'The Frost On His Shoulders' by Lorenzo Mediano

Translating a novel is an art form in itself, as it is far more than merely transcribing the original text word-for-word. A translator has to possess an ear for poetry of their own, as well as sensitivity towards the language and rhythms of the story in its native tongue. I have had some insight into this myself, having struggled through the poetry of Ovid and Catullus in Latin class, miserably comparing my rather leaden efforts with the versions put forward by my teacher. Arriving somewhere near a rough sense of each verse was, for me and my classmates, an achievement. The self-congratulatory atmosphere would not last for long as Mr Spencer would listen with inscrutable calm to our versions before spinning out cadences and phrases that would sing. Translation can be beautiful.

With this in mind, Lisa Dillman should be congratulated for her fine translation Lorenzo Mediano’s The Frost On His Shoulders, an elegant backwoods parable set in the Pyrenees Mountains of a Spain teetering on the brink of civil war. This is a story about peasantry, a people whose fortunes are dictated by the changing of the seasons and the success or failure of the harvest. Dillman is able to translate the pragmatic, unsentimental attitudes of these hill-dwellers into her translation, allowing herself only the occasional filigree when the situation demands it. Mediano’s world, through the prism of Dillman’s interpretation, is earthy, tangible and often brutal.

The tale itself concerns Ramón, a young shepherd, and his love for the beautiful Alba, only daughter of the region’s most powerful landowner with a dangerous psychosis about his own impotence. The unnamed narrator is a former teacher of Ramón, recounting the story as if for posterity as he is practically the only literate individual in the village. His story oscillates between contempt for the backwardness of the villagers and an admiration for the way they defiantly conduct their short, hard lives

The Frost On His Shoulders contains echoes of the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son and Virgil’s version of the ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ myth inasmuch as his withdrawal from village life and his subsequent attempt to rescue the woman he loves. Stylistically, Mediano hits the right note with the voice of his narrator, a man with enough education to illustrate the hardships of life taken for granted in the Pyrenees but still grounded enough to share in the everyday concerns of his fellow villagers.

Probably the most striking element of the narration is the complete isolation of the village of Biescas de Obago, geographically and temporally. To enter into this world is to travel back in time, with its lack of technology and strict adherence to a strain of feudalism. The societal upheavals that would instigate the Spanish Civil War are notably absent as the village clings on to a way of life that was starting to look antiquated in fifteenth-century England. The almost total denial of an outside world is, I believe, a device created consciously by Mediano to emphasise the radical nature of Ramón’s actions as he seeks to emancipate himself from centuries-old societal structures. The alienation of reading about serfdom in the twentieth century enhances the impression that the events are taking place somewhere otherworldly, a bizarre anachronism hermetically sealed off from the modern world.

Distilled through the simple poetry of Dillman’s translation, this tale of love and greed is, like the inhabitants of Biesca de Obago it portrays, more complex than first impressions would suggest. What could be summarised as a tale of a boy battling against adversity to get the girl fails to do justice to Mediano’s handling of politics, class and humanity.