Almudena Grandes and her kisses on bread: when crises bring out the worst and the best in us

Almudena Grandes and her kisses on bread: when crises bring out the worst and the best in us
Almudena Grandes and her kisses on bread: when crises bring out the worst and the best in us
“Kisses on bread”: a story of resilience and hope during the crisis of the first decade of the 21st century

What can happen to us in difficult times? How can we withstand the onslaught of an economic and social crisis that threatens to turn everything upside down with no return? Kisses on the bread (Tusquets, 2015) tells, without beating around the bush, how the life of a group of neighbors who live in a neighborhood in the center of Madrid takes place in the midst of the worst crisis they have ever known. The characters in Almudena GrandesThey are the resilient ones, the ones who overcome. They are the ones who decide to fight in order to move forward. They do not give up and in this fight against the debacle, they are the ones who finally win. But they will not know until the end. “Not everyone reacted the same way either,” writes Almudena. “Those who gave up the fight no longer live here. The others continue to fight against the dragon with their own weapons, each in their own way. The older ones are not afraid.”

The novel takes place around Christmas, the time of year when there is the most money, but there is no money. It talks about ourselves and what we are capable of doing to save ourselves in the worst of scenarios. Many of the main characters know each other. And that is why love, happiness, friendship, boredom and fun are also mixed together. And although each one has their own personal story, they all suffer from the experience of loss of hope and despair.

“Then reality began to shake at the same time for all of them. At first they felt a tremor, they found themselves without ground under their feet and they thought it was an optical illusion. It may not be for so many, they said, but it was and nothing changed in appearance while the asphalt of the streets cracked and a burning, unhealthy vapor infected the air. No one saw those cracks, but everyone felt that through them, tranquility, well-being, the future escaped.” Although solidarity will be the star of Grandes’ plot – because it will end up uniting the broken ones – it is also true that other characters will show how the crisis throws them off balance, transforming them into something unexpected.

Solidarity in the face of the crisis: Almudena Grandes’ novel portrays the power of the community

“That is why now a fringe of the same terror that for years has turned the life of their neighbour into hell, today dries their mouths and squeezes their hearts. Because they saw it, heard it and when they got home they were content to talk about it among themselves. Poor woman, she should leave him, she should go away, she should finish him off once and for all. (…) Now they know that she never reported him for the abuse. He killed her, he murdered her with a kitchen knife. Now she is dead (…) and all the neighbours feel complicit for not having stopped him, for not having helped her, for not having called a phone to report him.” The variety of stories is the most attractive thing about the novel and so are its settings: Pascual’s bar, Amalia’s hairdressers or the Health Centre.

There are episodes where tenderness takes on a beautiful intensity, like the relationship between Maria Gracia and Antonio. “For a year now, they have met every day at eight thirty in the morning, at the same bar in the same metro station. Maria Gracia has never felt pretty. It has been a long time since anyone has looked at her. Antonio has never been handsome. Age has dried the spots on his face. The rest is the work of alcohol. She goes to work cleaning houses by the metro station. He no longer works. They have been like this for a year. Every time he promises himself that he will come over to say good morning to her, Maria Gracia leaves a few coins on the counter and leaves in a hurry. Every time she dares to smile at him, Antonio turns his head away. Tomorrow will be another day, he thinks. Tomorrow will be another day, she thinks.”

Women occupy a prominent role In the different stories that are intertwined: Marisa, the news editor, Amalia the hairdresser, Sofia the teacher, Margarita the lawyer and others. And the author also comes to the rescue of the wisdom of the elders, the grandparents, the elderly, since they represent a guide and emotional support for families who are going through the crisis. Maybe it is because they lived through the Spanish Civil War and the post-war period and, therefore, they feel less fear than the younger ones, which allows them to resist and organize the rest. Thus, in the middle of the hurricane, everyone will learn why their grandparents taught them to kiss bread. Food was scarce and bread symbolized good health, prosperity and tranquility that they did not have.

In “Los besos en el pan” (Kisses on the bread), Almudena Grandes presents a community in Madrid facing a deep crisis (Nicolás Stulberg)

In this way, the title of the work vindicates the historical memory and the legacy of previous generations with a great lesson that will run through all the stories. “The thing is that I don’t want to spend the time I have left watching sadness pile up around me. I don’t feel like it. So I said to myself, well, look, for now, let’s start by going against the calendar. And you know how I like to put up the tree, and light candles, and all those Christmas things. Her grandson looks at her, looks at the tree and looks at her again. Merry Christmas in September, grandma. She laughs and hugs him. Merry Christmas, darling. Merry Christmas.”

And although in its 327 pages of the pocket version there are very hard moments, there are also stories of people who manage to make life worth living. Despite everything. Because life goes on. Yes, even if you don’t believe it. “Pascual’s bar is still open, although every day it is less of a bar and more of a local headquarters (…) Many old shops have closed. New ones have opened, almost always cheap, although not all oriental. The churrería, the pharmacy, the stationery store, the market, are still in the same place. Otherwise, in September the school year starts, in December Christmas arrives, in April the plants sprout, in summer, the heat, and in the meantime life goes by.”

Almudena Grandes (Madrid, 1960-2021) became known in 1989 with The Ages of Lulu. Her novels I’ll call you on Friday, Malena is a tango name, Atlas of human geography, Rough Winds, Cardboard castles, The frozen heart y Kisses on the breadmade her a renowned author. Adapted to film and theatre, she was awarded, among others, the Lara Foundation Prize, the Madrid and Seville Booksellers’ Prize, the Prix Méditerranée, the Jean Monet Prize, the Madrid Critics’ Prize, the Elena Poniatowska Prize, the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize, and the National Narrative Prize. She died in November 2021.

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