“The Wrong Blood,” by Manuel de Lope, is the much-anticipated English translation of “La Sangre Ajena,” first published in 2000. It tells the story of two Basque women brought together by personal tragedy at the outset of the Spanish Civil War; Isabel Cruces Hernandez, the lovely wife of a young army captain, is widowed, and María Antonia Etxarri, an innkeeper’s teenaged daughter, is raped. Both women are pregnant and desperately alone in uncertain and dangerous times. They turn to each other, despite their differences, and make a pact. The only witness to it is the local doctor, Felix Castro, who delivers Isabel’s daughter.
This story dovetails seamlessly with that of Miguel Goitia, Isabel’s grandson, who spends his summer studying for the bar exam at Las Cruces, the country inn which was once his grandmother’s estate and which is now owned and operated by María. Despite his unassuming and scholarly nature, his presence awakens in María and her neighbor, Dr. Castro, the memory of long-kept secrets – things they know about Miguel that he himself does not. As they get to know him, they agonize over the decision to tell him the truth – whether he would benefit from knowing and whether anything would be gained in the telling.
“The Wrong Blood,” despite the inevitable weaknesses of translation, is full of lush, poetic prose which paints the story in a distinctively Spanish tint. Its pacing is leisurely – verging on lethargy – but never quite tipping the scale between sluggishness and unhurried appreciation for the roses (of which, the author is careful to note, there is an astounding variety in Basque). The structure of the novel, which is written in four parts, interweaves scenes from Miguel’s lifetime and that of his grandmother through flashbacks vaguely reminiscent of the recent bestseller “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.” The author drops hints, elegant but at times rather obvious, about the mystery at the heart of the novel; by the end, the answer comes as no surprise, but rather with a sense of satisfaction at the neat conclusion to the story.
The major failing of this novel (and being a story of such complexity, that it has just one significant flaw is no mean feat) lies in its inadequacy in handling some of the distinctly feminine themes. This point is especially problematic considering that it is for the most part a story of two women. It is, for example, painfully obvious that the rape scene was written by a male author who tries very hard to be sensitive – he, in no uncertain terms, condemns the act and the trauma that results – but ends up missing the mark, with passive prose and tritely indignant airs.
Manuel de Lope, in this translation of “The Wrong Blood,” follows in the footsteps of other eminent Spanish-language writers in producing grand but poignant works encompassing life, love and tragedy. He is no Marquez, but who is? At least he comes quite close.