Sunday, 9 August 2020

Difficult Light by Tomas Gonzalez

Difficult Light by Tomas Gonzalez
First published in Spanish as La luz dificil in Colombia in April 2019. English language translation by Andrea Rosenberg published by Archipelago Press on the 11th August 2020.

A More Than One Challenge read.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grappling with his son's death, the painter David explores his grief through art and writing, etching out the rippled landscape of his loss.

Over twenty years after his son's death, nearly blind and unable to paint, David turns to writing to examine the deep shades of his loss. Despite his acute pain, or perhaps because of it, David observes beauty in the ordinary: in the resemblance of a woman to Egyptian portraits, in the horseshoe crabs that wash up on Coney Island, in the foam gathering behind a ferry propeller; in these moments, González reveals the world through a painter's eyes. From one of Colombia's greatest contemporary novelists, Difficult Light is a formally daring meditation on grief, written in candid, arresting prose.

Difficult Light is a very different novel to my previous Tomas Gonzalez read, The Storm, but I still found myself completely swept up into the world as he creates it. Gonzalez has a wonderful understanding of relationships within families and can deftly portray the slightest nuance of meaning to change the whole atmosphere of a scene. I felt this talent was vital for Difficult Light because, in the hands of a lesser author, this novel of overwhelming grief could easily have become cloyingly sentimental and mawkish. Reading Difficult Light was, for me, a surprisingly serene experience for such an emotionally fraught narrative. At times I was reminded of my own losses and subsequent grief, but was also reassured by David's acceptance of his lot.

As elderly former-painter David looks back over the previous two decades of his life, his focus is repeatedly drawn towards attempts to understand his eldest son, Jacobo's, death, and particularly the months and hours that preceded this event. I was captivated by David's artistic interpretation of his memories. Colour and texture are particularly important throughout Difficult Light as is, of course, the artistic concept of light itself and this is poignant because David's eyesight is rapidly failing. Much of what he sees and describes with beautiful clarity to us readers is now only actually from memory, and many of his memories are tinged with sorrow and loss. In many ways David is a pathetic character, but although I felt sorry for him I never found myself pitying him. His reminiscences didn't strike me as being irritatingly self-indulgent (as in Wasp Days by Erhard von Buren for example). Even his repeated complaints about his encroaching blindness serve to illustrate his frustration with increasing physical frailty. This isn't a man boasting of his glory days or trying to convince an audience of former triumphs, but rather someone coming to terms with what he has lost and still actively looking for ways to circumvent the march of time.

Tomas Gonzalez is now firmly established as one of my favourite Latin American authors and I was again very grateful to Andrea Rosenberg for her sympathetic translation. My Spanish is in no way adequate to the depth and beauty of Difficult Light so I am delighted to have been given the chance to read this novel in English.

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