Friday, December 5, 2008

The Same Sea as Every Summer (A Review)

Esther Tusquets first came to light in the heady post-Franco years. As Spain finally emerged from out of the shadow of its late dictator, the floodgates were opened and a spirit of cultural glasnost prevailed. El mismo mar de todos los veranos, first published in 1978, was emblematic of this new era, as its poetic exploration of lesbian sexuality pushed the envelope far beyond anything that would have been remotely permitted under Franco's regime.

Though powerfully sensual, The Same Sea as Every Summer is not merely a piece of erotic fiction. Nor does it wear its message on its sleeve; it is not simply one of those How I Became a Liberated Woman narratives, like Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune, that seek to drive home their theme of EMPOWERMENT. In terms of style, Tusquets's book is a more akin to Virginia Woolf's The Waves, an extended stream-of-conscious meditation on both the life of the individual and the human world at large that frequently ascends to pure abstract poetry. An unhappy middle-aged professor has returned to her childhood home, fleeing a distant daughter, philandering husband, and veritable ice queen of a mother. She pours forth her story in pleasantly rambling fashion; like the layers of an onion, the reader must peel away multiple coats - fantasy sequences of mermaids and princesses, soliloquies on the faded glory of old houses, reflections on the failure of the bourgeoisie artist, vivid childhood reminisces - to uncover the true, underlying story. The narrator, whom we come to know intimately but whose name remains a mystery, ultimately fears betrayal, and it is that theme that the novel is built upon. It is a subliminal dread that reveals itself primarily through allusions to music, literature, and popular culture, i.e. "The Little Mermaid," Faust, The Twilight of the Gods, Swan Lake. Not surprisingly then, the tale closes in an empty hotel room, as the young lover rides away in a taxi. (Of course, both women had cheated on one another with men.) There is nevertheless a hopeful note at the very end: "And Wendy grew up." It may be over, but the narrator has finally known authentic experience and a genuine self.

I really wish an American publisher would reprint and publicize this (and do something about that cheap, dated cover design). It is such a wonderful book that has the perfect balance of intellect and avant-garde beauty and would be of great interest to both the LGBT community and anyone who enjoys international literature, due to its history as a daring groundbreaker. In short, The Same Sea as Every Summer comes highly recommended.


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