Friday, December 29, 2006

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nuñez

It has been said that the past is another country; if so, then Barcelona in the early 80s must be another planet. Dirty and grim, a capsized ship in the port, whores lining the Ramblas, a shantytown of squatter restaurants down on the open-sewer beach. These are my pre-Olympic memories. Then the city got spruced up and the tourists came in hordes. I mention this because this latest reprint of Nuñez’s book makes great mention of Barcelona and its landmarks on the cover blurb, and readers who only know the new, post ’92 city might be baffled by a thing or two, particularly the fact that the street and place names appear in Spanish rather than Catalan as they are now. No matter, as there is really no great reason the book couldn’t be set in any other seedy Mediterranean port. Knowledge or ignorance of Barcelona won’t hinder the enjoyment of this story one iota.

The original (1984) Spanish title was Sinatra because the protagonist, Antonio Castro, looks like the singer. Frankie, as he therefore gets called, is a forty-year-old night porter in one of those clapped-out no-star ‘hotels’ you can still just about find off the Ramblas. His wife has left him and he is lonely, leading a tedious, directionless life. He knows that things must be bad when he gets a severe case of diarrhoea. An answer may lie in an ad in a paper for a lonely hearts club. He joins up and the letters start arriving. Now Frankie is quite a sweetie in his way, generous and wouldn’t hurt a fly - but remember, he is a lonely, frustrated male controlled by macho pride. This brings out a nasty side, revealed at times in comments like: ‘She wasn’t much to look at but who cares’. The letters, however, aren’t just from plain, lonely widows and widowers, nothing that simple. There’s a boozy armed robber fresh from prison wanting to move to Barcelona, a gay barman, and a dwarf who writes lousy poems and is desperate to have a man inside her. Then there are those that Frankie just happens to bump into on and around the Ramblas; for example Natalia, a junkie teenager who believes a ratty doll is her baby. Somehow Frankie gets involved with all of them and it gives him bad dreams. He is himself too emotionally weak to help those who ask and he begins to crack. Then, just when it looks like his luck has changed, disaster strikes. His floundering makes a sad but wonderful human story.
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Raul Nuñez was born in Buenos Aires and lived in Barcelona from 1975 until his death in 1988.

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