The first chapter of Almudena Solana’s book, The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz is stunning. Within these ten pages we are given a deep look into our heroine and we come away entranced, in love, and eager for her story. Aurora is an anomaly, a woman with a great capacity for living but who chooses to do it quietly and on her own terms. “Living” is not defined in big splashy terms and “living fully” has nothing to do with excess of any kind. Including, I should add, no emotional excess, either. Aurora is never joyously happy nor tragically sad (although she has reason to be, being the young widow of a man she’d hoped to love for a lifetime).
Aurora’s needs are simple and her one desire is to get a job working as a concierge in a building, someplace that would give her a room to live in and time to think, in exchange for watching the front door, cleaning, and whatever else was needed around the building. But wait: is it really such a simple desire, time to think her thoughts with little intrusion? Isn’t that actually a luxury that few of us have? Aurora’s search underscores the lack of time in modern society (exemplified by the Madrid she lives in). The lack of time is due to economic constraints (the necessity of work and the difficulty of all the characters in the book finding the job they want), materialistic ambitions (TV, computer, clothes, even if second-hand), and social contracts (being with others means less time to be thinking by yourself). Aurora was lucky once to have found a man she could think with, her dead husband, and with the young priest of her home village again she finds a companion for long walks and talks and thinking things over.
Aurora’s tiny village in Galicia is a place of refuge for her and she goes there for a visit on the anniversary of her husband’ s death. In San Clemente de Quintas she has time to think, hours at a time. She enjoys long bubble baths in a tub overlooking an old pear orchard and remembers her mother, her husband, and the hopes she’d had a s child of traveling and learning and growing. Her curiosity was and is strong and her energy for knowing, huge. Aurora now turns to books for her travel and for her learning and for her thinking. She says, “I don’t have degrees or certificates at all, but I do have lots of time, so I am a reader; I learn a lot from books, and whenever an opportunity arises, I scatter the ideas I learn.” She is a woman I would love to have as a friend.
In dealing with her sorrow for her departed husband and her desire to keep on living, Aurora refers to a quotation, attributing it uncertainly to Borges. I couldn’t find it attributable to anyone and so I will attribute it to the author here, Almudena Solana. Aurora says she’s “never forgotten those words” and I doubt I ever will: “We are our blood, we are the people we have seen die, we are the books that have bettered us….”
Much as I liked this book and loved the heroine, the book is more a polemic begging us to save our economic and social souls than a novel. We are being fed (willingly!) the legend of Aurora but Aurora is not a real person whom we see grow or change in any way. True, she does come out of her sorrow, so we are told, but we do not witness anything in her thoughts or behavior that we could not have anticipated from the first chapter. She has a gift for living; we know that in chapter one. By the end of the book, we still know that and we know her better, love her even more, but she never surprises us or disturbs us. A novel is more satisfying if we are surprised and disturbed and moved, because from that sharp nudge of emotion, our brains shift and change and grow.
As Aurora herself writes to the young village priest, “Why are people so afraid of thinking? Why don’t they ever leave enough time to reflect? There’s nothing wrong with tranquility; nor emptiness, vertigo, or even unhappiness. I think that these things are the first steps that precede the birth of a new thought. This is why I like to read…” And that is why I like to read. I like to read to get that shift in thinking — birth of a new thought — that comes about from being shown things in a dynamic fashion (through movement in our narrator) and from a different point of view. By witnessing our narrator act and react and change, we experience a sharp refocusing ourselves on the age-old issues of love, death, sex, and friendship. Aurora’s views on these issues are compelling but static. With The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz, we see a beautiful painting, we even see its colors deepen and glow, and we appreciate its beauty and its message. But because Aurora does not grow or change, neither do we. Nevertheless, the writing is fresh and lovely, and the heroine, a hero.
The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz was translated by David Frye.