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.
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.
“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”.