Lies, by Enrique de Hériz, trans. John Cullen

Braggarts from Barcelona
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Here is another hefty Spanish page-turner, not this time about the country's hidden past, but a Barcelona family's attempt to sift truth from legend in its own history. Julio entranced his three children with epic tales of his father, Simón: how he was shipwrecked and survived in open sea before landing in Buenos Aires, how he met his future wife Amparo and communicated with her secretly under the nose of his cruel father, how he escaped slavery in his father's grocery, joined a travelling theatre and died a young, violent death.

Only Julio's wife Isabel, a distinguished anthropologist who has built a career studying death rituals, seems sceptical about these family fables. In her late sixties, she makes one final field trip, to the jungle of Guatemala, to put her thoughts in order. Isabel's diary, written in a shack in the rainforest, alternates with that of her daughter, Serena, who during her mother's absence applies her training as a meteorologist to investigate her family's history.

The narrative twirls between Barcelona - and the family house in the fishing village of Malespina - and Guatemala, revealing a skein of untruths that unravel as the overlapping accounts coincide. The lies are mostly deliberate, or pieces of information misconstrued, and they aim to bathe the protagonists in a favourable light. But when news reaches Malespina that Isabel has died in a canoe accident, Serena and two brothers repeat the syndrome of creating myths and fictions to fill gaps and explain the inexplicable.

I was gripped from the start by this novel, but enthusiasm flagged as I grasped that absolutely everything would turn out to be untrue, with the reality darker and more ordinary. This is not to deny the proliferation of fabulous episodes, and passages revealing anthropological wisdom, written with effortless fluency. The characters are fascinating, with their vanities, loyalties and gullibility, and Hériz perfectly conveys the female voices of mother and daughter. But in constructing his farrago of lies, he embroils the reader, so that we too feel disappointed. The story unwinds evenly to a resolution that is logical, but emotionally subdued.

This edition takes liberties with the Spanish, filleting sentences, sometimes long paragraphs, from almost every page. There are many extended reflections whose excision won't necessarily be missed. But knowing that even the publisher colluded in manipulating truth left me feeling, in the end, short-changed.