Mavis Gallant’s “Señor Pinedo”

Set in a Madrid pension, after the Spanish Civil War, “Señor Pinedo” has an ensemble cast. But, like many of the other tales in this colleciton, the story is told in the first person, from the perspective of a young woman who shares a wall with the Pinedo family.

Madrid Postcard Spain Gallant

Imagining the pension (Madrid)

They live together in a pension owned by Señorita Elvira Gómez and her brother, who lived in two rooms off the entrance hall. The staff also includes a maid, who earned the “sturdy sum of 200 pesetas” (about $5/month, compared to the $22.50/week that one of Marie-Blanche’s suitors earned).

The Pinedo family includes Señor (a thin, worried-looking man “who bore an almost comic resemblance to Salvador Dali”), Señora (who is twenty-three years old and married for nearly five years) and baby José María.

The room they live in is partitioned. There is a pink marble fireplace on the Pinedos side, green velvet drapery limp with age, a door on each side of partition which leads to a shared balcony, and on the ceiling is a semicircle of plaster roses bisected evenly. It is scupulously divided.

The other tenants in the building include a bank clerk, a student from Saragoza, a civil engineer, a bullfighters’ impresario, a former university instructor of Spanish literature (who is now working as the dispenser in a drugstore on the Calle del Carmen) and an Englishwoman (complete with mineral water, disgestive pills, Keen’s mustard and English chop sauce at her disposal).

The families live is such close proximity that on either side of the partition, all wake to the same alarm and go to sleep listening to the Señora’s prayers. But the community is even broader, still intimate though not quite at arm’s length.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera Gallant

José Antonio Primo de RiveraClick for source details

“The courtyard formed by adjoining apartment blocks, was so narrow that women on balconies across the way could hear, and were listening with interest.”

Here is the heart of the story. Not Señor Pinedo, but the courtyard.

“The courtyard, crisscrossed with lines of washing that dropped onto the cobbles below, seemed to be where the most active life of the apartment houses took place. Children played under the constant rain from the laundry, and the balconies were crowded with women sewing, preparing vegetables, and even cooking on portable charcoal stoves. The air was cloudy with frying olive oil.”

On an average day, the courtyard is busy. But the events of this story inject elements of the extraordinary into an ordinary evening. (Readers observe the scene in some detail.)

“The courtyard suddenly resembled the arena of a bull ring. There was the same harsh division of light and shadow, as if a line had been drawn, high on the opposite wall.”

The intensity of the event contrasts with the contents of a normal evening, in which Señor Pinedo would bring home documents from the Ministry of Housing for the narrator to read. He is seeking an audience, longing for a sense of importance.

The story is infused with quiet longing. The Señora pins up pictures of film stars while Señor pins up a photo of José Antonio Primo de Rivera (the founder of the Falange, who was shot by Republicans during the Civil War).

Downstairs in the heart of the pension are “cases of tropical birds” and “fat brocaded footstools”; upstairs, pages torn from magazines and newspapers. The entertainment was either the courtyard or the government reading.

Needless to say, even a tragedy offers a certain respite. Indeed, Señor Pinedo is giddy with the possibility of having a new kind of importance in the community.

A few of the people around the courtyard had drifted indoors, but nost of them seemed reluctant to leave the arena, where – one never knew – something else of interest might take place. They looked down through the tangle of clotheslines to the damp stones of the court, talking in loud, matter-of-fact voices about the accident.”

The narrator’s response is more difficult to discern In fact, she does not seem to be able to readily identify the appropriate response to Señor Pinedo’s excitement.

“[A]s I could not see his listeners’ faces, I could not have said whether the silence was owing to respect, delight, apathy, or a sudden fury of some other emotion so great that only silence could contain it.”

Because the tone of the story is as measured as the partitioned parts of the shared room, the mention in this last sentence of the story suggests this intense emotion – fury – might be closest to the narrator’s response.

Told from nearly-Señor-Pinedo’s perspective, the disorder is seemingly cherished. But from another father’s perspective, this would be a different story indeed.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second-to-last story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story, the last in this collection: “A Day Like Any Other”.

2017-03-26T13:02:21+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Mel u- The Reading Life May 24, 2017 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    I just read this story. I can see the influence of Katherine Mansfield’s early stories collected , In a German Pension.

    http://rereadinglives.blogspot.com/2017/05/senor-pineda-by-mavis-gallant.html

    I included a very good video of Gallant talking about her methods I think most would enjoy. Glad to have another story upon which I could read along

    • Buried In Print May 29, 2017 at 1:49 pm - Reply

      Thanks for mentioning the Mansfield collection: it’s a terrific companion for this piece (and her stories included a wider variety of scenes but, from what I remember, had some longing but not quite the same sense of hopelessness that one glimpses here). Thanks, also, for including the link to the video, which I encourage others to watch as it’s just under 2 minutes long but does remind us that Mavis Gallant was still talking about writing stories just a few years ago.

  2. Laila May 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm - Reply

    I am so intrigued by what you’ve shared about this story. I hadn’t heard of Mavis Gallant before, to my embarrassment. But I see that my library has quiet a lot by her in the collection, so I’m going to check her out!

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 4:26 pm - Reply

      Unless you’re a short story reader or particularly seek out writers whose work has often appeared in the pages of “The New Yorker”, you could miss her work. I’ll be curious to hear what you can find in an American library!

  3. Naomi May 23, 2017 at 9:32 am - Reply

    This one’s in my (MY!) Selected Stories, so I read it in anticipation of your post!
    My overall impression of the story was that sense of longing you described. Everyone seems to be craving more of a life than what they have. It’s most obvious in Senor Pinedo, but it shows in the other characters as well. Even the landlady keeps stressing to the narrator the importance of all her pensioners. I mostly just felt sorry for everyone. And I wondered why the narrator was there – we don’t learn very much about her (her?).
    It probably won’t be my favourite story, but it felt real, like Gallant herself was there and relaying her experiences to us. So I googled it, and read this: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/09/the-hunger-diaries… and now I want to read more!

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 10:20 am - Reply

      Ooooo, thank you SO much for posting and sharing the link: it adds so many dimensions to this story (and to the others in this collection). This wasn’t my favourite either, but this commentary adds a great deal to it! It feels like a story-out-of-time, because as you say we don’t really know why the narrator is there and so we feel disconnected from their experience and their history and can’t imagine whether or not there might be an escape for them (or whether they want one). I felt it was a woman, but perhaps only because of the preonderance of other single women in the anthology, rather than anything particular in this story. In rereading my notes to see what I based this on, it was the idea of Senor bringing home the pamphlets for the narrator to read, assuming that a woman would not be out and about to bring home her own government-issued reading materials. But the same thing could indicate a male narrator, who might be better equipped for serious discussion of them afterwards. So now I’m doubting myself. Perhaps that, too, is part of the point. That either a man or a woman would have been just as lonely, almost unseen.

      • Naomi May 23, 2017 at 11:00 am - Reply

        I also assumed it was a woman, probably because the author is a woman. But then as I was writing my comment, I realized I didn’t really know for sure. And my feeling was that she was transient – but we don’t know that either.

        I figured I was linking to something that was already well known to everyone else… so I’m glad I linked to it. It really does add to the story, doesn’t it? And for me, explains where it came from.

        • Mel u- The Reading Life May 24, 2017 at 9:25 pm - Reply

          I also assumed the narrator was a woman, now I am wondering. i was partially lead to this by the bond that quickly formed between Senora Pineda and the narrator.

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