I. V. Hansen

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954

Reviews of a number of the novels of Maia Wojciechowska contain phrases like 'a blatant failure', 'too blurred to be effective', 'succeeds only in tediously preaching', and 'the pretentiously allegorical parades of stereotypes'. These are hardly the sentiments to encourage readership and there is a sense in which Wojciechowska is her own worst enemy. It is not too fanciful to suggest that her personal life has been so exotic that she finds it very difficult to communicate with ordinary mortals….

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It is a pity,… that two of [Wojciechowska's] novels from the 1960s are in danger of being lost. They are Shadow of a Bull (1964) and A Single Light (1968). Both are set in Spain. It is the Spain of the tourists and the guidebooks, of stark and barren hillsides, of paella and the muezzin cry of flamenco songs, of olive groves and hot sun. (p. 186)

There is much [of Ernest] Hemingway in the atmosphere of [Shadow of a Bull]. There are references to the killer of death in the bullring, for instance. Bracketed together in Manolo's education are Belmonte and Joselito, photographs of whom appear in fact on the same page in Hemingway's study of the Fiesta Brava (in Death in the Afternoon). There is a starkness and simplicity in the telling of Shadow of a Bull very reminiscent of Death in the Afternoon.

The wrench Manolo feels between loyalty and the need to be himself is finally realised, despite the rather contrived ending. It is an eminently teachable novel for boys and draws with a sure hand the terrible loneliness in a boy's heart; it is finally convincing for the young reader. The theme of the sense of solitariness is pure existentialism.

Less well known is A Single Light. In this novel, too, is the theme of loneliness and lack of understanding. (p. 187)

The conclusion of the novel is very open, too open perhaps for young readers. Wojciechowska is not strong on endings: Shadow of a Bull has three different endings, the most satisfactory, in my view, dealing with Manolo's killing of the bull. A Single Light is, in its last pages, too miraculous in promise and too pat. The hope of regeneration for an embittered people is perhaps pious to the point of incredibility. However, the contrast of violence and innocence is sustained throughout and the novel from time to time takes on a [strength akin to William Blake's proverbs]. (p. 188)

A Single Light has the qualities of a legend. The writing, as in Shadow of a Bull, is austere and often haunting: the way the girl fills her emptiness is movingly expressed…. The novel is suited to a patient rehearsal with twelve- or thirteen-year-old girls. The theme of the great human need for love is stated firmly but without pretentiousness.

In both the novels, the resolution is forced by outsiders, in the case of Manolo, by the old doctor, and in the case of the girl, by the art historian. This invites a charge of contrivance, but Wojciechowska is in difficulties here; there is a tension between the existentialism in the novels and her own inherited Catholic orthodoxy. The priest, in A Single Light,

had thought the world perpetually in a state of war, divided into two camps—the white army of virtue and the black army of sin. And he had delighted in staging battles between these two forces….

                                          (pp. 188-89)

Wojciechowska really wants to operate from this premise and as a result her novels tend to over-simplification and preaching. Nevertheless, she demonstrates in our present case two clear capacities. Firstly, she is able with skill to fill in for the young reader a convincing if exotic background. Her descriptions of the Spanish setting, all too brief and underplayed, are vivid and often momentarily powerful; she can tell us a great deal about bullfighting and about the life of an Andalusian village. And secondly, she underscores the pressures from the adult world upon young people without the tediousness we find in her other novels. (p. 189)

There is much in these two novels that the adult reader could cavil at. Wojciechowska sees herself as 'a midwife to society'; she is unashamedly didactic, a kind of religious social worker. Like Manolo himself and the Count de la Casa, a bullfight impresario who lives in France most of the year, she is a tourist, using the setting for her own purposes and less for the purposes of the narratives; there is a Manolo in both books, there are Garcias in both. The writer's arguments are simplistic and her endings a sell-out. She tackles issues without really resolving them; the failure of the priest, who claims in A Single Light that he has never done anything for his people, is a complex issue not examined with anything like thoroughness. Wojciechowska moralises to a point where we as older readers become impatient.

Classroom experience suggests to me that this impatience is an adult phenomenon…. In the affairs of people, animals and even things, the young teenager is still attracted by the bald contrast between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, calm and convulsion, courage and fear, all part of these Spanish novels. For these novels breathe a myth-quality that makes some sense of a violent world of pain, uncertainty and rejection. Young readers want to feel that, after all, people are just. All too soon they will learn bitterly that this is not so, learn it perhaps in the world of Leon Garfield, where things are not as they seem (e.g. The Pleasure Garden). (p. 190)

I. V. Hansen, "The Spanish Setting: A Re-appraisal of Maia Wojciechowska," in Children's literature in education (© 1981, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter), 1981, pp. 186-91.

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