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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Black Air

Agustín Fernández Paz

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Title: Black Air
Author: Agustín Fernández Paz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000, rev. 2012 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 154 pages
Original in: Galician
Availability: Black Air - US
Black Air - UK
Black Air - Canada
Black Air - India
Aire negro - España (Gallego)
Aire negro - España (Español)
  • Galician title: Aire negro
  • Translated by Jonathan Dunne

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Our Assessment:

B : simple horror, nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Black Air is narrated by Victor Moldes, who here finally looks back at the events from three years earlier that have haunted him ever since: he hopes that writing it all out, recounting what happened, might be cathartic and freeing.
       Obviously something bad happened -- something really bad -- and Fernández Paz does a nice job in leading up to what that was. The introductory present-day warning already serves to put the seeds in the reader's mind, but Fernández Paz still manages a proper build-up on the seemingly benign, slowly adding the creepy elements in carefully leading to Victor's abyss.
       What Victor looks back to is his first job at a psychiatric centre on the Portuguese border, a job the promising student gets not because he is the best-qualified -- though his credentials are very good -- but specifically because of his: "enthusiasm for diverse fields of knowledge, the breadth of your reading, the fact you were so open". The first case he is entrusted with -- or latches onto -- is that of Laura Novo, locked up in the isolation ward for three months now without any improvement in her near-catatonic state. The thirty-one year old woman had been a journalist and even published a collection of stories; she still writes now, too -- but only the same words over and over and over again, filling endless piece of paper with her name.
       Patiently Victor tries to chip away at her defenses and get her to open up. His method involves literature: he draws her out by reading to her, from great works of literature. And once she starts to be semi-functional again he convinces her to write an account of the events that led her here: writing as therapy, confession, and act of self-(re)discovery. (Just as now, three years later, Victor is writing about these traumatic events from his recent past -- suggesting that his method didn't work quite as awell as planned originally.)
       Fernández Paz nests Laura's account in Victor's, her written recollection then taking up much of the middle of the novel. Her story seems harmless enough at first: she traveled back to Galicia, renting a room in a guest-house (unimaginatively called 'the Big House') owned and run by Carlos, who had been her teacher when she was sixteen (and whom she had had a huge crush on). She enjoys her time there, and gets along well with the other visitors -- many of them friends of Victor's -- but the one person who doesn't take to her is helping hand Moncho -- "Moncho believes you shouldn't be here, you should never have come to the Big House".
       Moncho might be a superstitious, uneducated local but, of course, Moncho is right. There's a local legend -- and: "there are other, similar beliefs in other parts of the world" -- about something bad that can be woken from the depths and enter the world:

As you can guess, they're the typical legends that have a veneer of truth and are told as if they really happened. The catalyst is always a woman. A beautiful woman depicted with red hair, probably because of its association with fire. Remnants of the Christian tradition. You know, woman as seducer and source of sins. Deep down you should feel flattered.
       Or maybe not. In any case, bad things start to happen around Laura. There are plausible explanations -- but there is also that implausible one .....
       Laura even leaves the Big House, but she can't leave it entirely, drawn back to it, and to Carlos -- and, of course, to catastrophe.
       Skeptical scientist Victor wonders about Laura's account when he gets to the end of it. First of all, it doesn't answer all his questions -- there are some final missing pieces -- but more importantly the rationalist in him can't be convinced to take her completely at her word. And, after all, as a psychiatrist, he's used to seeing everything as a mind-game: Jung and Freud and the others offer explanations galore for all the things we can conceive of ..... On top of that, Laura is a practiced writer, and:
I'm well aware how the reader's credibility can be manipulated by someone who is skilled in this profession. After all, despite having published only a single book, Laura was a writer and she obviously knew how to effectively marshal narrative strategies.
       Still, Laura seems all better after she's written her bit. But Victor can't leave well-enough alone, and has to try to find the final missing pieces; predictably, it does not go well.
       Rather too often, in both Laura's account and Victor's, the characters point out that if they had just not taken a (usually unnecessary) additional step everything might have turned out fine -- but they are inexorably drawn to take those steps. The reminders -- even as pangs of conscience -- aren't necessary, and are the only things that drag the story down a bit, feeling too forced. But otherwise Fernández Paz spins his tale very well indeed. The roles of writing and reading -- of literature, and the written word, abstraction and theory rather than real-world practice -- are particularly nicely employed here.
       A difficulty with such horror-novels is the nature of the evil, and Black Air's isn't entirely convincing (Fernández Paz's choice of appellations -- as with 'Big House' -- doesn't really help either); a smaller, more specific myth and evil might have worked better here. Still, the novel is nicely rounded off, and certainly sufficiently unsettling -- and Fernández Paz's simple but stylish writing always a pleasure to read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2015

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Black Air: Reviews: Agustín Fernández Paz: Other books by Agustín Fernández Paz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Galician-writing Agustín Fernández Paz lived 1947 to 2016. He was a popular author and especially known for his children's/YA books.

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© 2015-2017 the complete review

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