Did you happen to see page 11 of the New York Times Book Review this weekend? It was a full-page ad for the novel The Time in Between by Spanish author María Dueñas. We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with María during the New England leg of her American tour.
The novel is set mainly in Madrid and Tetouan (a Spanish Protectorate in Morocco), and covers the tumultuous years from just before the Spanish Civil War up to the brink of World War II. Dueñas nails the setting – the many ex-Pat enclaves in Tetouan, the circles of parties and gatherings held by those from abroad (with a sense, no doubt, that they were removed from all that messy political business that was happening elsewhere), and the ever-present “you cannot hide” feeling of foreboding as the war inched closer and closer. Many readers will, like I, connect the novel to the setting and atmosphere of the film Casablanca; it’s at once familiar (we watch the movie each year on Valentine’s Day), and unknown (as Sira, the protagonist, is a single young woman with a much different background than Rick, Ilsa, or Victor).
Sira Quiroga is a dressmaker, who has arrived in Morocco after a whirlwind of upheaval at home. In this scene, she is settling in to a boarding house, and the proprietor is hoping to help her find work (p 91):
I didn’t go out much in those days: I had nowhere to go, nor anyone to see. I was usually alone with Jamila [a Moorish house girl] or with Candelaria [the proprietor of the boarding house] when she was around, which was infrequently. Sometimes, when she wasn’t bustling off to do her wheeling and dealing, she would insist on taking me out with her, for us to find some work for me to do. “Otherwise you’ll end up with a face like old parchment, girl, if you don’t give yourself so much as a flicker of sunlight,” she would say. Sometimes I felt unable to accept the invitation, not feeling strong enough, but other times I’ agree, and then she’d take me here and there, through the fiendish maze of streets of the Moorish quarter and the modern, gridlike roads of the Spanish ensanche with its beautiful houses and well-turned-out residents. In every establishment whose owner she knew, she would ask if they could find a position for me, if they knew of anyone who had a job for this girl who was so dedicated and ready to work day and night as I was supposed to be. But those were difficutl times, and even though the sounds of gunfire were still far away, eveyone seemed discouraged by the uncertain outcome of the fighting, worried about their people back home, about the whereabouts of this one or that one, the advancing of the troops at the front, who had lived and who had died, and what was still to come. In such circumstances almost noboday was interested in expanding a business or hiring new staff. And even though we usally concluded those outings with a glass of mint tea and a tray of savory morsels in some seedy café on the Plaza de España, every frustrated attempt was for me one more shovelful of anxiety dumped onto the pile, and for Candelaria – though she never said as much – a new gnawing worry.
Sira does develop her friendships with Jamila and Candelaria, and with others as well. Her growth as a character is large and strong – her natural curiosity and survival instincts lead her to stretch well beyond her initial comfort zone. When we meet her, Sira is tumbling from one adventure to another; she soon discovers that she must buckle down and apply herself (educating herself through reading the newspaper and novels; trusting others as she develops relationships; and taking risks in order to get by).
This is one of those books that I have to say - don’t read the jacket flap! You want to go into The Time in Between knowing only the setting, and a bit about the protagonist; the book blurb gives away too much of the plot (in my opinion) … discover it for yourself.
Do look at the end-papers, though – a collage of vintage postcards, stamps, and maps invite you into the book. Gorgeous, aren’t they?
The novel was first published in Spain in June 2009, to great acclaim; it has since been translated into eight or so languages, and is being made into a television series in Spain! Now it comes to the US with both English and Spanish editions from Atria (Simon and Schuster).
I asked Ms. Dueñas about the translation of her novel. Since she speaks English fluently, I wondered if this particular translation (Spanish to English) was perhaps a bit more nerve-wracking than one in which she didn’t speak the language. She told the group that she was thrilled with the translation – the subtleties of speech for the various characters, idioms, etc., were exactly what she hoped to convey.
I also wondered if the same sections that resonated with Spanish language readers are the same parts of the novel that English language readers respond to. Again, Ms. Dueñas said yes, and that translation is truly an art and she credits the translator with a fluid English read
One last note about translation: the Spanish language title is El tiempo entre costuras, with the literal English translation “The Time Between Seams.”
The Time in Between will appeal to readers who enjoy getting immersed in a historical atmosphere. Sira’s run of bad luck at the beginning of the novel leads to character-building, and she finds a strength she didn’t know she had. María Dueñas uses many iconic landmarks (hotels, cafés) to anchor the setting, and the many historical characters add context to the solidity of the story. An Author’s Note and Bibliography further address the research that went into the novel, and offer suggestions for those who wish to read more about the era.