(Cover of Edurne Portela’s 2017 novel, Mejor la ausencia)
I recently finished reading Edurne Portela’s gripping novel, Mejor la ausencia (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2017), which features a young protagonist, Amaia, whose life is marked by the violence present in 1980s and 90s Basque Spain and by the very real violence of the life inside her own home. Amaia’s mother, grandmother, and three brothers constantly wonder if the father will come back into their lives at any moment, bringing with him a relentless brutality exercised upon his own family. Five-year-old Amaia at the beginning of the novel takes refuge from her father’s violence, especially as manifested on her mother’s body, in her eldest brother Aníbal and her stuffed animal named Buni. The surrender of Aníbal to heroin addiction and death, accompanied by Amaia’s frustrated destruction of Buni, demonstrates that the protagonist will have no people to count on and that, even as she develops into a strong young woman, she will surprise even herself with her own enactment of violence.
The title tells the reader that absence from “loved ones” can be safer and better than presence with them. The violence that rips (not ripples) through the novel is mostly exercised by men—on other men in the spheres of politics and business, and on women in the domestic sphere. In this sense, the novel communicates gender-based violence in its genesis (toxic masculinity) and its reception (men as business “partners”; women as domestic “partners”). Amaia’s attack on her mother suggests that the protagonist scorns the weakness she perceives in her mother and that she has learned how to use the physicality of her own body to both defend and attack. The novel moves quickly enough that the reader has to slow down to absorb how the protagonist has evolved according to the public and private contexts in which she lives.
While Portela’s El eco de los disparos (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2016) examines portrayals of late 20th-century Basque violence in literature and film, Mejor la ausencia offers a fictional first-person narration that drives home each of the astute observations of Portela’s abundant non-fiction corpus. I read the novel because its author is a friend and talented writer, not because I read violence well. I finished the novel because Portela approached the topic in an honest, unflinching, compelling manner that made me grapple with the theme in bigger ways.
I have a privileged enough life that I can choose to protect myself from witnessing violence. When I studied history as a child and young adult, I despised that it was basically always a history of violence of men against men, women, and individuals who did not identify as part of the gender binary. History just seemed to move us from one war to the next, one aggression to the next, one genocide to the next, one dead person to the next. I strongly believed that we could unlearn this narration of violence and examine histories of peace, celebration of others’ accomplishments, and selfless leadership. As an adult, I have had to temper this reticence in the face of harsh realities, but I have still consistently chosen in my private life not to watch television and film portrayals of violence, not to read works of fiction that celebrate violent modes, and not to allow my children to play violent video games. (Full disclosure: I do teach an upper-level Spanish seminar course on the Spanish Civil War. I get it.) I know that I am naïve. I have never been able to articulate clearly my lack of understanding of people’s desire to inflict violence on other people or animals. I just don’t get it. (Of course, I do understand how people can become violent and/or fans of violence. As an adult, I just don’t get how all of this must feel.)
As I finished up Portela’s novel, I read these headlines in the Spanish newspaper El País: “Un hombre denunciado seis veces por maltratar a dos mujeres mata a su actual pareja” (“A Man Reported Six Times for Abuse of Two Women Kills His Current Partner”; 2-14-18), “Cómo descubrir a un agresor reincidente” (“How to Uncover Recidivist Aggressors”; 2-14-18) and “Maltratadas mucho antes de cumplir los 18” (“Abused Long Before They Turn 18”; 2-18-18). Despite all we know about gender-based discrimination and violence—via the international work done by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), now under the aegis of the United Nations, multiple police reports from country to country, data collection (e.g. in Spain and the United States), academic studies from a variety of disciplines—, newspaper headlines reveal that we still do not pay attention to all of the real acts and the warning signals that place people in danger. We still seem to want to buy into the rhetoric of “he’s a good guy,” or “he’s a real professional,” or “it can’t be that bad.” We know that ignoring early signs of violent tendencies is never good, and we do it all the time. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post about how violence is usually not hidden.)
This all brings me back to the man Donald Trump, Orrin Hatch, and a host of others protected through reports of gender-based violence, Rob Porter. In this CNN piece (2-18-18), Orrin Hatch issues an apology to Porter’s two ex-wives for having jumped to Porter’s defense; Hatch is reported to have said, “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man.” Even when Hatch walked back the defense and issued the apology, he had to maintain that his interactions with Porter were “professional” and “respectful.” Hatch, CNN, and everyone else seem to forget that of course Porter knows to respect his higher-ups, who have infinitely more power than he does. It is his treatment of those with less power than him that we have to worry about. The fact that Hatch maintains, even in his apology, a half-defense of Porter as a good man tells us a lot about our boys-will-be-boys culture, our constant propping up of mediocre politicians and violent men, and our constant willingness to kind of, sort of not believe the victims.
Just as Edurne Portela reveals in Mejor la ausencia and in El eco de los disparos, the signs of violence are there, from start to finish, in public and in private.