After what has been an incredibly stressful year for the entire world, this Christmas I was looking forward to spending my two weeks off reading the pile of books that was nervously stacking up by the side of my bed. Top of my list was London Under Snow, by Jordi Llavina, translated by Douglas Suttle. I had been waiting to read this short story collection for a while now, and what better time to start than Christmas Eve? This wonderful collection was released in October of this year by Fum d’Estampa Press, a brilliant indie publisher launched in 2019, dedicated to bringing exceptional Catalan literature into English. In Fum d’Estampa’s own words they “bring the very best in European translated fiction in books that are beautiful to both read and hold.” London Under Snow is certainly no exception to this.
London Under Snow compromises of six beautifully written short stories, each with winter and the Christmas period as their backdrop. Whilst themes of memory, loss and nostalgia course through every story, each is unique, offering a glimpse into one moment of someone’s life. What is special about these delicate and melancholic snapshots, is the way that Llavina’s clever meta-fictional style expertly weaves personal experiences with imagined characters, leaving the reader unable to unblur the lines that he smudges between reality and fiction. This strong sense of ambiguity that Llavina thus creates, makes each story even more intriguing. These six unique meditations on memory cover some heavy themes, however, Llavina somehow manages to balance this perfectly with dry humour, allowing him to smooth ever so slightly the sharp edge to each story.
The opening story, ‘Hand and Racquet’ is set in a ‘London under snow’ and sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Woven within bleakly realistic descriptions of London are reflections on life and memory. However, what stood out most to me in ‘Hand and Racquet’ were its musings on fate and chance–a dilemma that I often find myself reflecting on. It is also with this opening story that Llavina’s meta-fictional style for this collection is perhaps most overt. The narrator himself is named Jordi, and he specifically discusses the logistics of editing and publishing the collection of stories that the reader has in their hands. Before launching into the second story in the collection then, Llavina cleverly forces the reader to beg the question: what is real and what is imagined?
With the second story, ‘My Andalusian Cousin’, Llavina casts his memory even further, writing of childhood and nostalgia. It is here that the reader notices Llavina’s keen eye for detail as he dissects the small trivialities of childhood that would otherwise be ignored or forgotten. With, ‘We, Too, Are Expecting’, the collection takes a darker turn, with Llavina’s delicate and lyrical prose allowing him to carefully and subtly approach the heavy topic of loss. ‘San Diego, For the Record’, however, brings Llavina’s lighter and more humorous tone back to life. A perhaps joyful story of legacy and charity, ‘San Diego, For the Record’ still carries the undertones of memory and loneliness that resonate throughout the collection as a whole. In this story Llavina’s keen eye for detail also shines–his vivid descriptions of even the most tedious elements of day-to-day life immersing the reader deep in the moment and the scene. With the penultimate story, ‘A Man Called Amat’, Llavina explores the idea of seeing the past through one person. One of my favourite lines from the collection is: “When we start to dig up our memories, above all, when we bring back to the present remote passages from our lives, it means untangling different figures from the past.” This weird and wonderful story expertly explores ideas of visiting our past through the people that shaped it, seeing our past through who was there.
With the final piece in the collection, ‘The Linden Tree’, Llavina brings the series full circle, reinstating the overt meta-fictional style that we saw in the opening story. Hand in hand with his somewhat existential reflections on memory, the passing of time, and death, Llavina’s meta-fictional style begins to offer potential responses to the question that the opening story evokes: what is real and what is imagined? ‘The Linden Tree’ allows us to not only cast doubt on the ‘reality’ of the previous stories we read, but more importantly, to cast doubt on the ‘reality’ of our own memories: “In a story […] everything, absolutely everything is true. […] The moment you tell it, it becomes real, and not only that, it becomes true. It all ends up as being true.” Like a grey, dull London under a crisp, white snow, Llavina embellishes his real, personal stories, topping them off with a layer of perfectly crisp imagination, and by putting these embellishments into words, “it all ends up as being true.”
London Under Snow is an absolutely stunning collection, brilliantly rendered into English by Suttle. A book of layers–be those real or imagined–that intertwine to form an incredibly moving and lyrical collection of stories on memory and loss, pitting the real against the imagined.