Veronica's Reviews > The Frozen Heart

The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes
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's review
Aug 14, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: kindle, fiction
Recommended for: anyone interested in contemporary Spanish society; lovers of long novels
Read from September 05 to October 02, 2011

Like The Wind from the East, this book took a long time to read, partly because it is long, and partly through lack of time to read. This added a layer of difficulty, because like The Wind From the East, the book jumps backwards and forwards in time and also between three generations of two families, from the 1920s to 2005. It's really difficult to keep track of who's who, especially as parents have a habit of calling their children after themselves -- so you have an Ignacio, a Julio, an Angelina, a Mateo in each generation, and it's easy to get them muddled up. I wished I'd had the foresight to start drawing a family tree when I began reading so that I could remember who was related to who and how. It was also the one time I felt at a real disadvantage reading on the Kindle -- it just isn't so easy to flip back in order to refresh your memory about someone.

Despite being a bit long and repetitive in places, this is a very good and ambitious novel that asks and answers hard questions about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War that is passed down the generations and still has very real repercussions today. It's a much darker book than The Wind From the East; it ties in with the current "recovery of memory" project: the main character, Alvaro, is seeking to understand what made his family what it is by uncovering the past, while the other members would prefer to ignore or conceal it -- at one point this is graphically demonstrated by his youngest sister, who puts her hands over her ears and screams "La la la la!" while he is trying to tell her what he's discovered.
From the very start, I knew that I could choose to do nothing, pick up the pieces of the porcelain dancer, put them in a plastic bag, and throw it in the bin, pile some rubbish on top of it and stamp it all down. This had always been her approach when she was little. She could run away now, but sooner or later the future would catch up with her and she would end up knowing what she did not want to know, hearing what she did not want to hear. Some small shard of truth, this enemy she was trying so hard to outwit, would slip beneath her skin like a splinter of wood that draws no blood.

I found one of the most telling parts was when the middle Ignacio, the one born in France after his communist parents had fled into exile, visits Spain for the first time as a young adult. Grandes must surely be of this generation, as Ignacio's thoughts are so emotionally convincing.
To him, Spain was not a country, it was an accident, an anomaly that mutated according to time and circumstance like a hereditary illness, capable of erupting and disappearing by itself. Ignacio Fernández Salgado, who had never been to Spain, was sick to death of tortilla de patatas and dancing sevillanas, of Spanish Christmas carols and Spanish proverbs, of Cervantes and Lorca, of Spanish shawls and guitars, of the siege of Madrid and the Fifth Regiment, of eating ‘The Twelve Grapes’ as midnight struck on 31 December and raising a glass of champagne only to hear the same words every year, ‘next year, we’ll be home’.
It had nothing to do with the fact that his parents were foreign. Paris was full of foreigners, that was bearable. What was unbearable was to be the son of Spanish exiles, to have been born, grown up, to have become a man in this dense, impenetrable exile constantly tormented by a border which was so close and yet unreachable, like a plate of sweets a centimetre beyond the reach of a starving child. Exile was a terrible thing, this curious exile he had been forced to live out as his own, because he had been born, not into a country, but into a tribe, a clan, that fed on its own misery, a society of ingrates unable to appreciate what they had, for there was always something they did not have, who lived half-heartedly, constantly miserable, constantly shut away inside their portable country, a ghostly, posthumous presence they called Spain, which did not exist, it did not exist.

And then, visiting long-lost relatives in Madrid, he discovers the reality of Franco's Spain:
He had been born and raised in a home of exiles who had arrived in France with nothing but the clothes on their backs, who for years had worked like dogs so as to be able to live in a foreign country as they might have done in their own, or at least that was what he had believed. Until this afternoon, when he discovered the unexpected, grotesque reality, this ugly, ramshackle sofa, this house where even a perfume bottle might be considered an ornament. This was how they lived, those who had stayed behind, those whom the exiles envied, the men who had never had to sleep on a beach, the women who had never had to steal a petticoat from a dying woman.

These quotations also gives you a sense of the emotional density (and long sentences!) of Grandes' writing. It's very Spanish and can be a bit overwhelming at times. Don't read it if you are one of those sensitive people who are offended by sex scenes and swearing -- those are very Spanish too! But I do highly recommend this book for an inside view of the tensions in Spanish society after the tragedy and waste of civil war. It's a book you can get completely wrapped up in for hours at a time. Can't stop quoting!
They were Spanish communists, exiles. They kicked the Nazis out of France, they won the Second World War, and what good did it do them? But don’t worry, it’s normal not to know about them. Nobody knows about them - there were thousands of them, nearly thirty thousand, but there are no Hollywood movies about them, no documentaries on the BBC. There are films about the French prostitutes who put cyanide in their vaginas, about the bakers who put poison in their baguettes, but never about them. If there had been a film, the audience would have wondered what happened, why they fought, what they got out of there . . . And in Spain we don’t talk about them, we pretend they never existed . . . Anyway, it’s an ugly, unjust story. One of those Spanish stories that spoils everything.

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