Everyman, 1996, 218 pages, C$12.99 tpb, ISBN 0-460-87636-8
Through a set of circumstances too heart-breaking to explain, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of Benito Pérez Galdós’ That Bringas Woman to read. I never refuse given books, but in this case it turned into something bigger: As someone who generally reads modern genre fiction, I perceived this both as a challenge and an opportunity to broaden my literary horizons.
And what a broadening it would become: Benito Pérez Galdós lived and wrote in an entirely different world. He was born in 1843, was educated in Madrid, traveled to Paris, witnessed the Spanish revolution of 1868 and remains widely credited with bringing the Realist novel to Spanish Literature. He died in 1920 after being “denied a nomination for the Nobel Prize for political reasons.” His 1884 novel That Bringas Woman, alas, isn’t considered to be among his finest work.
And yet, it starts promisingly enough. The first chapter is akin to a gauntlet being thrown at the modern genre reader that I am, consisting in a long drawn-out description a picture, which we eventually find out to be made entirely of hair. It was a clear and unconventional signal that I’d better pay attention to the book, or else.
Fortunately, I stuck with it. That Bringas Woman is a sly satiric portrait of a dysfunctional family headlined by a boring accountant who develops a quasi-morbid fascination with creating a hair picture memorial to a departed friend (“the whole thing must be done in the family hair” asks the widow [P.5]) and a woman (that Bringas woman, as it is), who is consumed with an irresistible compulsion to buy, buy, buy more and more fine clothes. All obsessions have their prices, and so is is that the Bringas man goes blind and the Bringas woman accumulates some significant debts. Only sin will save her… or will it?
At it happened, I ended up reading That Bringas Woman concurrently with Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke. That was an invaluable exercise in perspective. Despite their different backgrounds, eras and approaches, both authors are really writing about the same things; characters consumed by their ambitions to the point of self-destruction. Palahniuk’s Victor Mancini might be a sex-addicted swindler with strong issues with his mother, but is he so different from Pérez Galdós’ Bringas, whose insatiable lust for fine things drive her to debauchery?
Now don’t get the impression that I thought this was a fantastic novel. After a very good first half, the novel sort of settles into inconsequentiality for much of its latter portion, never fully exploiting the various tensions set up in previous portions of the novel. Several seemingly useless passages are revealed to be ultimately just that; useless. While it would have been natural to expect a dramatic humiliation for Bringas, she barely suffers for her sins, as if Pérez Galdós couldn’t make himself be too harsh on the character. The parallels between the Bringas and the royal Spanish regime are also less and less exploited, leading even more to a strong feeling of untapped potential in the novel’s promise.
On the other hand, I can’t say enough good things about the Everyman edition of That Bringas Woman: Not only is the translation delightfully spot-on (with added modern touches, such as when the story of Adam and Eve is said to be so timeless as to be worth featuring on yesterday’s evening news), but the novel is encapsulated in enough supporting material -author biography, critical analyses, structural description, further reading, etc…- to make the novel accessible to any sufficiently-interested reader.
In the end, I come away from That Bringas Woman with a feeling much like the one I was expecting; a few great epigrams (“Oh, children! They’re an illness that lasts nine months and a convalescence that lasts your whole lifetime.” [p.21] is one for the ages), great character descriptions (See Chapter 12 and the hilarious “triplicate” statement), a sense of deep intellectual satisfaction and, yes, an impression of broadened literary horizons. Not bad at all.