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FICTION: Life goes on

January 29, 2017


LOSING a parent is one of life’s most traumatic experiences, and in This Too Shall Pass, Milena Busquets examines it from the perspective of its 40-something protagonist, Blanca, who commences her tale by describing her mother’s funeral. Although undoubtedly shaken, she is not so overcome by grief that she fails to notice the good-looking stranger amongst the mourners; this mixture of sentiment and sexuality captures the tone of the novel from which Blanca rarely wavers.

Readers seeking a satisfying plotline in the manner of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse will be disappointed. Busquets’s work is simply an extended stream of consciousness interspersed with brief conversations between the narrator, her friends, and her loved ones. Moving from Barcelona to the picturesque coastal town of Cadaqués where she has inherited property, Blanca reflects on her mother’s passing in the company of a couple of close female friends, her two sons, and their respective fathers — Guillem and Oscar. Imbued with a healthy sexuality and relatively free of inhibitions, she attempts to get in touch with those romantic and social aspects of herself from which she can derive the most pleasure, and although several encounters pepper the book, the inevitable conclusion she reaches is that one’s deepest, most satisfying relationship is ultimately with oneself.

Busquets’s gift for metaphor and pithy one-liners reflect a cynical, but wry perspective on life. She describes the Cadaqués landscape with gentle, genuine affection — which lends the book much of its aesthetic value; for instance, the houses in town “spiral about the church’s whitewashed wings as if they were under its protection.”

This Too Shall Pass (NOVEL) | Milena Busquets | Hogarth UK | ISBN: 978-1101903704 | 176pp.

Flashbacks to the life of Blanca’s late mother show her as having been a strong-willed, good-hearted woman from whom Blanca inherits more than just a house, and Blanca’s passionate love of animals, especially dogs, and her free-spirited desire to live life on her own, were passed down to her by means of both nature and nurture.

Ironically, even after death from a harrowing illness, Blanca’s mother emerges as an influential figure, larger than life, and as antithetical to a ghostly presence as one can imagine. Inherently ethical, she touched the lives of many outside her immediate circle of family and friends. Blanca discovers that the unknown Adonis at the funeral has come to pay his respects to her mother because the latter helped his father financially many years ago even though he was a complete stranger to her. Such discoveries and interactions are the impetus behind the novella’s central tenet that human beings, though imperfect, are inherently good: in a touching display of family sentiment and fellow feeling, Blanca’s former husbands watch out for each other’s sons with paternal protectiveness; although on occasion she herself emerges as an imperfect parent, disloyal friend, and self-absorbed ex-wife, she retains enough grace and honesty to give credit to other characters where it is due.

I told you I wasn’t interested in your precious figurines or valuable books and paintings, the only thing I wanted was the family photo albums my grandfather had started and you continued, and then you showed up with a huge purple suitcase full of them, dragging it along with great difficulty and the help of a carer. They’re an irrefutable testament that we had been happy. A photo where you’re smiling; your hair is wind-blown and salty, and I’ll place it with the rest of the photos on the shelf, next to Papa’s. I haven’t done it so far, because you aren’t a memory yet.Excerpt from the book

Old-fashioned readers who subscribe to the puritanical (minority) school of thought (that wayward heroines such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna should have stayed with Karenin) will find Busquets’s unconventional musings unfamiliar, yet eye-opening. The novella encapsulates the best aspects of the modernist tradition: vivid imagery, self-awareness, random yet intense thought, and above all, a desire to make intellectual sense of the frailties underlying the human condition. Blanca is no saint and certainly no Victorian role model — she drinks, smokes, takes drugs, has a roving eye for men, and spends considerable time repressing feelings of justified guilt. However, in a strange and elusive manner the novella brings to mind John Keats’ paradoxical yet timeless line: “Ay, in the very temple of delight/Veiled Melancholy has her sovereign shrine.” Grief and joy inevitably go hand in hand and people do not need to exist within the same century in order to appreciate that.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 29th, 2017