So I finished it. A couple of weeks ago now, actually. I made it through all 1097 pages of Julia Navarro’s epic bestselling novel Dime quién soy (Tell me who I am; Plaza y Janés, 2010) and ever since I have been trying to figure out what to write in this review. See, it’s not that I didn’t like the book. In fact, I loved it. Loved so much that I carried it around the house, up and down stairs, read it on the sofa, in the conservatory, in the garden, in bed at night. I think I might even have taken it home to my parents for the weekend.
Basically, the novel was the centre of my life for more than a fortnight, although if I hadn’t had, y’know, work things to do, I’d probably just have sat down and read it over a (long) weekend. I was smitten by the story of the 30-something internet journalist Guillermo who is tasked by his aunt to investigate the life of his elusive great-grandmother, Amelia Garayoa. When I announced that I was making a start on the novel, I still hadn’t quite grasped its scope. Navarro herself has described it as a portrait of ‘la memoria del siglo XX y la identidad de esas personas anónimas que lo protagonizaron ‘ (the memory of the 20th century and the anonymous people who lived it), and the story does indeed range widely, from 1930s Spain to Buenos Aires, Berlin, Moscow, London, Milan, Lisbon, Warsaw, Cairo and Paris. If Amelia witnesses and even participates in many of the 20th century’s most significant events at first hand, Guillermo – as he follows her trail through archives, experts, and the ordinary people whose lives Amelia touched – is able to explore how these events have been witnessed, memorialized, and in many cases, of course, forgotten.
This is the first of Navarro’s novels I’ve read, and apparently it’s a significant departure from her usual, medievalist fare. In an interview with Vintage Español, Navarro stated that she made this shift in emphasis because she wanted to write a novel that ‘tiene otro objetivo además de entretener: invitar a la reflexión’ (has an objective other than to entertain: to invite reflection), and that this is her most personal novel to date: ‘he echado mano de mis recuerdos y de mi memoria familiar, de todas esas historias que he oído en casa, muy similares a las que todos los españoles han escuchado tanta veces contar a sus abuelos o a sus padres’ (I’ve drawn on my memories and my family memory, on all those stories I’ve heard at home, so similar to those every Spaniard has so often heard from their grandparents or parents).
You can probably tell by now that I’m trying very hard to stay away from plot summaries or anything that might give too much away. The truth is, that this is not a very surprising book. The plot twists, such as they are, make perfect sense, and even knowing that something is important about any particular part of the book will likely defuse any tension you build up while reading it (but then, I’m the person who figured out about Bruce Willis about 10 minutes into The Sixth Sense and have been massively disappointed ever since that I missed out on all the fun). (I am not suggesting for a moment that this novel has anything in common with The Sixth Sense. It doesn’t. Fictional-Guillermo is most definitely alive and well and probably living in fictional-Madrid right now). But while the book isn’t (very) surprising, I did find it absorbing. Navarro creates a rich tapestry of characters in both strands of the story (Guillermo’s present, Amelia’s past), and she does a good job of pacing out the revelations so that we discover everything just as Guillermo does. The device that enables this, by which all the experts are obliged by Guillermo’s elderly benefactors to withhold information until it appears in Amelia’s unfolding life story, is sometimes clunky and a tad annoying, but just accept it and move on. Somehow, it works.
So, how to summarise? This novel is a bestseller by anybody’s definition. I wondered a few weeks ago why, in an article for the Guardian on ‘What they’re reading in Spain’, one of El Pais‘s literary editors hadn’t deigned to talk about what people are *actually* reading in Spain. And what they are undoubtedly reading, and have been since its publication in February last year, is Dime quién soy. In the bestseller lists published monthly by Que Leer, Dime quién soy appeared at no.4 in its first month, at no. 3 in its second month, was still in the top 10 in January 2011, and only dropped out the following month. It’s also had lots and lots of attention in the Spanish literary blogosphere, with multiple reviews, ranging from the execrable to the outstanding. For a quick overview of the kinds of responses the novel has received, have a look at its goodreads page, where the reviews (all in Spanish), range from 1* to 5*, giving an average of 3.57, which seems like a fair kind of mark to me.
Overall, I think this is a book that as a standalone read, is enjoyable, absorbing, not very demanding, and probably about 300 pages too long. Where its interest will lie for those with a professional or scholarly interest is in its place as part of the ‘boom’ of Spanish memory-novels, and especially the sub-genre of those that take the life of a single person (generally a woman) as a means to explore history from the bottom up. I’m just gearing up now to read a novel we might think of as a companion to this one, María Dueñas’s El tiempo entre costuras, which in addition to sharing a basic plot, also has almost identical endpapers. So similar, in fact, that if I was one of the Tiempos de Hoy designers I think I’d be a bit miffed. As ever, watch this space – although in the meantime, look out for several pending reviews, including novels on shady Liverpool-Spanish shipowners (field trip!), a University Space Station, and (my favourite) the Sheep of Doom …