Procession of Shadows

By Julián Ríos

Dalkey Archive Press
May 2011
160 pages


Reviewed by Vicente R. Viray


Procession of Shadows, Julián Ríos's novel of nine interrelated stories, takes place in Tamoga, a backbiting, insular town where time "stagnate[s]" like the "forlorn waters" of the surrounding salt marshes and placing bets on the village idiot's performance at the local whorehouse constitutes a weekend of fun. The action is narrated by a chorus of townspeople, and the shadows of the title refer to the liminal figures their gossip and collective imaginings have turned into legend. Some, like the protagonists of "Mortes's Story" and "A River without Banks" are mysterious strangers or near strangers who come to Tamoga as if following a siren song. (As Doctor Rey observes at the end of the opening story, "though it may be hard to live in this town of Tamoga, it's a better place than anywhere to die.") But most are lifelong residents who've cloistered themselves in their decaying houses and have become living ghosts by virtue of their nostalgia, their obsessive rehashing of past loves and grievances. 

"The Shadows" tells the story of Doña Sacramento Andreini. The daughter of a wealthy trader, she becomes an object of gossip and fascination for spending "more than half a century…looking at family photographs." We eventually learn that decades earlier, her husband, a pleasure-seeking gambler and "the only man she ever loved," kills himself after the two of them argue over money. But the story of her tragic marriage, which presumably brings her mania into being, pales in comparison to Ríos's lingering, painterly description of the mania itself, as horrifying and pitiful as anything you'll find in Goya:

With solemn, tranquil gestures she would silently lay the portraits out on the table with the brazier, arranging them as meticulously as though she was playing solitaire, with the skill of a fortune-teller. She would place the figures side by side, bring the faces close to one another, then move them apart. The ceremony of nostalgia. Her tiny, feeble body, no bigger than an eight-year-old child's, remained upright in the chair while her slippered feet hung down inside the rug to capture warmth from the brazier, which was lit both winter and summer. Her diminutive head, topped by a black velvet coif, bent and rose rapidly above the photographs with the jerky movements of a bird pecking at a tabletop. Her wizened, scaly hands dexterously shuffled the portraits. She opened and closed her eyes in ecstasy. She would bring her face up close to each portrait and study it, purring with delight. She pressed her thin mouth, livid as a scar, against the photographs, devotedly kissing the sepia-colored faces. She tried to remember when they had been taken, to conjure up the scene. By the end she was exhausted, panting. Her delirium kept her awake, in a state of beatific joy. 

Doña Sacramento Andreini has several counterparts: there's Doña Milagros of "Mortes's Story," who runs the musty London Hotel partly out of the "secret hope that one day her husband" who abandoned her many years earlier "would make a nostalgic leap back to Tamoga" and rent one of her rooms; there's Elias Rocha, who in "Enamored of Dust" makes himself "a recluse in an old house full of shadows and memories" after discovering his much younger wife and nephew are having an affair. The book is full of rhymes and echoes. Characters, actions, situations, and images recur—in some instances, as in the revenge killings in "Dies Iraes," even across generations—reinforcing our sense of stagnant, recursive time, of history repeating itself over and over again.

Despite the intricate patterning, those who know Ríos primarily through his postmodern funhouse of a novel Larva may still find some of the narrative devices in Procession a little old-fashioned, even heavy-handed. Ríos actually wrote Procession before Larva, between 1966-1968, but never published it because he assumed it wouldn't pass the stringent censorship laws under Franco. Most of the tales contain the sort of plot reversals, revelations, and epigrammatic summaries we've come to mistrust in serious literary fiction, weaned as we are on psychological realism. But to seek out character-driven stories with discernible arcs in Ríos's grotesquerie misses the point: the pleasure of Procession resides in the grim fascination and sense of inevitability that come from following characters who have fully, unapologetically settled into their psychic distortions and seem to be living out fates that were foreordained long ago.