Tag Archives: Books Burn Badly

The Potato Eaters


The Potato Eaters
By Manuel Rivas
Small Stations Press – £7.99

When did her teeth start falling out? Has she always had the inklings of a moustache?

Having read most of Manuel Rivas’ books, I still have to say, if not fully maintain, that the brilliant Books Burn Badly is still my favourite. That’s not to say his books published since (The Low Voices, One Million Cows, From Unknown to Unknown) do not make for intrinsically interesting and occasionally captivating reading.

They absolutely do and The Potato Eaters is no exception.

From the opening gambit that evolves around drug addiction with a sense of humour – in which the protagonist is more than attracted to what sounds like a well-stacked nurse by the name of Miss Cowbutt (great name, somewhat reminiscent of Eddie Izzard’s Mrs Badcrumble) – the reader instinctively knows s/he is in for a quintessentially robust ride of a journey. The sort of which, one has come to expect from Rivas, of which the opening quote above is a most pristine example.

From a short piece simply entitled ‘The Umbrella,’ it is preceded by the altogether hooky, kooky summerisation of an endemically bonkers game show: ”Recordman today, it has been announced, is going to be more intellectual. It’s a question of using your head. The contestants, a couple of men who look like primates in their Sunday best, have to knock down a wall of breeze blocks with their heads. The first one to do so will get a million. The gong goes, and they all rush to the wall. From the initial impact, one them, the one who looked most hard-headed, falls flat on his face and is looked after by two recordwomen, who today are wearing tight, discreet dresses, though they do have a hole right over their nipples, The audience claps. Unbelievable! This is great.”


Blankety Blank it most clearly isn’t – which is what essentially accounts for The Potato Eaters being the sort of book it (most provocatively) is: witty, satirical, and like a lot of the Galician author’s writing, prone to going off on totally terrific tangents.

David Marx

One Million Cows


One Million Cows
By Manuel Rivas
Small Stations Press – £5.69

”Like an irate prophet” (‘The Sons of Luc & Fer’), the one and only Manuel Rivas writes of a great many issues throughout these eighteen, short snappy stories. And in so doing, transports the reader unto many a place of kaleidoscopic (mis)adventure.

Indeed, amid much virtuous and virulent metaphor, One Million Crows finds Galicia’s most renowned, international writer (whose previous books include The Carpenter’s Pencil, In The Wilderness, All Is Silence and perhaps one of my all time favourite books ever written, Books Burn Badly), addressing everything from the mud-flats of childhood to the redolent aftermath of suicide.

But from within this ”bell of memory” (‘Madonna (Christmas Story)’), the one story that essentially strikes home is ‘The Provincial Artist;’ which, by way of well-considered angst and periodic play on capital letters, the author writes: ”’There is in Spain,’ declared the critic Bernabe Candela, ‘nature and metaphysics, passion and biology, reflection and outbursts, and it is well known there is no beauty without rebellion, even if that convulsion is contained by the prudent nets of reason.”

There has to be an abundance of gravitas in the line: ”there is no beauty without rebellion,” which, if you really think about it, transports the rebellious etiquette of someone like Che Guevara to within striking distance a whole new tenet of thinking. Not to mention understanding; or ”the prudent nets of reason,” from where Rivas continues: ”Espina may be a wonderful symbiosis, that of the monster awaiting the end of the century.’ He read this article in the old slaughterhouse while peeling open a tin of mussels. His first reaction of complacent vanity was followed by a sense of disquiet and unease. Up until then, hardly anybody had paid him any attention.”

The above is so compact and colourful, so dense and at times, disparaging; that I found myself increasingly caught up or should I say, intrinsically lost within the actual essence of the writing itself, as opposed to that of the story being told.

Like so much of his work, the stories Manuel Rivas tells, could, for many, be construed as something of an added bonus. It’s the actual writing that’s so alluring. So attractive.

David Marx

From Unknown To Unknown


From Unknown To Unknown

By Manuel Rivas

Small Stations Press – £10.95

I’ve read three books by the Galician author Manuel Rivas (The Carpenter’s Pencil, Books Burn Badly and All Is Silence), all of which have been exceedingly imaginative and astonishingly well written. So it was perhaps inevitable, and only a matter of time, before I would endeavour to investigate his poetry.

From Unknown To Unknown is Rivas’ first collection of poetry I have fully embraced, and just like his novels, threre’s a certain literary depth of suave sparkle and consistency amid the writing, that never fails to shine through. So much so, that his jingle-jangle, yet overtly anchored word-play – of the most brazen persuasion might I add – bequeaths the world of cyclical cynicism with oodles to think about.

It’s as John Burnside writes in the book’s Introduction: ”[…] discovery is central to Manuel Rivas’ poems. Again and again, as we listen to the account he gives of the world, we come across the beautiful surprise, the breathtaking renewal of some process or way of seeing we normally take for granted […].”

This is very much in evidence throughout these 121 pages, even with an invariable flipside to ”the beautiful surprise.”

Admittedly just as vibrant, colourful and invigorating; some of these poems reflect an everyday take on life, that transmit the sort of recognition we are quite often in denial of. This is very much in evidence throughout the following:


He hated waking up.
It sometimes took him hours to come to terms with the world.
So he preferred having breakfast in that roadside café
where nobody was helpful.
The customers were cornered creatures
with hangovers in their eyes
and the proprietor poured coffee over the cup without apologising.
But then he weighed more than eighteen stone.
The premises were sold.
The new owner asked questions with a smile.
And he decided to stop going.

The poem in it’s entirety, could just as easily have crept straight out of an early Tom Waits song of the mid seventies – which might partially explain why it jumped out at me. It’s a glorious depiction of life, that is not only true (”with hangovers in their eyes”) but deeply entrenched in fraught experience (”the proprietor poured coffee over the cup without apologising”). That the proprietor ”weighed more than eighteen stone” almost made me smile; although the all confessional line(s) that invarialby knocks the reader for six has to be the final two:

The new owner asked questions with a smile.
And he decided to stop going.

I’d very much hasten to add that the full-stop between them, accentuates the punch line with all the philosophical finesse of a comedian who knows he has the audience in the grip of his every nuance.

Likewise, many of these highly erudite, although on occasion, esoteric poems.

For instance, there are one liners that simply speak volumes: ”I burnt my lips on your skin of ice” (‘Mother Earth’), ”slipping on porcelain with veins wide open” (‘The Lonely Seafarer’s

Song’), ”The stage was set for the arrival of a mistaken man” (Unforseen Destiny’) and perhaps my favourite: ”the embrace of a grandfather who became a poet of silence” (‘Radiophony’).

The list could be considered endless.

Which it is.

Which it will no doubt continue to be.

As Burnside has written towards the end of his Forward: ”Here is a poet who never exercises control for its own sake, but does so in order to accomodate and sustain his passion. His formal concerns arise from a need to make something that is both crafted and spontaneous, artful and immediate; Here, in short, is an essential poet whose work illuminates the world and the condition of those who live in it.”

From Unknown to Unknown simply cries out to be altogether known in every possible meaning of the word. The translation is clearly exemplary, while the poems themselves are politically thought provoking as well as socially eloquent in equal measure.

David Marx

All Is Silence


All Is Silence
By Manuel Rivas
Harvill Secker – £16.99

Just like contagious comedy, fantastic fiction fundamentally depends on timing and the way it’s delivered. Some might consider the former as not being quite so crucial within the world of fiction, but to my mind, it certainly helps. For as we all (ought to) know, what’s left out of writing is as equally important, if perhaps not more so, as what’s left in. And I believe all great writers wholeheartedly subscribe to this literary approach. They allow the silence to prevail.

How could they not?
They bow down to it at nigh every twist and turn of their tangential thought process.

The astonishingly gifted Galician author, Manuel Rivas, embraces this process as if by second nature. As if there is no other way, which may partially explain why I have already reviewed two of his previous books on this site: the most widely translated work in the history of Galician literature, The Carpenter’s Pencil (1998) and the simply brilliant, Books Burn Badly (2010).

All Is Silence, his most recent work, never strays too far from the pronouncement that ‘’the mouth is for keeping quiet,’’ which clearly lends itself to the circularity of the book’s title. I use the word circularity, because having reached the conclusion, I was reminded of how the more things supposedly change in society, the more they essentially stay the same. This is particularly true within the (under)world of crime and corruption – on which these 249 pages are quintessentially based – regardless of how well contained, petty or powerful.

In other words, the only certainty we are oft guaranteed in life is that which I touched upon at the outset. The unspoken.

Hence, the book’s title and the underlying theme of silence; the trajectory of which is jostled throughout the book, betwixt the two protagonists, Fins and Brinco. One good, one band, both of whom fully comprehend the perplexing polarity of such an anagram as ‘listen’ and ‘silent.’

Moreover, what’s equally important in great story telling, is obviously the actual telling itself. The language and choice of words used, is at the end of the day, paramount. Paramount, in initially cajoling the imagination, and then of course, sustaining it.

A ‘telling’ example of this can be found towards the end of chapter fifteen, where we follow Fins on a simple bus journey: ‘’Dawn cannot lift its feet due to the weight of the storm clouds. But the sea is almost calm, its blue so cold it gives the slow curls of foam the texture of ice. Fins walks along the coastal road, following the shoreline. He crosses the bridge at Lavandeira de Noite and sits down to wait at Chafariz Cross, where the bus stops. As he was walking, he watched the women gathering shellfish on the sandbank. The more distant ones looked like amphibian creatures with water around their thighs. From the window of the bus, before leaving, Fins Malpica glances at the beach for the last time, through the filter of condensation. Now rosy-fingered dawn clears a way with daggers of light. All barefoot women are Nine Moons. And he opens the book at the page about Argonauts with empty eyes.’’

One has to undeniably read the above within a certain amount of contextual relationship, but even when taken out of the situation, the writing stands up on its own. As despite what preceded it, the above passage remains colourfully compelling, not to mention idiosyncratically independent within that of its own right.

Originally written in Galician, it surely has to be said that Jonathan Dunne’s translation is truly exceptional.

Not that I’d know the difference between Galician and Spanish, or Galician and English mind. But to capture all the (silent) subtlety of musical nuance, as well dexterity and definition, really is quite something. In fact, were it not for Dunne’s translation, the English speaking literary establishment would be none the wiser as to who Manuel Rivas even was.

Were this to be the case (and thankfully it’s not), it really would be a crying shame. If not a towering loss, as The Scotsman’s Tom Adair makes clear: It’s time for reviewers and sundry pundits to quit the flattering comparisons with Lorca, Joyce and Garcia Marquez. Manuel Rivas reads like no-one else on the planet.’’

David Marx

The Carpenters Pencil

The Carpenter’s Pencil
By Manuel Rivas
Vintage – £7.99

Having read Manuel Rivas brilliant 2010 novel Books Burn Badly, I have since felt compelled to investigate some of his earlier writings, of which The The Carpenter’s Pencil is thus far, the first. Far shorter than the former, it once again takes place within the appalling parameters of the Spanish Civil War, but with one major difference: it’s totally linear and is a lot less gritty.

As Arturo Perez-Reverte has commented, it’s ‘’a beautiful novel, full of humanity and tenderness,’’ which is unsurprisingly and unquestionably true. ‘’If I were a poet, and I wish I were, I would speak of a snowflake. No two are the same. They melt away in existence, in the sun’s rays, as if to say, ‘Immortality, how boring!’ Body and soul are bound together. As music to an instrument. The injustice that gives rise to social suffering is basically the most terrible soul-destroying machine.’’

The humanity to which Perez-Reverte reverts is an underlying theme throughout much of the Galician writer’s work.

Luckily for us, it’s acutely natural for Rivas to write in this way; although the same cannot be said for most readers’ implicit knowledge of the Spanish Civil War. An utterly pointless, and ghastly war that acts as a perennial backdrop throughout much of The Carpenter’s Pencil, the author writes as if we are all thoroughly well read up on the subject – which might not necessarily always be the case.

It is for this reason, this silent assumption, that much of the literary beauty herein, might partially risk falling on deaf ears, of which the following is a perfect example: ‘’The wind was up, the sea alive with the sound of accordions.’’ Naturally, such a sound will invariably ring differently in everyone’s ears, but the sound which Rivas envisions, is surely of the most sincere and specific resolution. The ‘’accordions’’ to which he refers, are surely not to be merely grappled with amid a hint of (readers) hesitation, before moving on to yet another tender collection of words such as: ‘’Barca stood up, went around the table and gently closed his eyelids as if they were lace curtains.’’

Needless to say, both of the above, and many other great lines like it, stand alone, in their own right. But the thread that nevertheless links them together is civil war. A subject, which, if in this instance, one isn’t sufficiently well versed in, runs the gauntlet of being fraught with unfortunate misunderstanding.

David Marx