Liz Almond reviews Heaven by Manuel Vilas, translated by James Womack, Carcanet, 2020.
In December 2019 when my advance-of-publication copy arrived in its jiffy bag, I approached Heaven with an open mind. Virginia Woolf once advised a reviewer to write in the manner of the work reviewed, so my own style pays homage to Vilas who is by turns, profane, irreverent, blasphemous, fantastical, phantasmagorical. As he says, ‘life is an endless fantasy’.
There is a synchronicity at work here; a litany/rosary of Spanish places which Manuel Vilas, James Womack and Liz Almond have all visited and been inspired by. The words of Daljit Nagra come to my mind: ‘Ah, so you are going to Heaven!’ Yes, I am dipping into Heaven and find it situates its reader outside the boundaries of borders, countries, nationalities, religions, habits, and cultural norms – it positions its voice as a chosen, or accidental, outsider adopting the right to roam with a vociferous impunity.
Manuel Vilas has hypergraphia, is possessed with a need to tell a story. Whether it’s is his own, or a mish-mash of real or invented characters, his work is infused by nostalgia. I use the word deliberately – when Juana Adcock asked him at the launch of Heaven online, how he regarded his body of work (and his own body?) Vilas immediately responded with this word. I translate this as nostalgia for sexual passion, adventure, for being hot-blooded (de sangre ardiente), for the daring and risk of youth, for adoration and desecration, for travel and exploration at a time of life and pandemic, when such pleasures are denied or curtailed.
How I adore (Vilas’ word which he uses again and again in ‘Summer Night’, coming to a climax towards the end of the poem) his clinging on to summer and to ocean like a limpet sucking on rock. No, freer than that; as the black Arab says in ‘The Swimmer’ ‘I felt free, too free’, as he came back from swimming ‘very far out’ carrying in his body the truth of that moment and every moment. ‘I know you are truly alone’. The voice of the poem counters it with ‘if we are obsessed with what we were […] let’s hope no-one loves us and we can carry on swimming’. Add to that the voice of the ghost of Hamlet’s father to his lost son – ‘Remember Me’ – quoted by Vilas in ‘Story of a Chambermaid’, which of course is also Dido’s Lament, extracting from ourselves our deepest, oceanic feelings of loss and nostalgia for apocalyptic romance.
‘Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am’ …A fucking alphabet: Actur, Barbastro, Barcelona, Cadaques, Cadiz, Gomera, Granada, Havana, Istanbul, Lourdes, Madrid, Malaga, Mallorca, Paris, Seville, Valldemosa, Zaragoza…. Ah, ‘las noches de verano……tinto de verano…..el cielo’…. Vilas pays his own homage to Machado. But in Vilas’ world, beauty is often transmuted to tragedy – in ‘The Swimmer’ we read that ‘to swim in the sea in July, is something very beautiful’, but by the time we get to ‘The Unknown Man’, a swimmer drowns because he is excessively drunk.
Swimming against the current, I launch into ‘Heat’. Vilas is ‘all over your body with its tattoos and fish scale […]Sometimes we do not sleep in the small hours and think of Mars, and think of the ashes rising from the crematoria […] tongues and arses, femurs and sacra, livers and semen […] when I am seventy | cut me wide open | and throw my heart to the dogs.’
In ‘Our Air’ Vilas presciently uses the word coronas. Plural, not singular, which hardly matters when Latin is a universal tongue. In ‘The Crematorium’ he converses with ‘two guys’. One says, ‘it takes two or three hours, depending on how much the deceased weighs’. Vilas reimagines this as: ‘he said deceased, but he was thinking sausage or sack of shit’.
I read ‘Communion Rail’ one more time; it takes me back to a ghost town I know in Andalusia where infrastructure is built but nothing will ever colonise it. Much like the outskirts of Zaragoza, beyond Las Fuentes (those uber-Spanish fountains with their agua potable, perfect for an early morning espresso or washing your knickers), Vilas describes outskirts as a ‘kingdom of youth’ where we all want to be forever, as they represent our most passionate desires. The end of Heaven’s glorious refrain sings on beyond its pages ‘if you want we can fuck until we die but please don’t quit your job.’
– Liz Almond
Liz Almond Lives in Hebden Bridge and has taught Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Huddersfield. She has two collections with Arc Publications, The Shut Drawer and Yelp!, and has collaborated with photographer Claire MacNamee on a project called Active Stillness which resulted in an exhibition of photographs and poetry in 2012. Her third collection is due 2022.