The Estancia

by Martin Cullen, Adelphi, 400pp, £20

I was reminded of Proust’s Combray when reading Martín Cullen’s moving and detailed evocation of a childhood spent among the sophisticated environs of Calle Juncal in central Buenos Aires and on several family estancias during the early 1950s. It is a childhood seen through the eyes of a shy but remarkably observant 10-year-old whose adult self appears to have total recall.

Cullen is descended from one of 200 or so privileged, cosmopolitan families, many of them interrelated, who had owned land for three centuries. He describes the resentment they felt at the immigrants who had filled Argentina during the early part of the 20th century, and their loathing for the president, Juan Perón, and his brassy wife, Evita, whose policies were threatening their way of life.

Cullen is adept at identifying the distinguishing features of his colourful and eccentric relations, and delving into their mysteries and secrets. He mocks their absurdities and snobbishness – his remote and jealous mother; his detached, unfaithful father – while recording his devotion to his aunts, his gloriously eccentric grandmother, known as Otromamá, and his aloof grandfather who could recite Rostand by heart. It is a vanished world for the most part, and his account is tinged with due melancholy and affection.

We leave him, celebrating his 10th birthday, in a chauffeur-driven car, accompanied by his beloved Aunt Teodé, on their way from Paris to Lourdes, where the boy prays at the Grotto, mindful of the passing of his childhood.

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