Review: The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre

Under the water (CC BY NC)

Photo (CC BY-NC): Aristocrats Hat

Jonás Ager is a photographer, restless in his work and recently separated from his long-term girlfriend. He is also a swimmer. His regular trips to the pool have become therapy, helping him deal with the challenges of an increasingly isolated life just as they once helped his young body heal from an incipient deviation in his spine.

It takes fifty pages or so for the plot to emerge in Azaústre’s novel, but in those first few chapters, following Jonás through his regular routine of laps at the pool and post-lap drinks with an old friend, we have time to get to know him; to figure out who Jonás is. Much of this insight comes refracted through the water of the swimming pool.

It’s when he comes into contact with the water and his body gains definition as it adjusts to the temperature of the pool, as he begins to sense his shoulders and back, his hands and feet, stimulated by the pressure, that his head begins to slowly clear. As he counts off the meters and time, another, deeper kind of time begins to swell up inside him, a time that moves in every direction at once: north and south of him, east and west of him, in a succession of dormant images which awaken then, only then, after this surreptitious contact with the water, and attach themselves to a meaning, falling into a sequence and gaining lucidity.

The language in The Swimmers is beautifully drawn. Azaústre has an eye for those small details which encapsulate a particular place or character. It would be easy for this style of prose to come across as detached, or at the very least a bit off-putting to non-swimmers, but it’s neither of those things. Azaústre’s light stylistic touch forms the core of a quietly hypnotic novel; it keeps hold of that early familiarity as the narrative subtly shifts and changes beneath the surface. This effect is partially due to the nature and structure of the book—a detective story at heart, made up of short chapters—but those early passages give us such familiarity with Jonás that it is easy to be carried along. This subtle naturalism lends enormous power to the unnatural events which gradually emerge.

No small amount of praise for this must go to Lucas Lyndes, who translated the novel from the original Spanish. The Swimmers was published earlier this year by Frisch & Co., a new publisher based in Berlin. Their focus is contemporary fiction in English translation and, interestingly, they publish exclusively in (DRM-free) electronic formats. This single-mindedness of form carries through into the well-thought-out design of the book itself: the physical act of reading it is a great experience.

The Swimmers isn’t perfect of course—there are a couple of scenes which feel tonally misplaced—but on the whole it’s easy to understand why this was sent to us for review. It occupies that fertile hinterland in-between literary and speculative fiction; a world at once familiar and at the same time increasingly strange. Superbly written, but not at the cost of an interesting story and authentic characters.

If you enjoy Structo, you will probably enjoy this book.

— Euan

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