‘The Foolish Children’ by Ana María Matute, translated by María del Carmen Luengo Santaló and Aileen Dever

Matute’s Primera Memoria was the first novel I ever read in Spanish, aged sixteen, and I was affected by it in the way perhaps only a teenager can be. The thrill of gaining access to another world, one not available to your monolingual friends, not even to your parents, rewarded the effort of learning to read in a foreign language. It’s hugely regrettable that books have largely been stripped out of the A-Level foreign languages syllabuses now.

Matute is a quintessentially Spanish writer, one was strongly affected by the war-torn rural landscape in which she had had grown up. ‘The Foolish Children’, first published in 1956, is a sequence of very short stories – micro-fictions before the invention of that term – encapsulating a disturbing vision of childhood, and one that reminds me of the paintings made by Paula Rego, inspired by nursery rhymes. The children in the stories are often troubled, or mistreated, grotesque and reviled. Insects and animals, trees and plant life are sometimes comforting but at other times a menacing presence. Matute claimed to relate better to eleven-year-olds than anyone else and was, herself, one of a group of writers dubbed “the frightened children”, because of the effect of Spain’s civil war on their childhood and fiction.

First published as ‘Los niños tontos’ by Ediciones Arión, 1956, translation in Small Stations Press, bilingual edition, 2016