Of Saints and Miracles
Reviewed by Marcie McCauley
Near halfway in Manuel Astur’s Of Saints and Miracles, Marcelino awakens “at that indeterminate hour when the day turns a new page before a new one has been written” and readers accompany him as he retraces his steps to locate his forgotten axe in northern Spain.
Lino’s awakening could have served as the story’s beginning, but Astur’s narrative spirals: characters and readers retrace their steps together, as though moving through a meditative maze of beginnings.
Both Astur’s judicious use of repetition and his contemplative style invite readers to journey alongside characters. And a consistent return to key concepts—time, for instance—provides a bass rhythm to the narrative of individual characters’ melodies. Even descriptions of the natural environment represent characters’ experience of time as they move through their world:
Sometimes scenic details also encapsulate a sense of time passing, as when ice transforms:
Ordinary details sometimes introduce other complex subjects too; for instance, when Astur observes that “people from the North are not very religious” but, instead, “live inside religion itself.” Inside there, a single morning’s act of awakening could be a miraculous event, and an ordinary individual could be a saint.
Repetition can shroud realisations and memories in deeper meaning too. Certain stories come to embody deeper meaning, stories that are shared aloud and those that exist as memories or personal touchstones. “We drag the truth around with us, oblivious, just as a comet is unaware of its tail.”
Stylistically and thematically, particularly in instances when readers are drawn to consider cosmic activity, Of Saints and Miracles seems to position itself as more of a fable than a novel:
There are lyrical and evocative passages: “In the distance, the rocky white mountain ridge towered, majestic and indifferent. At its feet, all the little valleys lay curled up together like puppies.” Astur orchestrates in a staid and mesmeric key.
But this ridge is populated by ordinary people: “There were dismantled iron beds, mattresses, bedside tables, wardrobes, enameled chamber pots, all piled up to one side in the large bedrooms, as if someone had tried to make space or had been preparing for a move that never happened.”
And these people have questions and make observations that readers recognise and, perhaps, share: “Houses, like human hearts, age more in one year when they are empty than they do in twenty with a family inside.”
Specific plot elements (rooted in an interaction that escalates into violence) and existential musings circle around love and loss, community and isolation, and belonging and rootlessness. Balance is maintained, between differing interpretations and intense emotions, with delicacy. Readers’ willingness to engage, in contemplating both the story and the nature of humanity, will fundamentally shape their sense of Astur’s work being simple or profound.
Emphasising the lyrical quality to the writing, the book is divided into three parts called songs: “The Killing”, “The Worms”, and “The He-Goat.” The quotidian disrupts the lyric, however, with passages like the lengthy paragraph in “The Worms”, which describes the plethora of activity required to subsist on the land. More than fifty verbs create a paragraph dense with motion; it begins with ‘milking’ and ends with “sawing, working, working, working.”
That’s how Manuel Astur describes the process of exploring an idea to create a book also, in a 3:AM Magazine interview with Laura Garcia Moreno: “Sharpening it. Picking up stuff.” And, finally: “Working, working, working.”
Manual Astur’s Of Saints and Miracles is a hypnotic and potentially disruptive volume. Ruminating, recoiling, contemplating, marvelling, loathing, warming, admiring, despairing, star-gazing. For some it will be a bedtime story and, for others, a wake-up call.
Marcie McCauley's work has appeared in Room, Other Voices, Mslexia, Tears in the Fence and Orbis, and has been anthologized by Sumac Press. She writes about writing at marciemccauley.com and about reading at buriedinprint.com. A descendant of Irish and English settlers, she lives in the city currently called Toronto, which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples - Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg, Huron-Wendat and Mississaugas of New Credit - land still inhabited by their descendants.