Jules Verne Reader
by Ainara Mantellini
“What I am trying to explain to you is that the truth is all the truth, not just a part of it”
Doña Elena to Nino, p. 197
Almudena Grandes is writing a long piece, probably endless, as the war she is trying to narrate. She already wrote the first “episode”: Inés and Happiness. Now, she presents the second one: Jules Verne Reader, and she has planned at least four more episodes.
We have attentively read Jules Verne Reader and it was delightful. It is about Nino, a child in his last three years of childhood, son of a Civil Guard, who lives in a barrack in Fuensanta de Martos (Jaén, Spain). The story takes place between 1947 and 1949 as the Spanish Civil War has officially ended, but there are still many rebel groups that Francisco Franco’s regime must keep at bay.
The figure of a child is commonly used in literature and films, to explore critical issues such as war, persecutions, and social injustices. The intention, in most cases, is to touch our sensitivities and endearments, those that keep pure, free of ideologies, interests, nationalism, and others.
What makes Nino special is that he is the narrator of the events that happen around him, at a moment of social awareness awakening and his maturity flourishing. Nino is a curious child who becomes friends with a foreigner elder (Pepe, the Portuguese). Nino says that Pepe is the kind of men he wants to be. However, as son of a guard, he lives in the barracks. There, he begins to realize that other children avoid him, and on some occasions, his mother doesn’t allow him to leave the barracks or even go to the backyard.
What is happening around him? He will understand it from three different sources. First, listening to conversations in the Barracks House. He will contrast his parents against other people there. Also, walking and talking with Pepe the Portuguese, that represents a natural and spontaneous contact with nature and being a man. Finally, by taking the typing classes of Doña Elena and reading the books that she introduces to him, by Jules Verne and Stevenson.
Nino is going to watch, to listen and to ask, but especially, he is going to acquire a sense of love, justice, good and bad, through the adventure books and by following the social framework given by Pepe. He is going to enter puberty knowing all the facts of his father, the guerrilla, and of a divided Spain in an endless war; as if he was the main character of an adventure in a remote island. That was Fuensanta: a social microcosm, so different, so far from Oviedo or Madrid.
Now, let us move away from the child’s view of Nino, and review the historical background of the novel. We can see part of the truth, or maybe, a “softened” truth. The author tries to emphasize a romantic resistance, plenty of brave single women, stern men that fight in the mountains (although we don’t see them fighting) and risking themselves in the name of communism as innocent martyrs. On the side of the regime, we can see men with no other outlet for their families that being civil guards. We realize very soon they lack commitment to their superiors’ ideology, and are less fierce and intransigent than them. There are many acts of terror by the regime as they are few by the Reds.
Nevertheless, Grandes displays her mastery in keeping the suspense of the story going back and forth in the actions; briefly announcing the outcome, and immediately stopping and telling it from the beginning. This style kept our attention on the events and combined a brilliant use of descriptive language with dialogue structures that we also loved.
Nino’s story is anything but sweet or innocent; however, his story is beautiful, inspiring and comforting. Grandes wrote this novel with a great ability to describe the characters so closely. She shows them in difficult situations, so plausible that empathy with the reader is virtually automatic.
We look forward to the rest of the episodes.