Countdown to Recounting: Antagony: Book One by Luis Goytisolo


UPDATE (2) (March 12, 2018)

I’m really thrilled to be able to add this recent thoughtful, positive review by J.S. Tennant in the excellent White Review to the conversation about Recounting. The review offers some fresh insights into Luis Goytisolo’s life and the background to the novel. Please follow this link to enjoy:

UPDATE (December 20, 2017): I just discovered this recent extensive, detailed, and very enthusiastic review for Recounting, from Tony Messenger’s blog Messenger’s Booker (and more), posted on November 22, 2017:

And I’m also totally flattered and amazed to be featured in a recent post at The Untranslated (December 8, 2017), called “The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names Are Hallmarks of Quality” which focuses on Recounting:

Humbled to be included in such esteemed company, and determined to keep working hard to produce the best translations I can write.

There’s the relief of finishing the editing on a translation, especially a long one, and then there’s the first nervous thrill of reading anything about it in the press. For this translator, today, October 17, 2016, marks my first online sighting (apart from the sales page on Amazon) of any news or reviews of my forthcoming translation of Luis Goytisolo’s Antagony tetralogy (that’s a four-volume novel or series). I’ll have more to say about this massive project in the coming months before the book’s release in March 2017. Meanwhile, I’ll share this post from the blog The Untranslated which opens thus:

“One of the next year’s most significant literary events is the publication of Brendan Riley’s translation of Book I of Luis Goytisolo’s massive tetralogy Antagony (Antagonía), which will be coming out in two volumes from Dalkey Archive Press.” Actually, the current plan is four volumes, the way it was originally published.

Here’s the link to the full entry at The Untranslated: and to the full review in Spanish by Mario Vargas Llosa from 2012 which this article quotes:

Also, wonderfully, Barcelonan novelist Gonzalo Torné, writing for world-renowned travel literature publisher Fodors, has seen fit to include my translation of Antagony in his recent article: “What to Read Before You Visit Barcelona–“:

In February, Kirkus Reviews offered this favorable assessment:

In April, came a largely positive review from RTE, with a few reservations: “Brendan Riley’s translation is fluid and engaging, although there is some American argot at times. Minimial the instances of this may be, but they do jar somewhat. However, they are a small price to pay, now that we have book one of Goytisolo’s celebrated saga.”

Living in Barcelona for two years, visiting many more times, and studying the culture and history of the city made me eager and grateful to translate this amazing novel, which transports me back to “the great enchantress” every time.

Stay tuned for more to come on this great novel and this, its first translation, and the first translation into English of any novel by Luis Goytisolo.



Summer’s here and the time is right for . . . . clicking the keys – recent publications and translations in progress

June 30, 2017

We roll on into summer in earnest. And for a schoolteacher “on break” that automatically means more time to move translations forward. Busy as ever, I want to take a few minutes to do a quick wrap-up of some small side projects that have appeared in the last several months, and say a little about what’s next.


In late 2016 I was honored to have my translation work appear for the second time in Dalkey Archive Press’s excellent annual anthology Best European Fiction. My first time was four years ago, in BEF2013 with the story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” by Spanish writer Eloy Tizón. (A year later I got to publish another story by Sr. Tizón, “The Sadness of the Lion”, in Issue #2 of the cool online magazine SPN, published by the Oficina de Turismo de España ( This time, the honored representative selection for Castilian Spanish, in Best European Fiction 2017, was a tale called “Don’t Ask for Gagarin” by emerging Spanish fiction writer Carlos Robles Lucena, the title story from his wonderful recent eponymous collection of short stories––a beautiful, funny, intriguing satirical melange of science fiction, history, and pop culture. Published by Témenos Edicions, No pregunten por Gagarin has been popular in Spain and is currently in a second edition. Follow this link to order your own copy:


No pregunten por Gagarin is an excellent collection that would, if and when deservingly translated, find many appreciative readers in English.

November 2016 also saw the long-awaited publication of my translation of The Great Latin American Novel by the late, great Mexican author Carlos Fuentes. A sort of peripatetic book-length fireside chat that compiles some of the author’s previously published criticism, in many cases augmented and updated, and presents the author’s deeply learned, sometimes idiosyncratic, take on dozens of famous and important writers and works from the Latin American canon, it was one of Fuentes’ last completed projects. He signed off on it in July 2011, and passed away in Mexico City the following spring.


Moving into 2017, February saw the publication in Drunken Boat magazine of a joint project between myself and the excellent translator Layla Benítez James for the series called Between Us:Translators in Conversation. The focus for our conversation was the cross currents we discovered between her translation of the novel Man in Blue by Óscar Curieses, about Irish painter Francis Bacon, and my translation of the story “Good Intentions” by Spanish writer Juan Gómez Bárcena.


An excerpt from Man in Blue appeared in Drunken Boat 24 (, and promises a stellar read for everyone waiting patiently for the full book to appear in print, including me. My translation of “Good Intentions” comes from the collection Los que duermen (The Ones Asleep), and is slated to appear next week in Drunken Boat 25, (now to be operating under the title Anomaly), their latest edition, for July 2017.


Also recently, I was very happy to have my eighth piece published in the cutting edge online journal Numéro Cinq, edited and published by the inimitable and brilliant, and very kind, Canadian writer and scholar Douglas Glover. It’s a story called, in translation, “Caps” (originally Chavales con gorras or “Boys with Caps”) by Spanish novelist Fernando Aramburu. It comes from his 2013 collection El vigilante del fiordo (The Watcher at the Fiord)



Numéro Cinq has been very welcoming to the various pieces I’ve sent them, and so far has published the following translations of mine: three short stories by Mexican novelist Julián Herbert (“Mamá Leukemia”, “Z”, and “Aspirina”); an excerpt from the novel Donde las mujeres (Where the Women) by the great Spanish novelist Álvaro Pombo; an excerpt from the historical epic fantasy La vieja sirena (The Old Mermaid) by Spanish novelist and economist José Luis Sampedro; a selection of poems by the Catalan poet Rossend Bonás Miró, (translated together with my wife Susana), and a selection of articles and poems from Mexican broadsheet newspapers from the time of the Mexican Revolution, one hundred years ago.  Here’s a link to the translation index at Numéro Cinq and my lucky list of short selections to be found therein:

Finally, my biggest recent translation news has been that of the publication, by Dalkey Archive Press, of the first book of Luis Goytisolo’s Antagony tetralogy. Recounting, was published in March to some strong reviews––and hopefully more forthcoming as people have a chance to read this massive work in earnest. At 246,000 densely packed words, it’s not, for most readers, a beach book or a page turner. It’s a postmodern epic that details the youth and coming of age of one Raúl Ferrer Gaminde, son of a Nationalist, Catholic, Barcelona family in decline. His turbulent romantic and political awakenings are set against the backdrop of a city and nation seething under the cloak of Franco fascist regime. Goytisolo develops Raúl’s story into a fascinating, moving, and surprising saga of Catalonia that, like the “Great Enchantress” Barcelona herself, casts a deep and rewarding spell over the dedicated reader.


Book II, The Greens of May Down to the Sea is due to be published in the winter/spring of 2018.



At the moment, I’m steadily clicking the keys, working away on the third book, La cólera de Aquiles, (The Wrath of Achilles).


Each successive section of what Goytisolo originally wrote as a single, massive novel compounds, complicates, and clarifies the many themes, premises, and motifs set out in the first book, further fracturing, enhancing, and beautifying this epic mirror image of Spanish society from the end of the Spanish Civil War up to and into the early-to-mid 1970s.


I’m on the home stretch with Book III and look forward into diving into Book IV, Teoría del conocimiento (Theory of Knowledge), later this summer. Onward and upward!

The Great Latin American Novel – Translating One of Carlos Fuentes’ Final Works

PROJECTS LIKE THIS ONE don’t come a translator’s way often or easily and so it’s especially moving to declare as finally finished and published, (by Dalkey Archive Press), my translation of one of the final finished projects by the great Mexican novelist, scholar, and essayist Carlos Fuentes.

41LJislMn3L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ copy.jpg

The Great Latin American Novel is a tangle-coated horse of many colors; a very personal compendium of perspectives on dozens of different writers (some authors very famous and well known to readers of English), the heavy hitters: Julio Cortázar; Gabriel García Márquez; Jorge Luis Borges; Mario Vargas Llosa); others writers famous within but lesser known outside of Latin America (at least to readers of English): including figures from literary history like Bernal Díaz del Castillo; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; or Domingo Sarmiento, and highly respected novelists and poets like Juan Rulfo; Alejo Carpentier; Joao Guimaraes Rosa; Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis;  Rubén Darío; Rómulo Gallegos; Juan Carlos Onetti; and a crop of younger, more contemporary novelists, including: Álvaro Enrigue; Daniel Sada; and Juan Villoro. Fuentes offers what is alternately a sweeping historical overview and a fireside chat, attempting to establish in the minds of readers in the Spanish-speaking world and beyond not only what might pass for a canon of great Latin American writers and literary works but also to trace, sketch, and pinpoint their idiosyncrasies, their concerns, their attitudes, textures, colors, and passions.

This impressive, engaging, and enjoyable survey draws from Fuentes’ own backlog of criticism and reviews, as well as the broader perspectives of literary history and criticism. It serves its intended international audience well, providing newcomers and students of Spanish American literature with a rich, well-appointed introduction to the field, and offers seasoned readers a wide array of analyses and perspectives of a large and diverse cast of writers. Some have faulted this volume for the glaring omission of Roberto Bolaño, among others; and I would have enjoyed to read what Fuentes had to say about Argentina’s eccentric Juan Filloy –it’s not clear whether he was familiar with Filloy’s work or not– no one reads everything. Also, after a brilliant series of early novels Filloy went decades, almost 30 years, from the late 30’s to the late 60’s, without publishing anything before returning to the public eye. Bolaño was a rising star during Fuentes’ last decade; he won the Romulo Gallegos Prize in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, the same prize won by Fuentes in 1977 for Terra  Nostra, and by several of the writers whom Fuentes lauds in this study, including García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Elena Poniatowska, so it’s curious that Fuentes overlooks him –deliberately? accidentally?– while including some writers not quite so game-changing as Bolaño.  A puzzle that will require further investigation.

For my own part, this was an exciting challenge, to put my translation skills to the test against a lengthy and complex volume by a renowned writer. Overall it was a very positive, productive, and insightful experience; I found Fuentes’ Spanish generally to be highly  accessible, probably thanks to its academic and scholarly tone and register intended for a wide readership, and I learned a great deal about many different writers whom I’ll be reading and enjoying for years to come. That is one especially enjoyable aspect of The Great Latin American Novel; in his examinations of many of these works, especially the ones he considers major canonical contenders, Fuentes explores them in sufficient depth, and quotes from them generously enough, so that the reader comes away feeling properly introduced to them, having sampled them enough to want to read more. I’ve already thoroughly enjoyed Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps, and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, and look forward to reading Guimaraes Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Fuentes also praises Alvaro Enrigue’s novel Vidas Perpendiculares. It was a thrill for me to see Enrigue included in this survey because I had just finished, a few months earlier, my translation of Enrigue’s arch, lurid, ludic, and very funny short story collection (or is it a meta-novel?) Hypothermia.  I also heartily recommend Enrigue’s subtly brilliant Decencia. See an earlier entry in this blog for my review of that novel:

I first began to get to know Carlos Fuentes’ work more than twenty years ago when I was teaching high school Spanish full time. I found his film series “The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and Latin America” to be enormously interesting, and very helpful for showing my mostly Anglo students the worlds where the language they were studying (usually not by choice) originated. Fuentes became a kind of mentor for me, as an Irish American, and having him as a regular touchstone “there” in the classroom helped me to become more comfortable and confident talking about Spanish and Latin American history and culture. Watching the films many times led me to read the excellent and beautifully illustrated book of the same name upon which they are based. My old VHS tapes, the soundtrack now warbling from dozens of viewings, are due for a DVD upgrade. After translating The Great Latin American Novel, in addition to reading Carpentier and Rulfo, I also returned to Fuentes himself and read his brilliant early novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, as well as one of his later efforts, the unsettling Destiny and Desire. I’m currently waiting for the right block of time to be able to read, with minimal distraction, his magnum opus Terra Nostra.

A few advance reviews appeared early in 2016, including this favorable opinion from Kirkus Reviews: which calls the book “a valedictory work full of erudition and heart” and offers this praise:  “In moments that have enormous contemporary resonance, [Fuentes] argues powerfully for the great advantages of immigration.

In this Thanksgiving season I am enormously grateful for the chance to help make this, one of Carlos Fuentes’ last completed books, available to millions of English language readers around the world. ¡Viva la gran novela latino americana!

UPDATE (12/13/16): This review of GLAN from Manhattan-based writer Darren Huang, at Full Stop:

UPDATE (12/25/16): It’s very nice to be able to share this thoughtful review of The Great Latin American Novel and Fuentes’ final novel Nietzsche on His Balcony (trans. E. Shaskan Bumas, and Alejandro Branger) which I hope to read soon. Published 12/22/2016 in The Wall Street Journal, reviewer Sam Sacks offers some interesting context on Fuentes relationship to the American critical establishment:

Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ triumphant Peace of the Defeated



Returning to this blog for the first time in months, I’m pleased to start the spring by announcing a return to posting reviews with Three Percent, the excellent review site produced by Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester in New York State. The review is a relatively brief treatment of La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) a very lively, lovely, and funny diary-form novel by the award-winning Peruvian novelist Jorge Eduardo Benavides. The novel won the XII PREMIO DE NOVELA JULIO RAMÓN RIBEYRO in 2014Please follow the link to read the review at Three Percent. And thanks to Kaija Straumanis and Chad Post for putting up the review and putting up with me. (More on that soon). La paz de los vencidos – Review by Brendan Riley at Three Percent


Spiritual Quorum – The Bible: Living Dialogue

Blank white book w/path

It’s the rare translation project that does not experience at least some odd quirks and kinks, snarls, snares, tangles, sighs of frustration, insoluble terms or authorial quixoddities, or at the least bleary eyes throbbing at the midnight lamp to fulfill a daily quotient or meet a deadline. Rare. But then how often does one get the chance to work on such a splendid, spirited book as The Bible: Living Dialogue, a book so infused with the good intentions of its three interlocutors that the desire to do right by it is not only palpable but infectious, and, in the process makes the work a pleasant breeze. However rare, that was, more or less, my experience in translating this book created from transcriptions of thirty-one roundtable discussions filmed for Argentine TV in 2011 and 2012 featuring noted participants and Argentine spiritual leaders Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis), Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and evangelical minister Dr. Marcelo Figueroa. The book was compiled and edited by Dr. Figueroa who first had the audio tracks of the programs transcribed before he edited them for readability. Each chapter presents the spontaneous conversation between the three men more or less in-toto, although some sections, as Dr. Figueroa writes, were rearranged for the sake of continuity. Nothing of what the participants actually said was altered. The program grew out of the friendship between the three men, who proposed the idea to one another and then found the time and means to have it taped and broadcast to  Argentine TV viewers. Each week’s program focused on a different theme or area of concern to modern day people, and the conversations as presented have the ability to speak to serious faithful religious adherents, lapsed worshippers, and perhaps even those who have little to no belief. Topics of conversation include family, money, prayer, death, sexuality, and the grim reality of human trafficking. Although themes were chosen ahead of time, the conversations were not written or scripted and present the thoughts and beliefs of the cardinal, rabbi, and minister in the moment. Dr. Figueroa wrote the preface to the book as well as a brief introduction to each conversation, narrating how the themes were chosen, under what circumstances, or what inspired them. He also writes, touchingly of his friendship with, and deep respect for Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka, and how strange it was, after such an inspired run of thirty-one programs, to suddenly have the whole enterprise upended when Cardinal Bergoglio traveled to Rome in 2013 for the papal enclave and was, to the great surprise of many, Skorka and Figueroa among them, elected pope and became Pope Francis. Of course his instant fame as the first Latin American and Jesuit pope, as well as the colossal auspiciousness of the papacy in general, adds an undeniable glamor to the project, for translator and reader alike, but the fact is that even if Cardinal Bergoglio had not become Pope Francis, this would have been a very inspiring book to translate, no less an honor, because of the profound wisdom and sincere sharing that these men brought to their many deep conversations. I am humbly grateful for the opportunity to be the translator, the conduit, the messenger for these worthy talks on the ways people of different faiths can find fulfillment through The Bible.

Fracas on the Pampas – Juan Filloy’s Caterva


I’m proud to help introduce my newest book-length translation from Spanish into English, the novel Caterva by the great Argentine author Juan Filloy. The translation was published by Dalkey Archive Press on October 16, 2015, and is now available through Amazon and other online retailers, and in many bookstores.  Meanwhile, my translation of Filloy’s famous novel has received a number of good reviews. The first was a very positive review from Kirkus Reviews which saw fit to award the translation one of its coveted Kirkus Stars, which mark only a little more than 10% of the thousands of books Kirkus reviews each year.

Another smiling review comes from Book Trust in the UK, which says “this translation of Caterva is a welcome introduction into the English speaking world for this wonderfully witty and inventive writer.”

I’ll happily accept the praise but must emphasize that Caterva is the second translation into English of one of Juan Filloy’s novels, the first being Op Oloop, translated by Lisa Dillman, and published by Dalkey in 2009:


In September, Library Journal placed Caterva at the top of its list for “World Fiction for Fall (2015)” and also gave it a star designation:

VERDICT Caterva was cited in Julio Cortázar’s classic Hopscotch, but the prolific Filloy (who died in 2000 at 106) has been in the shadows; this splendidly enjoyable work highlights him for English speakers.”

Most recently, TLS (The London Times Literary Supplement) in “Waiting for Gaucho” has this to say:

“Brendan Riley’s masterly translation enters into this bleakly comic spirit but everything is clear, precise and easy to read. This is a heroic achievement, as the title alone can be rendered in many different ways (Riley, who perhaps wisely left it as it is, coolly describes the multilingual and poly-rhetorical text, which contains everything from cipher to gravestone inscriptions, as “a challenge”).Caterva captures the chill of man’s road to nowhere in a manner reminiscent of Waiting for Godot – except here the seven clownish tramps are constantly in motion.”

Both LJ and TLS discover commonalities between Caterva and the novels and plays of Samuel Beckett, as evident from the aforementioned headline, although it should be noted that Waiting for Godot was written a full decade after Caterva.

On February 13, 2016 The Complete Review joined the conversation, alluding to Mr. Pickering’s positive review and adding its own assessment, grading the reading experience as a B+ and concluding:

” Caterva is an agreeably meandering novel. Social and political issues underlie much of the story and plot, but Filloy knows to keep the focus on the human — on his seven protagonists and those they encounter — and it makes for a surprisingly modern-feeling read: this is fiction that feels, in many respects, very contemporary.”


I started work on this translation in Spring 2012 and finished it in November of that year. In the interim the translation had several possible covers. The first we see here is from when the translation was being promoted as Faction, a title selected by the editors and first people to work on the project:


Next are two variations on the same design which Dalkey considered, both emphasizing the word Caterva in its three syllables, its “amphibrachic swoop” as I like to call it:

caterva-2  caterva2-195x300

For a time the translation was being advertised with this busy cover:


The cover Dalkey finally settled on, a fitting and complementary choice which is very suggestive of the book’s cool, labyrinthine chaos, is also part of its new series of striking black and white covers for new and forthcoming publications:


Also, here are three different covers from various Argentine editions of Caterva over the years:

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Finally, below is the beautiful, original cover for the first edition of Caterva, published in Buenos Aires by Ferrari Hermanos seventy-eight years ago, in 1937.

imgresAnd here is a link to Dalkey Archive Press’ catalogue page for Caterva:

Finally, for those who wish to know a bit more about the great Juan Filloy, here is a link to an obituary published by The Telegraph when Filloy died in 2000:

Stay tuned for more updates on the second life of this exciting novel!

Sunrise in Southeast Asia







On July 26, devotees of top-notch travel writing will be able to read my new translation of Sunrise in Southeast Asia, Spanish writer Carmen Grau’s bestselling account of her adventurous journey through Indo-China and beyond. Departing Barcelona, Spain on January 2, 2000, Carmen spent the first seven months of the new millennium on a challenging personal, spiritual, and intellectual journey of cultural exploration.


Using Bangkok as her jumping off place, Carmen visited all the countries of the Indochinese peninsula––Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma––and then moved on to Malaysia, as well as Sumatra and Java in Indonesia. She also made brief visits to Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore.


While visiting many cities and famous destinations Carmen also made the point of traveling slowly, often trying to leave the beaten path, and have close, personal encounters with the people, languages, and cultures of these lands that remain, as she describes in vivid detail, mysterious, exotic, baffling, and enchanting. 


Her rich, extensive, and engaging travelogue describes her time in more than 60 different locations, cycling the streets of Vientiane, walking through the quiet Burmese countryside, learning to scuba dive in Malaysia and make traditional wood carvings in Sumatra, and often venturing to unfrequented, out of the way places. Carmen’s frank, open-minded, good humored narrative of her ups and downs along the road will surely inspire readers to challenge themselves to find the courage to depart from familiar, comfortable places and assumptions to discover the heart of humanity in the world at large.

I’m delighted to feature here an excerpt from Sunrise in Southeast Asia in which Carmen recounts her own journey along the fabled road to Mandalay to partake in the great water festival of the Burmese new year.



by Carmen Grau

We left Inle Lake one morning around eight o’clock carrying a traditional Shan bag with the hotel’s name embroidered on it, which the friendly fellows from the Queen Hotel had given us as a gift—luckily for Mark, the white letters were not too flashy and his masculinity was unthreatened—a stupendous gift which was going to prove very useful.

We traveled by covered pickup truck to Meiktila. Mark rode sitting on the roof. I also wanted to ride on the outside, hanging on and standing up, or sitting on the roof, with the men, but as much as I insisted, they didn’t let me. I had finally found a case in which the Burmese were not going to yield to my wishes blindly: being a woman I had to sit inside and below. Buddhist laws dictate that a woman can never be positioned higher than a man—especially if he’s a monk—so that he doesn’t feel insulted. In contrast to my nature, I had to swallow all my fury and bite my tongue. After all, I was not visiting any country to impose my laws upon them, however stupid theirs seemed to me.

It was our plan that day to make it to Mandalay, the cultural and artistic center of Burma, and the best place to celebrate Thingyan, the Water Festival. During the festival days Thagyamin, king of the nats, descends to earth to take account of humans’ good and bad actions. He returns to heaven on the third day, marking the start of the Burmese new year. Water is the main feature of the festival, symbolizing the cleansing of sins and bad luck from the year that is ending, and the welcoming of the new. In practice, water-throwing has turned into an excuse for simply having fun, as we would soon find out.

According to everyone we asked, all forms of transportation throughout the country would stop running during the festival. In fact, we were traveling by pickup truck because the buses from Inle to Mandalay had already been out of service for two days and would be for a whole week. The schools, shops, many restaurants, agencies, post offices and all public administration were set to close. The whole country was going to be paralyzed, and for that reason the sooner we got to Mandalay the better.

Nevertheless, we didn’t make it. We didn’t suspect that for us the celebration would begin one day early, on the way to Meiktila, one of the toughest legs of the journey. Not only were we packed into the pickup truck like sardines with thirty other people—although Mark was up on the roof in the open air—but we ended up completely soaking wet. People came out onto the highway to douse us with buckets of cold water as we drove by. And that was the main fun of the festival: a great big water fight. Nobody—except the monks, who were considered untouchable—was free from getting soaked, and we, as foreigners, made a doubly amusing target.

With the first bucket of water we laughed, but after three hours the trip became unbearable. The plastic bags hung up as curtains at the windows did no good at all. Then I recalled the people I had seen that morning, wearing raincoats in sunny weather. I had privately laughed at them, figuring them to be overreacting. Of course then I hadn’t known how seriously the Burmese take their holidays, but this was only the beginning. The worst was waiting for us in Meiktila. Shivering with cold from so much water, we decided to spend the night there.

We set out in search of the Precious Inn, taking quite a walk around the town because we didn’t have a map or anyone to guide us correctly from our starting point. And so we had to cross through the central market, where an army of children was set to give us another good soaking with garden hoses and buckets of water. The day had taken us completely by surprise; we hadn’t expected the festival to be so lively or there to be so much water. Unarmed and toting our backpacks, which prevented us from running, our good mood was diminishing dangerously fast.

At noon the next day we reached Mandalay. In the pickup truck that dropped us off in the city center I witnessed a scene that enraged me.

Mark was again riding on the roof, which only served as a bitter reminder to me that I couldn’t travel that way. Inside the lain-ka there were about ten people, five on each side facing one another. Sitting next to me was a woman about my age, and to her left a young man of about twenty, who was the only male inside the vehicle, apart from a little boy sitting on the woman’s lap. The man was verbally abusing the woman. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but his menacing tone was unmistakable. At first he tried to keep his voice down, but as he kept scolding her, he kept raising his voice, glaring scornfully and shaking his finger at her. The other women just sat there staring into space, hiding their emotions, if they felt anything at all. None of them batted an eyelid when the woman began to shed big tears, her eyes also staring straight ahead, looking at nothing. The young fellow’s voice could now be heard loud and clear; nobody else spoke. The woman didn’t even bother to wipe away her increasingly abundant tears, not even when he began to jab the back of her neck. The little boy on her lap didn’t seem to notice anything.

My disbelieving eyes went back and forth from the couple to the impassive faces of the other women. I felt my blood boiling in my cheeks. I couldn’t contain my anger any longer: I was going to intervene.

Just then the truck made one of its stops and the three of them abruptly got off. As we drove away, I watched them through the glassless window behind me. After two more stops, when it was our turn to get off, I said to Mark, “I’m not traveling in a line-ka ever again in this country.”

That meant that we would have to stay in Mandalay for at least five days, until the buses started running again. Mark understood that I was serious and not about to change my mind. If he wasn’t willing to travel my way, we would have to go our separate ways.

Later I found out that from a list of 174 countries, Burma was ranked 131st on the United Nations’s 1998 Gender-related Development Index (GDI), which considered such key elements as education, health, employment levels, and household income. Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were not far off from Burma, while Thailand was ranked much higher at 40th and Malaysia 45th. However, the average rate of disposable income for a Burmese woman was at forty-two percent, higher than in countries like Canada (ranked number one overall), the United States, France, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, and many others, including some Scandinavian countries, not to mention Spain. Also, the average rate of disposable income for women in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was higher than all these countries. (Tanzania held the world record, with a disposable income rate for women at forty-seven percent, far above the rate for men, at thirty-three percent.) The illiteracy rate for adult females was not much different from that for males (eleven percent), in a country where any type of education and profession are within equal reach for both sexes. In fact, before the government ordered the universities closed in 1996, more than half the students were women. In many other social and economic aspects, Burmese women are considered equal to men, both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, Burmese women are expected to be demure, discreet, quiet, and unopinionated. According to the Burmese writer Saw Myat Yin, “Burmese women are characteristically shrewd and practical, but do not make pretensions towards intellectual matters. […] Women tend towards the telling of anecdotes and practical matters, such as recipes and discussions about problems with children and property matters. […] Their role is supportive and complementary rather than in competition. […] If they accept a role a step behind their menfolk, they do so freely and willingly. […] Women also tend to obtain high marks at college by dint of sheer hard work.”


The scene when we arrived in Mandalay was spectacular. Along 26th Street, which runs for more than a mile along the southern side of the immense Fort of Mandalay, people seemed to have gone mad. Amid a frenzy of traffic packed with bicycles, motorcycles, and people on foot, the jeeps and trucks filled with drunken, soaking-wet teenagers stood out. The air was filled with the incessant din of joyous shouts and honking horns. Raised wooden viewing platforms had been set up around the entire fort. Upon them dozens of girls dressed in identical sexy outfits were in charge of watering down the crowd with powerful fire hoses. Meanwhile, the pounding house music that had the young Burmese possessed, though already passé in the West, poured out from various loudspeakers set up throughout the whole city: Boom, boom, boom, boom, I want you in my room, spend the night together, together in my room!

All the youngsters in the country must have been gathered there. We ran into a few we had met on the trip from Meiktila, who greeted us effusively when they recognized us. During those days, cultural impositions were cast aside, and the manner in which everyone behaved and enjoyed themselves made me think that young people are basically the same everywhere in the world, and there is no government capable of changing that. They drank from ten in the morning until seven at night, they danced out in the street under the streams from the fire hoses, and for a few days they dressed as they pleased: with tight pants, t-shirts, and platform shoes, following the latest fashion as the rest of young people around the world were doing. Everyone was fully clothed, no doubt about that; it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to step out into the street in a bathing suit, but that was perhaps the only thing about their behavior that could be considered inhibited. The men—young ones and not so young—didn’t show the slightest bit of reserve with the women, and in my case it made no difference to them that Mark was walking by my side. They shouted at me from jeeps or trucks. Sometimes they were words of endearment, like “I love you!” but more frequently the greeting was “Hey, fuck you!” followed by shrieks of laughter. One day when we found ourselves caught in a crowd, one of them even went so far as to give me a slap on the bottom. But apart from a few startling moments like these, the general atmosphere was sensational. Everyone seemed happy, and the water gave people the perfect excuse to interact.


When we went out to eat lunch that first day in Mandalay, children in the streets saw us as the perfect targets, but now we weren’t carrying our backpacks, and we could flee or defend ourselves as necessary. Mark had an advantage because the girls usually went after him and the boys came after me. Their preferred weapons were enormous squirt guns that fired a long stream of water from a safe distance. The girls, however, especially the smallest ones, came running up with little containers spilling over with water. Sometimes they did it so carefully that they fell into their own trap: we let them get close enough to be able to turn their own containers on them. This left them with such an expression of surprise that it made us split our sides laughing.

Water bottles were the most common weapon, but the most lethal ones were buckets of ice water and hoses, from which there was no escape. On all the sidewalks there were big water tanks which people used to supply themselves.

Before finding an open restaurant we were soaked again and when we went back to our room at mid-afternoon we felt like we had frogs in our shoes, just like the day before. Before going back out again we prepared ourselves well. Mark wisely left his camera in the room. I wrapped mine in several plastic bags, like everything we were carrying. But not even that protected it completely, and after two days it died. Luckily, a change of batteries and the dryness in the room brought it back to life, but the soaked film cartridge was ruined and I lost all the photos that I had taken at Inle Lake and during the Water Festival. They would have provided excellent proof of the madness of those days.

Apart from our methods for protection, we bought squirt guns and went out ready to attack without mercy, including against unarmed people. The ideal thing was to aim for their eyes. That distracted the victim, thus permitting a second attack with the water bottle. But an unwritten rule seemed to say that if the aggressor managed to dump his bottle on someone, he then had to gamely accept that the victim unloaded on him.


So, we spent our days in Mandalay on high alert, constantly sopping wet and getting sprayed with water. Not until the festival was over did we notice the stress we had been feeling, faced with the danger of going out in the street. The only moment when we were able to relax was when it got dark, when everyone set their weapons aside and regathered their strength to resume the fight the following day. Then we changed into dry clothes and went out to dinner, alternating between Bamar, Chinese, and Indian cuisine. Afterwards, we usually visited an ice cream parlor called Nylon, which had a terrace and was always full. Their ice creams, milkshakes, and lassis, served in every possible flavor, were unbeatable.

Sunrise in Southeast Asia

By Carmen Grau

Translated by Brendan Riley

Available on Kindle from Amazon July 26, 2015

Foto perfil 2014

Carmen Grau was born and grew up in Barcelona, Spain. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Barcelona and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Providence College, R.I. She writes in English, Spanish, and Catalan. She has traveled extensively and lived in different countries like the USA, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia. In the year 2000 she set out on an unplanned journey around several Southeast Asian countries, and a year later she wrote Amanecer en el Sudeste Asiático (Sunrise in Southeast Asia), the number one ebook in all travel categories on Amazon Spain in 2012 and 2013. In 2004, she wrote the novel Trabajo temporal. In 2013, she published a second travelogue, Hacia tierra austral, which tells her journey on board some of the most legendary trains in the world, from Barcelona, Spain to Perth, Australia. The novel Nunca dejes de bailar is her most recent work, published in February 2015. She writes regularly in her blogs: Me llamo Pendiente, Inde Pendiente, in Spanish, and Raising Children in Freedom, in English. Apart from writing and traveling, Carmen has many other passions like cooking, walking, and reading; most of all, spending time with her two unschooled sons, Dave and Alex. She is a child advocate and a firm believer in the right of children to self-education. When not traveling, Carmen and her two sons live in Dunsborough, a small town in the South West of Australia.