfolds. As the second son, he is expected to excel academically, and in turn, eventually pour this success into the business. Chi-Huei’s acrimonious receipt of and incongruity with this fate and the family who present it increase as he grows:
Every day of his life since he had arrived had been a hymn to work, to money, to efficiency- a hymn he had to sing through his excellent grades at school and his help in the kitchen and the aspirations he was required to have for the future. And all as thanks for what they earned for him in good faith and with all their love, believing that this and this alone was their duty, the restaurant-rotisserie in which they all worked for aspirations that were not his own and that, to his utter disgust, were quite the opposite, although he wasn’t able to specify what the opposite was (91).
The most difficult piece of the puzzle as Chi-Huei settles into his new life isn’t learning language, culture, or accepting how and where his family fits into it; rather, it’s realizing he doesn’t feel love for the woman who brought him into the world. Chi-Huei grows to resent his family as he reacts to increasing pressure to surpass their expectations, voiced predominantly by his mother. “With his mother, there was no transition between the most absolute distrust and unlimited love, between her total devotion on the afternoons at the beach and her anger and ferocious, impending criticism” (33). The onerous mother-son interaction is foreshadowed by the unloving aunt who raised him in China. Chi-Huei questions whether to disavow this troubling relationship, whose bitterness he may perpetually endure, for in the schism created between them in his mother’s zealous drive to provide him with a “better” life, she emerges as a ruthless, cold maternal figure who abandoned her younger son, first geographically and ultimately, emotionally.
Navarro relates Chi-Huei’s story in the third person, juxtaposed with Sara’s first person account. This effect conveys the immigrant experience as marginalized, its characters revolving in a circle amongst one another. Sara represents integration for Chi-Huei, first presented to us as a conquest of his, more in terms of status and class than sexually, although inevitably, given their ages, sexuality is in play. Eventually Chi-Huei’s relationship with Sara sours and catapults him to a position of frustration that speaks to his dissonance with the mainstream. As the resentment between the two builds, “Naturally it didn’t even occur to him to cross the road and go to her house. He had never visited his friend during the week, and to cross this threshold now would have been to expose himself too much” (74). Thus, Navarro keeps him from assimilating, in spite of his effort. It is worth noting that Sara’s story only fleetingly mentions Chi-Huei, “the Chinese boy” as “something like my first boyfriend” (122). Sara details, instead, a disenchantment that crescendos to an inability to relate to the entirety of her peer group as her mania for a local vagrant consumes her.
Sara’s world is presented as a veiled, gated one with constraints thrust upon her by her parents every step of the way. “I am not allowed to play beyond the limit, and the most I do is to look over from the other side without stepping over the imaginary line my father drew one day with the tip of his shoe, a line I accept, although with a few small exceptions” (100). In response, she finds refuge in the most obscure, far removed location she can within the confines of the city blocks she is allowed to traverse: a French homeless man, an immigrant who, unlike Chi-Huei, rejects conformity with alacrity.
Sara and the homeless man study one another, seeking each other out with great care to attract no untoward attention. Navarro delicately and repeatedly brings the reader to the precipice of sexuality, in its most innocent form in Sara’s daily rituals. At a bus stop, she is “left behind in the race and am the last one in the line that forms at the steps. This period when I expose myself to the homeless man’s gaze seems eternal to me, and I’m also embarrassed to reveal how shy and awkward I am” (118). As a tenuous layer is shed, her bravado emerges:
One day, I can bear it no longer, and in a moment when he is looking at the front of my building, I slip over toward the radius of light and, in the darkness, show myself through the glass. The homeless man turns his gaze to my room then, but I don’t really know if he sees me. He is so still one might think he’s staring carefully at a painting to try to figure something out, and his expression gradually turns into a smile (143).
Is the obsession fueled only by innocent discovery and escape for Sara? Although the Lolita aspect is never overtly broached, the possibility floats in the air – will the interaction transcend the senseless, platonic conversations conducted in the neighborhood bar? “…I can’t understand why my questions irritate him so much, although I’m not totally satisfied with them myself…” (161). Sara’s internal world is a deluge of interrogatory rhetoric: what motivated the man to drop out of society and arrive on the streets of her neighborhood as a derelict? What drove him to this life? If she could only understand this, she could understand him. These questions are superficially answered, but his motivations and “dogma” alluded to in the lengthy conversations between the two are, frustratingly, never divulged and the reader is left to make assumptions.
Navarro dives headfirst into the embodied experiences of two disparate characters as she explores adolescence in the context of awakening. The enlightenment her characters achieve extends beyond their immediacy into the city, where the marginalization of outsiders is a line drawn in the sand, rousing in their young lives both angst and powerlessness. Harvey’s seamless translation of the lyrical prose places the reader in the middle of Madrid, stuck and frustrated, pushing boundaries but hitting walls.
Navarro, Elvira. The Happy City. Tr. Rosalind Harvey. Madrid: Hispabooks, 2013.