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Bad Habit by Alana S Portero review – hard times in Madrid

Bad Habit by Alana S Portero review – hard times in Madrid

Alana S Portero’s debut novel became something of a sensation when it was published in Spain last year. It spent seven weeks on the bestseller list, won several awards and was acquired for translation into 13 languages.

The protagonist, Álex, is a child growing up in Madrid during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Her Madrid is not, however, the hedonistic city of La Movida Madrileña, the countercultural movement that reshaped Spain after Franco’s death, rather Álex lives out in San Blas, in poverty. Her Madrid is closer to the Harlem of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a city of desperation, bloodied community and dope. Indeed, the first time Álex feels a desire to kiss someone, it is her neighbour, Efrén, dead from a heroin overdose. “If it’s possible for a five-year-old to fall in love,” she writes, “then my love poured completely on to that tragic wreck.”

Like Baldwin, Portero writes from within the grooves of a religious tradition outgrown. Just as Baldwin’s writing is weighty with the pulpit rhetoric he first engaged as a young Pentecostal minister, so Portero’s style is inextinguishably Catholic. Álex’s world is one of ex-votos and pietàs, where Lily Munster and Madonna become angels of intercession. The litany of saints is mapped on to her impoverished neighbours and the effect is deeply moving. Portero draws a world of violence and petty cruelties, one that her protagonist navigates with something like beatific compassion, and the precocious ability to distinguish damaged people from the damage they inflict.

Don’t doubt that Álex suffers. She is harassed and abused, not only because she is a young woman but because she is a young transgender woman. A friend of her father manhandles her, pretending to penetrate her, “doggy style, exaggerating his thrusts and moaning”. Lascivious strangers in the street pester her, a brutally sexualised beating leaves her unconscious. The last of these sequences is particularly harrowing, but as is true of the rest of the story, it is recounted without self-pity. Such restraint magnifies the book’s power.

The novel is also filigreed with wry humour. Álex enlists a stoic wit to defend herself from both the creeps of Madrid’s street corners and the status of victim. Heading home at dawn she stops on a park bench to change into something a little less outre, and a man in a plastic poncho masturbates in front of her. “Without looking away,” Álex narrates phlegmatically, “I started to remove my makeup with the wet wipes I always carried.” The scene is disquietingly funny because it rings so true.

I don’t mean to say that Portero’s Madrid is populated only by petty crooks and perverts. Perhaps the most memorable characters are Álex’s neighbours in San Blas, whom we see transfigured through her guileless eyes as fairytale figures, though more Angela Carter than Walt Disney. “The Wig” is an elderly lady so named for the “exceedingly shoddy” hairpiece she wears, capable of cursing expectant mothers to give birth to monkeys. “Lady Godiva” is a young woman imprisoned by her rapist father, whom she appears to murder and partially cannibalise. “The Headbutter” is known to knock out fascists. “Lil Crip” never got her polio shot.

Then there are women such as Margarita, trans women now middle-aged who bear the scars of beatings from Franco’s policemen, and from cosmetic surgeries performed by backstreet doctors. If at first they horrify Álex with their ungainly bodies and pockmarked skin, over the course of the novel they become the most luminous angels, lighting the path she is to walk herself. I can’t help but feel that Bad Habit, a work of deep humility, spilling over with prose rich as double cream, will function much the same, as a lodestar for readers, staggering bruised towards their own personhood.

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Source: theguardian.com