Colm Toibin: “Summer of ’38” from TNY, 3/4/13

New Yorker Art by José Manuel Navia

New Yorker Art by José Manuel Navia

Rudolfo would be over eighty now, she calculated. But he would still have something of what he had then, even if it lurked beneath sagging flesh and stiff hesitant movements. She pictured an old man getting slowly out of an old-fashioned car, his hair white, his frame frail. Maybe he would still have something of the effortless charm that had come to him that summer as naturally as light did to the morning.

I was looking forward to this story, since several other bloggers mentioned how either they were looking forward to it or had already enjoyed it. But, like Christmas or Disneyland or the pink flowers on a birthday cake, some things work better in anticipation than in reality. I guess I still don’t “get” Irish literature.

It’s a perfectly good story – it’s available online so you can check it out – but it seems a little too subdued and a little too long. Oh, dear, am I becoming someone who needs constant entertainment, someone who isn’t able to bask in a well-turned phrase or a subtle scene? I don’t think so. There is such a scene towards the end, and I’ll give it it’s full due. But I just don’t quite get the emotional connection to the situation, quite possibly because I’m a little hazy on the Spanish Civil War. I’m working on that, but the History class I’m taking through Coursera is only up to 1917.

Montse, an elderly widow, is pushed up against her memories of the soldier she loved in the titular summer of 1938 by a writer trying to document history. It seems to me the predominant theme is the documentation of history, and how that’s accomplished in different ways: by interviews with participants; in a box of old photographs; by remembrance; by forgettance; by the results of that love made flesh in a daughter who still doesn’t know who her biological father actually was.

In the years afterward, everyone—even those who had been there every night—pretended that none of it had happened.

Much of the deliberate burying of history is due to fear of the consequences. Or perhaps embarrassment. In the aftermath of a war, it can be unhealthy to admit you supported the other side, and in some cases, depending on who your neighbors are, it can be unhealthy to admit you didn’t. So it’s understandable that Rosa tells the would-be historian she wants nothing to do with his interview, she had nothing to do with the war. She didn’t, after all; she wasn’t a soldier or a spy. She was herself merely occupied, briefly, by one of the soldiers. And that’s a personal thing, not something for the history books.

It was the change in the weather that changed everything—she was almost sure of that. It was a gray day, with the mist that came over the valley in September, when she realized that she knew only Rudolfo’s name and that he came from Badajoz. By that time he was gone, and it struck her that he would, in all likelihood, not be returning. The realization broke the spell that had been cast on her, by the war itself as much as by Rudolfo.
It was not until then that she began to worry that she was pregnant.

She paid her penance by marrying Paco, a man not near good enough for her, but one who loved her dearly and was happy to accept as his own the child of another man as payment for marrying Montse. He treasures the daughter Rosa above her two sisters whom he himself fathers, because, as Toibin explains in his Page-Turner interview, she was the mechanism that allowed him to be married to the woman he loved. In another story, their marriage might be filled with bitterness and disappointment, but in this story, it blossoms as Montse shifts her loyalties:

And slowly, as they had two more daughters and moved to a bigger apartment, she found that being polite to him took on a force of its own. She tolerated him, and then grew fond of him. Slowly, too, as she realized that her parents and her sisters were still laughing at him, she saw less of them. She began to feel a loyalty toward Paco, a loyalty that lasted for all the years of their marriage.

War, loyalty, history. What is remembered and forgotten. Where our loyalties lie, what we remember as history, these are who we are. We make our history every day in the present. And Montse made a lovely history with Paco, as unlikely as that may have seemed to her during the summer of 1938.

The story ends with Montse documenting her own history, delving through a box of family photographs with Rosa on the same day the would-be historian is interviewing Rudolfo. None of the photos include Rudolfo, of course; Rosa, now a doctor with three children of her own, still doesn’t know about him. Montse keeps her secret. Is it for her own benefit? For Paco’s memory? For Rosa and her children? That’s something the reader will need to decide.

It’s a nice story, but the emotional impact of Montse’s secrecy somehow doesn’t come through for me. I’ll accept that as my limitation, coupled with the low-impact style of the story. I love the scene with the photographs; it comes alive for me, I hear their voices, smell the dusty box, feel the tension as Montse continues her edited version of history.

“Those were taken well before the war,” Montse said. “After the war I don’t think people took photographs as much.”
Rosa was studying a large-format photograph of a group on an outing with mountains in the background.
“Where is my father in this? Why isn’t he in any of the pictures?” she asked.
“Your father always took the photographs,” Montse replied.
She reached for another bundle.
“He might be in one of these, but he was the only one who had a camera in the years before the war and he liked taking photographs.”
She glanced at Rosa, who was nodding.

The elaborate explanation, capped off by the glance at the end to see if her fiction is convincing, is a great touch. And the last scene tells us that Montse has still not completely forgotten her own history. She somehow manages to remain a Loyalist to all, to Rudolfo, to Rosa, to Paco, and to herself.

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