The OF Blog: 1999 Premio Alfaguara winner, Manuel Vicent's Son de Mar

Sunday, January 05, 2014

1999 Premio Alfaguara winner, Manuel Vicent's Son de Mar

Recién aprobada la cátedra de literatura llegó a Circea, pequeña ciudad de la costa, con veintisiete años, solo, con una úlcera de duodeno y una maleta llena de libros.  Tenía todos sus estudios a flor de piel y ninguna experiencia de la vida.  El Instituto de segunda enseñanza, donde el joven profesor iba a impartir su asignatura, estaba situado muy cerca del mar y cuando lo visitó por primera vez, antes de que comenzara el curso, Ulises Adsuara tuvo una sensación muy agradable al comprobar que desde la tarima de su aula, a través del ventanal, mientras explicara a sus alumnos los clásicos griegos y latinos podría ver toda la raya del Mediterráneo dividida por la escollera del puerto.  Indudablemente sería un privilegio hablar de Homero y del Virgilio sin dejar de contemplar su cuna de agua meciéndose a sus pies. (p. 43)

Recently appointed the literature chair he arrived at Circea, a little town on the coast, twenty-seven years old, alone, with an ulcer of the duodenum and a suitcase full of books.  He had book knowledge and no experience of life.  The Grammar School, where the young teacher would teach his subject, was situated near the sea and when he first visited it, before beginning the course, Ulises Adsuara had a nice feeling to see that from the stage their classroom through the window, while explaining to his students the classic Greek and Latin writers would be able to see the whole Mediterranean  divided by the harbor breakwater. Undoubtedly it would be a privilege to speak of Homer and Virgil without stopping to contemplate his watery crib rocking at his feet.

Manuel Vicent's 1999 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Son de Mar (Song of the Sea) is one of those rare novels in which the premise, which begins with a drowned body washing ashore and then goes back fifteen years in time, interesting as it may be, pales in comparison to the depth of character development and emotion.  It is a story chock full of allusions to classic literature, particularly The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and readers familiar with the themes present in those two epic poems will see parallels in Vicent's text, especially in the structure of the narrative, in which time and place at times dilate into something that is more ethereal than the present yet somehow also more vivid and memorable.

The first chapter begins with a drowned body washing ashore and the surprise that the villagers of the Mediterranean town of Circea (itself an allusive name) have when the body appears to resemble greatly that of a former classics schoolteacher, Ulises Adsuara, who had presumably drowned near there ten years previously.  Vicent carefully develops this mystery by having the villagers recall this presumed-dead person's key points in life, particularly his relationship with a woman, Martina, who had remarried after his presumed death.  Key points are paradoxically foreshadowed here, leading the reader wanting to know more about this mysterious man and how things developed to the point of his earlier drowning.

Subsequent chapters go back fifteen years in the past, covering the young, callow Ulises as he arrives in town, fresh with book knowledge and no understanding of life itself.  The chapters in which he meets his landlord's daughter and they begin a courtship that contains quotations from Vergil on the tragic relationship of Aeneas and Dido develop both Ulises and Martina's characters, making their love story a continuation of sorts of the tales told by Homer and Vergil.  And yet there is trouble in paradise, and the lovers have a rift develop, centered around an old flame of Martina's who is one of the wealthiest individuals in town.

Vicent does an excellent job developing these tensions.  Ulises' first "death" is something purposely left cloudy, in order that the mysterious phone call that Martina receives ten years later from a man claiming to be Ulises can have a more lasting impact.  The second half of the novel is about return and if it is a matter of enduring love, of the sort Odysseus had for Penelope despite his occasional dalliances, or a matter of confused emotions.  While Vicent leans more toward the former (and the text certainly contains Homeric metaphors that support this reflowering of love), it is not a simple love tale.  The machinations of Martina's second husband adds a counterpoint to the romantic elements, setting the stage for a conclusion in which the titular yacht, previously sailed by the actor Yul Brynner, plays a pivotal role.

If Vicent merely had stuck with the romance story, it would have been a solid tale but one that would lack a richness in prose and characterization that readers who do not typically read such fare might cling to as a reason for enjoying the novel.  However, Son de Mar's prose is beautiful to read without ever feeling too ornate or devoid of warmth.  There are few extraneous passages and the classical references add greatly to the novel.  It may not pack the immediate punch of the two preceding Premio Alfaguara co-winners in terms of psychological trauma or political turmoil, but Son de Mar's quiet and yet subtly powerful human drama makes this a worthy winner of the Premio Alfaguara.

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