Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (OneWorld, 2016).
There are very few books that I love completely, unconditionally, evangelically, and Umami is one of them. It’s one of a handful of “must-reads” in my virtual bookshelf, and you’re not going to read a bad word about it in this review. Umami is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The construction of the narrative is innovative: there are five different perspectives from which the story/ies are narrated, and each section works back through the years from 2005 to 2001, with each year being recounted from a different perspective. The stories are beautifully told: Laia Jufresa’s writing is immensely skilful, and Sophie Hughes’s translation feels close to symbiotic.
For some reason, the reviews on the book jacket made me expect something different from this novel. I was expecting it to be dramatic, psychedelic, bursting out of the pages. In the end, though, I liked Umami better the way it was: quiet, gentle, with beautifully developed characters who fulfil narrative functions while resisting stereotype. The protagonists all felt very real: you don’t have to look too far in “real life” to find the private sorrow of involuntary childlessness, a loss that happened while everyone was looking the other way, a “new start” that cannot shake off the old life, and a merciless cancer that entirely disregards carefully laid plans for a long and happy life.
I found I took very few notes as I was reading Umami, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. I simply couldn’t unglue myself from the story as it unfolded, and I wanted it to go on forever: when I was 50 pages from the end I started reading very slowly and re-reading almost every page, because I didn’t want it to end. There are some books that you can appreciate for their deconstruction of reality or their subversion of genre, for all you can read into them and analyse, and there are some books that are just a joy to read because they have heart. From the stark, poignant “Luz turns three years dead today” to the hilarious admission from an ageing academic that “for the first time in forty years, I’m daring to write without footnotes”, Umami has heart.
The translation is so beautiful that I want to read Umami in its original Spanish. If that sounds like a self-contradiction, hear me out: there are clearly some passages in this book that resist translation, such as “‘Bah, let’s drop the formalities’, says the woman, drying her hair with her scarf” which I assume was a simple switch from the formal word for “you” to the informal one in Spanish, and a subversion via wordplay of the Lord’s Prayer, which necessarily has to be different in English to make any sense to its reader. Indeed, Jufresa has said that she worked with Hughes to create new sections, because Hughes felt that her first drafts simply didn’t work in English; Jufresa says of this collaboration that “I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way”. This collaboration between Jufresa, Hughes, Spanish and English works very well: for example, Luz explains that “Emma gave us baskets and plastic bags and told us which mushrooms we were looking out for: black trumpets. In Spanish they’re called las trompetas de la muerte, death trumpets, even though black and dead isn’t the same thing. You just can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong.” I would imagine that “death trumpets” doesn’t appear in the original novel, and therefore that the sentence “You can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong” might be an addition. But it fits in so well with Luz’s narrative voice that it is not identifiable as an addition, and simply works to enhance the novel in translation: Hughes has clearly locked horns with every fragment of this text, and produced a book that will make you forget you’re reading a translation. Even the sections which reflect on the English language or on translation do not seem forced; in fact, the entire translation subtly subverts a claim within it that “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.”
Jufresa writes all five main characters sensitively: each has their own distinctive voice, and each is consistent throughout (compare, for example, two views of the same event: “Back when there were still four of us, we didn’t all fit in one row”; “There used to be four siblings in the Perez-Walker clan, but the youngest died a couple of years ago”). This is equally true of the translation: perhaps the most clearly distinct voice is Luz, the dead girl, who speaks with a child’s voice and makes sense of the world in her child’s way. Then there is Alfonso, a grieving widower writing his wife’s story on his new computer, and who is able to articulate his emotions on a keyboard in a way that he cannot do verbally; Ana, Luz’s older sister, with her brittle teenage pseudo-wisdom, Marina, the fragile new arrival at the mews, always voiced in the third person, and Pina, Ana’s best friend, also voiced in the third person, and striving to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. All of the characters in Umami are quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to put their lives back together. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. As Alfonso says of Linda, “if we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with the dead.”
Throughout the narrative there are two strands of mystery: who are “The Girls”? And how did Luz drown? The identity of The Girls sums up so many things about Umami: it is uncomfortable because it strips bare the deepest sorrow of one of the protagonists and presents it to every character she meets and every reader who meets her. And as for the revelations about Luz’s death, these are left until the very end, and unless your heart is either made of stone or incredibly well fortified, prepare for it to break a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been carrying Umami inside me since I read it. Paradoxically, though, I have found this review difficult to write, as my words just don’t seem to do it justice. So let me use Alfonso’s words, writing about his deceased wife: “A couple of days ago I gave the document a title page. In big letters, in the middle of the page, I wrote, Noelia. Then I added her surnames, and then I deleted them again. Her name isn’t big enough for her. I wrote, Umami. […] Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being able to quite put your finger on it.” Trying to explain why this book affected me so deeply is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.