As far as I can tell, only one of her novels (Burdeos – Bordeaux) has been translated into English.
There is a guilty pleasure in knowing her books are only available to select readers (Spanish, French, and German); however, I think it’s a shame to deprive English-speaking readers of her work.
Días del Arenal, the first novel of hers I read (and am currently rereading), introduced me to her style of fragmented narratives which I think convincingly conveys the way most people experience their existence: the predominant feelings are a sense of disconnection, disquiet, disorientation and uncertainty. In a fragmented narrative, the ‘whole’ story is never told, not in order to withhold information but because, as in real life, what we find out about others comes to us in bits and pieces, at different stages and involves multiple tellers.
In his book on the life of Goethe, John Armstrong offers an optimistic view of the fragmentary nature of biography:
...when we know another person, when we are friends with them, there are often large blank spaces in their history, as far as we are concerned. We may only have a sketchy – and probably one-sided – grasp of what occurred over substantial stretches of that person’s life. And yet our encounter with them is not puzzling or missing something. As we grow into a friendship, aspects of how the other person thinks and acts become part of the fabric of our life – part of how we see things, what we regard as possible, desirable, interesting or worthwhile.
In Puértolas’s novel, Historia de un abrigo, where the fragmented narrative is employed to a much greater extent, the narrator offers a similar view:
Some people don’t ask questions. They find out about the lives of others unintentionally, making do with whatever information comes their way. But they get this information through less tangible things, the way people talk and the things they look at, rather than from the details. (my translation)
Hay personas…que no preguntan nada. Se enteran como pueden de las historias de los demás, les bastan esos datos que se van dejando caer sin intención aparente. No se fijan tanto en los datos como en otra cosa. La forma en que se habla, en que se mira. Cosas menos tangibles, más reveladoras...
In another part of this novel, the narrator describes a less satisfying aspect of fragmentary experience:
She’s only known one part of her mother’s life because that is all we can know of the lives of others: parts, pieces, fragments, including the lives of those closest to us, the people we believe we know best. The life of her mother was much more than it appeared to be. She lived in more ways than she showed others and to her family… (my translation)
...Sólo ha conocido una parte de la vida de su madre, porque eso es lo que conocemos de las vidas de los demás, partes, trozos, fragmentos, incluso de las personas a quienes tenemos más cerca, las personas a quienes creemos conocer mejor. La vida de su madre era más amplia de lo que parecía, vivio mas de lo que les mostro a ellos, a su familia...
Even on rereading, the fragmentary narrative style of Días del Arenal has an impact. In the third section of the novel, we learn of the suicide of a character who had dominated an earlier part of the novel. However, her death is mentioned almost as an aside. Since the shift in focus in the third section has been onto a different character, its unexpected, unheralded insertion is strongly felt, akin to hearing terrible news about someone you knew and liked in the past but had lost contact with.
Reviewer Ramón Acín gives a precise description of the types of characters that Puértolas’s stories tend to centre on:
…personajes escurridizos, difuminados, perdidos…insatisfechos, cargados de enigmas y oscuridad…La vida estalla en ellos como algo complejo; esperan algo, deambulan en su busca y resisten, en tenaz lucha, los embates de sus fracasadas indagaciones…
(and here’s my bad attempt at a translation:)
…insignificant, marginal, lost protagonists; dissatisfied and perplexed by life which erupts on them as something complex and dark; waiting for something to happen, they struggle in search of a personal identity, resisting the onslaught of their failed quest that often leads to loneliness and melancholy.
Puértolas excels at creating an atmosphere of mystery and insecurity. She sets up situations that never take shape, initiates events that remain in suspense and sketches characters that then vanish. There are frequent shifts of focus on characters; often minor or secondary characters end up becoming central protagonists in different sections of her novels or in different short stories while the characters whose stories appeared to be central, vanish.
A bit like what happens to us later on in our own lives when, instead of collecting people, they begin to vanish (or are banished) from our lives for one reason or another and whose stories we may not hear about ever again. People once thought of as close and central to our lives suddenly no longer play such an important part and connections stall or simply fade. Not to mention all those plans that were never initiated or that never took shape...
Here’s a lovely fragmented photo of Soledad Puértolas from an interview in elcultural.es:
And read a review (in Spanish) of Días del Arenal by another fan.