Translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor
Juan Salvatierra is a mute, silent from the age of 9 following a riding accident. He lives a tranquil life with his wife and two sons in a village on the Argentinian border with Uruquay, spending his spare time painting in the shed. When he dies and his sons begin to unfurl the canvas rolls, they discover a mural two miles long on which their father has told the story of the past six decades. Only one year is missing and the by-now-middle-aged boys decide that it must be found.
Salvatierra’s motivation? Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story. His sons’ motivation? To make complete what had been interrupted, so that the painting can be displayed in its entirety. As they work their way along the mural, they revisit their childhood, their adolescence. Nothing is omitted in this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes in which the boys seem more alive in the light shining from the painting in some portraits he had done of us eating green pears when I was ten years old, than in our current lives with their legal documents and contracts. (They are estate agents in Buenos Aires.)
The memories evoked are not always pleasant. There are brief flickers of darkness but a spell is cast and the brothers pursue the missing section with a determination worthy of Don Quixote. Yes, this is a quest, with the occasional dangerous moment though in the main this is a light-hearted adventure …. until the canvas from 1961 is found and with it Juan Salvatierra’s missing year …. and closely-guarded secret.
More than the boys had bargained for, leading to discussions on whether what happens to someone belongs to his own time; you shouldn”t bring it up again. Conversely knowing the truth of a parent’s human foibles and mistakes can release you from their omnipresent grip, presenting you with the opportunity to strike out for yourself. The narrator’s conclusion?
We occupy the places our parents leave blank ….. I inhabit the words that Salvatierra’s muteness left untouched. …. I feel that this place, the space of the blank page, is mine, independently of what the results might be.
What began as an adventurous quest for a missing painting has resulted in the discovery of the narrator’s own identity.