No Longer Here

William Deresiewicz

Julio Llamazares’s novel The Yellow Rain, much praised and much bought when it was published in Spain 15 years ago, tells the story of Ainielle, a small, remote Pyrenean village in the final stages of its disappearance. One by one, the last families load what they can onto mule or mare and set off down the mountains in the hope of finding a less hardscrabble life somewhere else, abandoning their houses to woodworm and rust, and their remaining neighbours to an increasingly starved and shrunken existence. Finally, only one ageing couple, Sabina and Andrés, remain. One night, during their first winter alone, Sabina, who has been withdrawing ever deeper into depression, hangs herself from a beam in the old mill. Andrés, his dog his only company, wanders the bleak hillsides hunting for game, wanders the village streets watching his friends’ houses turn into piles of rubble, wanders his memory looking for the life he has lost.

The novel opens ten years into Andrés’s final ordeal. The story is told almost entirely in retrospect: we read his thoughts as he lies in bed, waiting for death, on what he is certain will be the last day of his life. (How he can be certain of this is never made clear; his death seems curiously willed without exactly being a suicide. Nor is it clear why he chooses to die just when he does, or why he has chosen to persist in his hopeless existence for as long as he has.) The interior monologue of a tormented man lying on his deathbed, reviewing the events of a blighted life: though the cultural circumstances are very different, much here is reminiscent of Beckett’s fictions of the self-enclosed, self-obsessed consciousness, the sense they convey that we are watching a man watching himself drift ever closer towards the abyss.

Andrés begins by imagining, in morbid detail, the search party that will eventually discover his decomposing body, then flashes back to his own discovery of his wife’s body, which marked the beginning of his end. From there he slowly circles back to the present: his destruction of his wife’s photographs, in a fever of grief and terror, a few days after her death; his deliberate cutting off of relations with the people of the nearest town; ordeals of hunger and sickness; above all, the slow clotting of time and gathering confusions of memory as his consciousness, having only itself to feed on, turns ever more inward. The chronological account is punctuated by frequent returns to the deeper past: the beginnings of memory in childhood; the stoicism with which Andrés’s father met his end; the drawn-out death of his young daughter; the loss of a son to the Civil War; the departure of his other son – from the village, from the mountains, from Spain – in search of a modern, middle-class life in the new Europe. This son (whose name is also Andrés, as if ironically to emphasise the severing of continuity) has settled in Germany, and when the father receives a rare letter from him during his first year of solitude (his first spring, in fact, as if ironically to emphasise the failure of renewal), a letter that encloses a photograph of the boy’s wife and children (dedicated on its back to Sabina, as if ironically to emphasise the impossibility of recapturing lost connections), the old man tears up both letter and photo and flings them into a lake, so that they may ‘gradually rot in the water, just as memories do in the swamps of time’.

But though the story is a record of continuous loss, there is no sentimentality, and very little self-pity. Instead, Andrés’s language shows the same grim determination – or at times, it seems, controlled hysteria – that must have allowed him to survive all those blank years in the first place. There is no wallowing in emotion or regret, no sense that a different choice or different turn of fortune could have led to a happier outcome, just bitter acceptance. Short sentences and short chapters reinforce the sense of feelings reined in, of events, however tragic, recorded and placed. Still, this doggedness, admirable as it is, has its problems. For one thing, it ultimately seems not so much stoical as childish, not a facing down of emotions but a running away from them. Andrés tells us that his way of responding to his friends’ departures was to hide in the mill – the same mill, we also learn, in which he used to play as a child (and where, of course, his wife would later kill herself). Indeed, although Andrés clearly loves his wife and friends, we have to deduce that love from the sense of loss with which it leaves him. The novel’s emotional landscape is monochrome – page after page of muted grief – and it quickly becomes deadening.

Llamazares was a poet before he became a novelist (as well as a journalist and screenwriter), and The Yellow Rain is less a short novel than a long (an overlong) prose lyric. The events that flit, out of sequence, through Andrés’s memory don’t so much tell a story, which we must in any case piece together ourselves, as illustrate a state of mind. Llamazares has a strongly metaphoric imagination, and the remembered events function not as links in a chain of cause and effect (one that raises questions about character and motive, choice and consequence) but as images of inner states. Andrés’s consciousness as he lies on his deathbed, his act of remembering: this is what we are constantly returned to, and this is the work’s ultimate subject.

As a result, much that you might expect to find in a story about the disappearance of a way of life and the effect of that disappearance on a particular community, is absent. The novel’s other figures, including Sabina, are so foreshortened that none of them, except maybe the dog, comes alive as a character. There is no attempt to understand subjectivities other than Andrés’s – or even, since he tends to flee such knowledge, his own. Sabina’s suicide is a case in point. Andrés tells us that it was the result of grief, but he also tells us that she had begun to withdraw from him, in the days leading up to her death, after he’d killed a boar, dragged it home, and hung it up by a rope from the porch of their house (she used the same rope to hang herself). Not quite grief, then. Much later, when one of his long-lost friends returns to collect some possessions from his abandoned house, Andrés chases him away at the point of a gun; later still, he uses the same gun on his dog. When his son Andrés had come to make his farewell, the old man had turned his face to the wall. This is a person who, one way or another, pushes away everyone he loves, and brings his isolation on himself. Yet not only does he remain oblivious to this possibility (he imagines Sabina, after her death, as begging forgiveness for having left him), so, it seems, does Llamazares, who doesn’t introduce any critical distance between himself and his protagonist. We get a microscopic view of Andrés’s consciousness, but there is much about him that we will never know.

But the most important absence from this story of the disappearance of a way of life is any sense of that way of life. Llamazares grew up in a community like Ainielle – his own village was submerged by a reservoir – but we see almost nothing of how these people lived when there was still more than one of them. Llamazares clearly wants his narrative to have a wider resonance. At more than one point, Andrés recites a litany of other lost villages, so that, just as his death is meant to stand for that of Ainielle, so the death of Ainielle is meant to signify that of an entire Pyrenean culture. This last extrapolation may explain the novel’s success in Spain. But the idea of the Pyrenean village – culturally enshrined, sentimental, the equivalent of the English countryside or the American family farm – is also untranslatable. We have the skeleton of a historical novel – The Yellow Rain is set in 1971, and touches on events that stretch as far back as the turn of the century – without either the ‘history’ or the ‘novel’: without, that is, the presence of a fully imagined world. The context that would have given meaning to Ainielle’s fate – and Andrés’s – is indicated so sketchily that only someone already familiar with that material could feel the story’s full force.

As a portrait of consciousness in extremis, the novel has a lyric impulse which makes for a radical subjectivisation of reality. With no other mind left for his own to bump up against, Andrés increasingly projects his own feelings onto his surroundings, transforming the exterior world into a theatre of emotion (another reason he cuts off contact with the nearby town, as well as why he has to chase his friend away when he reappears). The houses of Ainielle, which Andrés always refers to by the names of their former owners, take on an animate, suffering quality, as if he has transferred his feelings for his old friends onto the structures that once contained them. This blurring of the line between inner and outer is central to the novel’s system of images and metaphors. Everywhere we encounter figures such as these: ‘the weight of silence and snow’; ‘the abandoned machinery of the mill and of my heart’. Physical and psychological qualities become interchangeable as objects and the emotions projected onto them melt together.

The most important of these figures is the novel’s title. The yellow rain, Andrés tells us, is, in the first instance, the autumnal rain of poplar leaves that covers the fields and roads and streets ‘with a sweet, brutal melancholy’. (Already we see the characteristic transformation of the external into an image of his mental state.) As he burrows deeper into his grief, the meaning of the image expands – he speaks of the yellow rain of time, of the yellow rain of oblivion – until the notion of the yellow rain itself becomes a kind of yellow rain, covering everything in his mind. Yellow stains the air, stains his eyesight: the whole world turns yellow, like an old photograph, with time and grief.

But this is not all. One night, sometime in the middle of Andrés’s long ordeal, his mother, dead for forty years, reappears in his kitchen. At first he struggles against the apparition, which returns night after night, but he comes to accept her presence, along with that of the other ghosts she brings with her, which sometimes include Sabina, sometimes all the dead of the house. What are we to make of this? The apparitions are not figures of memory: Andrés insists that his mother and the rest really are there; sometimes she even lights the kitchen fire for him. Has he gone mad? If so, should we distrust everything he’s told us? Llamazares never resolves this ambiguity. Or, perhaps, in a world so fully subjectivised, there is no difference between real apparitions and figures of madness: if it’s real to Andrés, it’s real. In any case, these presences blur one more line: that between the living and the dead. But the return of Andrés’s loved ones is not, as it might be, a victory over death, a proof that people don’t die as long as we remember them. Rather, it is a sign, as he tells us, that he is himself, in effect, already dead. This is the point of the eerie trick that Llamazares plays on us by beginning and ending the novel with the search party: in the first chapter, it hasn’t been disclosed that Andrés will be dead when they arrive, especially since he imagines himself watching them. By the last chapter, the impression that creeps up on us is of a corpse staring out at the world through empty sockets. Suddenly, it is as if we have been addressed all along by a voice from beyond the grave. That the grave contains a whole culture, Llamazares makes us understand but not, unfortunately, feel.