The shocking thing about this novel has nothing to do with the novel per se, the writing or the style. It came with the realization that this work takes as its focus a political tragedy so ignored and buried that I had to scurry to the internet to catch me up on it. And I don’t consider myself a political naif. The rump of colonialism swaying down the road, still leaves waste the landscape in its wake.
The novel itself is a bit of a slow starter, but finally gets up a head of steam. A head of steam that is to some extent diffused by cutting back and forth between periods, between characters. There are not really any redundant or unnecessary characters, and a few are quite memorable. But the stories are parcelled out in such a way that the reader-character bond never develops fully for any of them.
The story is decidedly non-linear, but it’s not that this causes confusion but that there’s so much of it that it seems to have crossed the line from stylistically adventurous to unnecessary
We are introduced to Montse (Dr.Montserrat Cambra) as she wakes up in a hospital after having almost died from a scorpion bite in the desert. She’s being nursed back to health (both physically and mentally) by a nurse named Layla We don’t know why she’s there, or where she is. We find out little by little, though the full story of the how and why comes to us fully only at the end.
Montse grew up in Barcelona, as did Santi (Santiago San Romain), but from opposite sides of the track. They meet in the spring of their lives and fall in love. Montse is pre-med and Santi is post mechanic, though Montse doesn’t find this out until later. Things happen and they part on bitter terms. From time to time they think of each other, though for Montse, many years go by without a second thought. She’s busy living her life, while it turns out that Santi is busy just staying alive in the West Saharan desert. Still, much of the story is pushed along by Montse’s quest at long last to find out just what happened to her young lover.
On her quest (she has come to the Western Sahara in her mid-fourties), she is helped by Layla and Aza, two Saharawis women. At one point Montse “has the impression the two Saharawis regard all this as a soap opera.” I wouldn’t go that far, but found the ‘other’ side of the story more compelling.
After Montse dumped him (for ambiguous cause, although he has lied to her repeatedly) Santi goes off to the Dark Continent, posted to the last vestige of colonialism there – the Western Sahara, home of the Saharawis. Many of these parts are suspenseful, tragic (it’s war after all) and eye-opening. The trek to the camps after the Spanish abandon the protectorate to the Moroccans and the Mauritanians, is especially well done.The plight of these peoples who have been refugees for a generation (there are thousands of adults who have never seen their homeland) is heart-breaking. Unfortunately, their story is now mostly forgotten, the tragedy a victim of aid-fatigue. If Leante’s novel can in any way revive world focus on this political impasse, then the novel, flawed or not, will have done important work.
See How Much I Love You by Luis Leante, translated from the Spanish edition by Martin Schifino