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Colm Tóibín: “Summer of ’38″

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Colm Tóibín’s “Summer of ’38” was originally published in the March 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

I’m a fan of Colm Tóibín. It’s been nearly four years since we’ve had any of his fiction in The New Yorker, so this is a treat. And what a treat it turned out to be, too, this story about secrets and fear and the unspoken loyalty that might emerge from the two.

“Summer of ’38″ is set in Spain, where Tóibín lived for a while and where he set his first novel, The South. The story begins some fifty years after the summer of 1938, when Montse, getting old, is visited by a man who is writing a book about what happened in the local community during the Spanish Civil War. She immediately says she had nothing to do with the war, nor did her father and she had no brothers. He says that’s not why he has been looking for her. Rather, he has gotten in touch with one of Franco’s soldiers who had been in the small town during the war. This soldier and eventual general told the man he’d come to the town and tour the town, explaining how it was set up during the war. The general said the only person he remembered from the town was Montse, and he asked if she might join them for lunch. Montse denies remembering much of anything, something ingrained in her through a lifetime of habit. He asks her to consider and he’ll check in later.

The story flashes back to 1938. Franco’s soldiers have entered the valley to guard a dam. While at first the people were afraid, soon they started venturing out again, some even to the parties the soldiers would throw. Even Montse herself went, eventually hooking up with Rudolfo, one of the quieter soldiers who, we have no reason to disbelieve, treated her well.

As the summer dwindled and the weather changed, people started to understand how this was going to end. People were already disappearing, either because they fled or were killed. It would be very dangerous to have anything to do with Franco’s soldiers. Fortunately, Montse didn’t have to worry that much.

Instead, she hoped that those who had noticed her presence at the soldiers’ bonfire would have their own reasons to keep silent about it. In the years afterward, everyone — even those who had been there every night — pretended that none of it had happened.

Unfortunately, after Rudolfo is gone, Montse realizes she is pregnant. These were dangerous times, and it wasn’t going to get better. With the end of the war, Montse knew there would be accusations leading to arrest or death, and no matter who the father of her child was no one could protect her from the presumptions that were ultimately correct anyway. How to keep this secret locked away? The only thing she can think of is to chase after the one man who had been pursuing her for years, Paco, a pathetic man who seemed to love Montse though she and her family made it clear he was well below her standards.

Montse’s father laughed at him, and for her mother and her sisters the idea that he had been pursuing her since she was sixteen or seventeen was a source of regular jokes. She did her best to avoid him, and if she could not avoid him then she openly rebuffed his efforts to speak to her.

Now she urgently wanted to meet him.

She didn’t love him. It wasn’t about that at all. But: “If had wanted her before, she figured, he would still want her now.” He would be a protection.

I found the story strong throughout, but I must say I particularly liked the final bit, when we know all that has happened and are allowed to see where, in this instance, this time of “don’t speak” led. An excellent story.

Betsy

In “Summer of ‘38,” Colm Tóibín depends upon understatement. Set in Spain, an elderly Spanish widow is presented with the possibility of meeting with a lover of many years before. Her oldest daughter, Rosa, was conceived in that short affair, but Paco agreed to marry Montse — and raised Rosa as his daughter. As time went by, Montse had two more daughters, and came to feel intense “loyalty” for everything Paco did for her and her family.

The long-ago affair is complicated by the setting for the love affair having been the Spanish Civil War, raising questions of “loyalty,” collaboration, and treachery. Montse resists the several invitations to meet with “the General,” and in the end does not meet him for lunch. Instead, she meets with Rosa, and specifically gives her an album of family pictures. The pictures, though, have no images of Paco, perhaps because Montse does not want Rosa to see how little she and her son resemble him.

The difficulty lies in the fact that one of Montse’s other daughters has met an emissary of the General. The persistence of the emissary indicates that if he wants to make contact with his daughter, he will do so through the sister, and so the truth will not lie buried after all.

The silence that Montse tries to enforce mirrors silences in the greater society of countries torn by civil war and internal violence: Spain, Chile, Argentina, Ireland, Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Syria, to name just a few.

There is the very understated suggestion in this story that countries not only bury the memory of violence but they re-write history to keep the truth buried. Tóibín does not address the effects of the silence or the rewritten history. It is just proposed that history is buried and struggles to re-emerge.

This is the first story I have read written by Tóibín that was set in Spain. I feel like I need to read that larger body of work to grasp the gravity of what he is trying to say. Faulkner dealt with buried truths, and it took him volumes. Ondaatje, too. I am also unfamiliar with the current arguments in Spain that I think have resurfaced regarding the Civil War and buried truth.

Understatement as a foundation, however, allows the reader the space to think and question. Given that political writing at its worst is polemical, strident, bombastic, and untruthful, an approach that stresses calm thinking is an important contribution to the conversation. I also feel that surface clarity helps the reader relax into the work, and then be more receptive to difficult ideas and deeper mysteries.

15 thoughts on “Colm Tóibín: “Summer of ’38″”

  1. Lee Monks says:

    It’s a Colm Toibin short story: I’m in. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before but The Empty Family is for me his best work, so I could hardly be more interested. Will read it asap.

  2. Trevor says:

    I’ve been offline the last couple of days, but I’m anxious to read this and find out what Betsy had to say!

  3. James says:

    Did you stop the reviews about Granta (the brazilian issue)?

  4. Trevor says:

    Not intentionally, James. I will finish it, just might take a bit of time due to other things (including the new Granta). In the new Granta I will be talking about the new Callan Wink story soon.

  5. Thomas says:

    “And slowly, as they had two more daughters and moved to a bigger apartment, she found that being polite to him took on a force of its own. She tolerated him, and then grew fond of him. Slowly, too, as she realized that her parents and her sisters were still laughing at him, she saw less of them. She began to feel a loyalty toward Paco, a loyalty that lasted for all the years of their marriage.”

    I read this story before bed the evening it was posted on The New Yorker site two weeks ago. I think it’s one of Toibin’s best stories, maybe even his very best. I love his ability to just strip away at a story until the emotional heart of the piece is revealed, like in the passage quoted above. Ultimately, I think that’s what the story is about–aside from political histories and silences (which Betsy so wonderfully highlights)–the two very different kinds of love. First, the kind of young “love” that’s fueled by lust and passion and circumstance, the kind that comes and goes and is as sensational as war and boozy nights with soldiers. But then there’s a second kind of love, the kind of love that develops over time, that’s about loyalty and constancy, the kind that you learn to grow into if you’re lucky.

    I found it incredibly romantic. Montse keeps the secret in part to protect herself, but more so to protect Paco’s memory for her daughter.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the comment, Thomas. While I think I felt that Montse was protecting Paco’s memory for her daughter, I hadn’t given it proper thought, particularly as opposed to her keeping the secret to protect herself. Thanks!

  7. Roger says:

    One of the many things I loved about this story is how two big decisions by Montse compare to one another. The young Montse decides to marry Paco, despite feeling no love for him, as a desperate act of self-preservation. Although one can’t blame her for doing this, neither does it do her any credit: she is using Paco to survive, seeking him out in a calculated matter, with no thought about what is fair to him. Not only does she not love him, but she views him with contempt, even repulsion, “feeling relieved when he left for work each day or when he fell asleep beside her in the bed.”

    But when the moment comes to decide whether to reveal Rudolfo to Rosa as the latter’s true father, Montse’s decision is of a different nature, bottomed on what is best for her daughter. Her initial inclination to tell Rosa the truth (implied by her inviting Rosa to visit on the day Rudolfo will be in town) is based on the notion that it will be kind to let her daughter know who her real father is, and that he, unlike Paco, is still alive. Then, when she observes Rosa stating that she intends to have the old photo of Paco and young Rosa enlarged and framed, Montse changes her mind, concluding that the kindest thing to do is not to reveal the truth. Either outcome (revealing or concealing) would be defensible. But as the reader observes Montse consider both alternatives before deciding to conceal, we see and appreciate her capacity for love and her wisdom. Bravo to Colm Toibin.

  8. Trevor says:

    Interesting, Roger. I think in a way you got something different than Thomas above, who suggests Montse came to “love” Paco, at least in the manner of “loyalty and constancy.” Thomas goes so far as to suggest that the reason Montse doesn’t reveal the identity of her true father to Rosa is because Montse is protecting Paco’s memory for her daughter, which I think suggests she’s doing it for Paco, at least in part.

    For you it seems that while Montse certainly appreciated Paco, was always grateful, and recognized he was a fantastic father, she never really did grow to love him. In fact, she was about to betray him, in a sense, until she realized it would hurt her daughter too much.

    Am I coming at each side correctly? I think it’s a fascinating story, and I’d be curious about your thoughts on the other perspective.

  9. Thomas says:

    Yes, that’s how I understood Roger’s reading as well. I love that a story invites so many different interpretations! For me, the crucial aspect to my understanding of the story is the point of view, the selection of scenes and the order in which they appear. Chronologically, she cancels on the meeting (which she never technically agrees to in the first place) BEFORE the moment with the photos, so that, in terms of emotional logic, the photos cannot in fact be the motivation for canceling. More importantly, this scene comes immediately after the summary of her lovely life with Paco, their girls, and the grandchildren. In this light, the photos seem to be an act of contrition. Presumably she has the idea to show Rosa the photos sometime between canceling on the meeting and when Rosa arrives, so perhaps she feels some guilt for even entertaining the idea of meeting with the General. That scene ends with this wonderful moment of pride and appreciation:

    “I’ll be very careful with them,” Rosa said, picking up a photograph of herself as a teen-age girl with Paco, smiling, beside her.

    “I think I took that one,” Montse said.

    “I might get it blown up a bit bigger and frame it,” Rosa said.

    Montse, as photographer, has literally created the moment in the picture. She’s responsible for it, for the family and the love that blossomed as a result of her decision. Paco is smiling next to his daughter.

  10. Roger says:

    I can see that Montse, in keeping the identity of Rosa’s biological father a secret from Rosa, was also honoring Paco, though I think her motivation was mainly to leave in place Rosa’s perception that Paco was her father in every sense of the word. It seemed to me that Montse was showing Rosa the photos as a way of building up to the revelation that Rudolfo was Rosa’s biological father, and that she may have been intending to get Rosa over to the restaurant to meet him (and of course Montse would have to accompany Rosa to such a meeting). After all, she invites Rosa to visit on the very day of the lunch. Although Montse had already told the man from the electric company that she was not coming to the lunch, she still had an open invitation to do so “if you change your mind.” And I sensed that throughout the big day, Rosa was on the verge of potentially changing her mind, and that Rosa’s interest in the photo of Paco and her young self was the deciding factor.

    I agree that part of the magic of a story like this is that it lends itself to multiple interpretations. When we discuss them we can discover that certain of those interpretations can coexist and enrich one another. Thinking about it some more, it seems to me that as the story nears its end, Montse is struggling with the competing desires to satisfy her own wish to see Rudolfo again, her interest in revealing the full truth to Rosa, and then her recognition that keeping that truth from her daughter may be what really is in Rosa’s best interest, and would be the best way to honor Paco as someone who turned out to be much more than her escape from a doomed life as an unwed mother in late 1930s Spain.

  11. Roger says:

    *Montse* was on the verge of potentially changing her mind.

  12. Betsy says:

    Roger, Trevor, and Thomas – what a wonderful discussion. It deepened my appreciation for what Toibin has accomplished. I like the way you highlight Toibin’s spare style and the delicacy with which he tells Rosa’s complex, difficult story. He reveals how much she has changed, and he shows how, after all, she has chosen to honor life, something we all deeply need to do and find so difficult. But I still worry about buried truth. It has its own force.

  13. Jon in NYC says:

    I thought this was such a beautiful story when I first read it. It is about acts of deep love pure and simple.

    First, Montse’s mother. A brief, matter of fact exchange concerning a situation taht will surely shape Montse’s life, no matter which way it goes, ending with a simple and decisive act:

    Her mother looked at her.
    “Let me deal with Paco,” she said.”

    Next, Paco, who instead of lording it over Montse or otherwise taking advantage of Montse or Rosa in their vulnerable state and weak position, simply and without contrivance gives Rosa the loving father she seemed fated to be denied:

    As soon as Rosa was born, Paco wanted to hold her. In the days that followed, Montse watched him to see if he was holding the baby merely for her sake. She saw no sign of that, however. [...] Montse was aware that other men were laughing at Paco because of his devotion to the baby. She knew that her family laughed at him, too. But Paco remained impervious to the laughter.

    Finally, I don’t see that Montse ever intended to meet the General or to introduce him to Rosa. She intentionally gives Rosa the photo of herself as a teenager and Paco:

    “Where is my father in this? Why isn’t he in any of the pictures?” she asked.
    “Your father always took the photographs,” Montse replied. She reached for another bundle.
    “He might be in one of these, . . . ”

    And so he was, as she surely knew. And she knew as well that Rosa soloved her father Paco that she could not and would not even notice taht she looked nothing like him.

    Perhaps I am simple minded. I found this to be a very beautiful and simple love story.

  14. Ken says:

    I think the ambiguities are structured in to the story and there is no “answer.” I was less thrilled with this story. It was perfectly fine, but felt very old-fashioned in a not-so-good way that I can’t quite define.

  15. Betsy says:

    Well, Ken, what’s interesting is it’s been 3 months since I read Toibin’s “Summer of ’38″, but the story sticks with me. It’s a story I look forward to reading again, especially after so much discussion. Images from it call to me – the young girl meeting the soldier; the elderly mother giving her daughter photographs; Paco being so steady. So I argue for the story, and actually treasure Paco’s willingness to be the man, that being an almost old-fashioned value. At the same time, I remain curious about Toibin’s choice of subject and why he would choose to write this particular story now.

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