To my shame I don’t think I had ever heard of Manuel Rivas until a friend (fully aware of my interest in all things Spanish) bought me this book for my birthday. The poetry in Rivas’ writing is astounding. The way he recalls his childhood growing up in rural Galicia and the unique circumstances of growing up during the time of Franco gives Manuel Rivas’ writing depth and breadth that might not have been developed under different circumstances.
Translated by Dublin native Jonathan Dunne, The Low Voices is a memoir of childhood, family, poetry, history and those moments in time which make growing up a magical experience. He has memories of a mother who “could never grow ill”, a combination of childhood nievety and admiration for a strong willed woman who was Rivas’ main influence in life. His father worked in construction, a hazardous enough job; especially for someone who suffered from vertigo. Rivas tells how his father, not wanting his family to worry about him kept the fact that he had two heart attacks completely in secret.
The book is relatable for many Irish people, as well as the wider Celtic ‘diaspora’ as it is laced throughout with poetic references to mythology from his native Galicia. This makes the book so much more than a simple childhood memoir recalled by the adult version of the self; the recollections and mythologizing are child-like in themselves; but in a playful rather than a clumsy immature fashion.
The sentence structure and wording thoughout is almost like one big long poem without being confounding, for example Rivas talks about: “Places moments and situations in which it sounded like a sin on the lips. It lived in the caverns of mouths but somehow eccentrically, like a tramp that studies the path and company before starting to walk”. Although it is kept to a minimum there are references to what life is like under Franco; albeit subtle. Rivas talks about how some of the people in his village; particularly the members of the police “They extracted words from the gutters of their gums” Rivas also gives the impression that everyone in Galicia, like everyone in Ireland, is a poet; or at least aspirations to be. He refers to how “life had a storytelling vocation” instead of simply saying that people in the area liked to tell stories, he writes it as if it was the vocation of all that lived there. In this way, throughout the book prose is written as poetry with a world seen through a child’s eyes. He goes on instead of simply stating that the people in the area had left leaning tendencies to say; “The first time I had the impression someone was formulating a revolutionary thought toppling the universal system of weight and measures, was when my godfather revealed a little pigment on the end of his fore finger and solymly declared, ‘A kilo of saffron is worth more than a kilo of gold”.
As the saying goes, we are indeed doomed to live in interesting times and this book is an invaluable time and place that those who lived it are in danger of forgetting.