The Scent of Lemon Leaves

The Scent of Lemon Leaves


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The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchez

A sophisticated, nail-biting page-turner by one of Spain's most accomplished authors, this tale of memory, friendship, and deception won the Planeta Prize, Spain's equivalent of the National Book Award

Having left her job and boyfriend, 30-year-old Sandra decides to stay in a village on the Costa Blanca in order to take stock of her life and find a new direction. She befriends Karin and Fredrik, an elderly Norwegian couple, who provide her with stimulating company and take the place of the grandparents she never had. However, when she meets Julián, a former concentration-camp inmate who has just returned to Europe from Argentina, she discovers that all is not what it seems, and finds herself involved in a perilous quest for the truth as well as a powerful account of self-discovery and an exploration of history and redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781846882432
Publisher: Alma Books
Publication date: 05/01/2014
Edition description: Translatio
Pages: 381
Product dimensions: 5.12(w) x 7.89(h) x 1.13(d)

About the Author

Clara Sánchez is the author of eight novels including Últimas noticias del paraíso which won the prestigious Alfaguara Prize in 2000. She won the Premio Nadal for Scent of Lemon Leaves. She is a newspaper columnist for top-selling Spanish newspaper El País and her books have all been translated into several languages. Julie Wark is a translator whose work includes Wars of the 21st Century: New Threats, New Fears.

Read an Excerpt

The Scent of Lemon Leaves

By Clara Sánchez, Julie Wark

Alma Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Clara Sánchez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84688-185-5


In the Hands of the Wind


I knew what my daughter was thinking as she watched me pack my bag with a trace of fear in her piercing black eyes. They were like her mother's, and her thin lips were like mine but, as she grew older and her body filled out, she looked more and more like her mother. If I compared her with photos of Raquel from when she was fifty, they were two peas in a pod. My daughter was thinking I was an incorrigibly crazy old man, obsessed by that past that no one cared about any more, unable to forget a single day of it, a single detail, or face or name — even a long, difficult German name, although it was often a great effort for me to remember the title of some film.

However hard I tried to look cheerful, there was no way I was going to stop her feeling sad because, apart from being old and crazy, I had a blocked artery and, although the cardiologist had tried to reassure me by saying that the blood would seek an alternative route bypassing that artery, this gave me no illusions about my chances of coming back alive. So I kissed my daughter with what, for me, was the last kiss — doing my best, of course, to make sure she didn't realize. There had to be a last time she'd see me, and I preferred it to be when I was alive and packing my bag.

The truth of the matter is that, given my state, such a mad idea would never have entered my head if I hadn't received a letter from my friend Salvador Castro — Salva — whom I had not seen since the people at the Centre put us out to grass. The Centre, which had been established with the aim of hunting down Nazi officers scattered all over the world, was going into retirement itself as its targets were reaching the limits of old age and dying. Those moribund monsters were escaping from us again. In most cases, it was fear that had kept them alert and helped them to get away. They'd only had to learn how to sniff out our hate and they were off like a shot.

When I picked up the envelope in my house in Buenos Aires and saw who the sender was, it was such a shock that I nearly died on the spot. Then I was flooded with immense emotion. Salvador was a kindred spirit, the only person left on earth who knew who I really was, where I came from and what I'd be capable of doing to stay alive. Or to die. We met when we were very young, in that narrow corridor between life and death that believers call hell and that non-believers like myself also call hell. It had a name, Mauthausen, and it never occurred to me that hell could be any different or any worse than this. And while my head was struggling once more to get out of this hell, we were cruising through the sky among white clouds and the hostesses left behind a pleasant fragrance of perfume as they walked past me, comfortably stretched out in my seat, more than twenty thousand feet high and in the hands of the wind.

Salva told me that he'd spent several years in retirement in Alicante, in an old people's home. It was a very good home, a sunny place, set among orange trees, just a few kilometres from the sea. At first, he came and went as he pleased, since the home was like a hotel, with a room and bathroom just for him and an à la carte menu. Then he began to have health problems (he didn't specify what kind) and now had to rely on other people to take him to and from the town. Whatever ailed him, he hadn't stopped working in his own way and without anybody's help. "There are some things you can't just leave as they are — right, Juliánín? It's the only thing I can do if I don't want to start thinking about what lies ahead of me. Remember? When I went in there, I was just a kid like many others."

We had a deep mutual understanding, and I didn't want to lose him, just like you don't want to lose an arm or a leg. We both knew what "there" meant — the concentration camp where we'd met working in the quarry. Salva knew what I'd seen and suffered and I knew what he'd seen. We felt we were damned. Only six months after we were liberated, looking ghastly and trying to cover it up with a suit and hat, Salva had already found out that a number of organizations had been set up with the aim of locating and capturing Nazis. That was what we were going to do. Now freed, we signed up at the Memory and Action Centre. Salva and I were only two among the thousands of Spanish republicans who'd been sent off to the camps, and we didn't want people to feel sorry for us. We didn't feel like heroes. Plague-ridden, more like it. We were victims — and nobody wants victims or losers. Others had no alternative but to keep quiet and suffer the fear, shame and guilt of survivors, but we became hunters, Salva more so than me. Basically, I was swept along by his rage and spirit of revenge.

It was his idea. When we left there, I just wanted to be normal, to join up with normal humanity. But he said that this was impossible, that I'd have to keep on surviving. And he was right. I've never again been able to shower with the door closed, and I can't stand the smell of urine, not even my own. In the camp, Salva was twenty-three and I was eighteen, but I was physically stronger than him. When we were liberated, Salva weighed thirty-eight kilos. He was scrawny, pale, melancholic and very intelligent. Sometimes I had to give him a scrap of what went by the name of food there — boiled potato peelings or a morsel of mouldy bread — not out of compassion, but because I needed him in order to keep going myself. I remember the day I told Salva I didn't understand why we were struggling to stay alive when we knew we were going to die anyway, and he retorted that we were all going to die, including all the people in their houses sitting in an armchair with a drink and a cigar. For Salva, the drink and the cigar represented the good life that every human being should aspire to. And happiness consisted in finding the girl who'd make him feel like he could walk on air. He also believed that every human being had the right to walk on air at some point in his life.

In order to overcome his terror, instead of closing his eyes and trying not to see or know, Salva preferred to keep them wide open and gather as much information as possible: names, faces of guards, rank, visits from other officers to the camp, as well as the general organization. He told me to remember as much as I could, because one day we were going to need it. And it was true that while we were trying to remember everything, we forgot a bit about fear. I knew straight away that Salvador was convinced he wasn't going to end up in that quarry — and I wasn't either if I stuck with him.

When the gates were opened, I ran, stunned and crying, while Salvador came out with a mission, although he could barely stand up. He managed to locate and bring ninety-two high-ranking Nazi officers before the courts. With others, we had no option but to kidnap them, try them and execute them. I wasn't as proficient as Salva. Quite the contrary. I was never able to close a file successfully. In the end, it was either others who nabbed them or they escaped. It was as if destiny was making fun of me. I located them, hunted them down, cornered them and, as soon as I got close, they slipped away, vanished. They had a sort of sixth sense for saving themselves.

In his letter Salva sent me a clipping from a newspaper published by the Norwegian community on the Costa Blanca with a front-page photo of a couple called Christensen. Fredrik was eighty-five and Karin a bit younger. It was easy to recognize them, because they hadn't thought it necessary to change their names. The article did not reveal who they were, but was merely about the birthday party this respectable-looking old man had held in his home, attended by a large number of his compatriots. I recognized those eyes — eyes of an eagle hovering over its prey, eyes that are bound to stay engraved in your memory for as long as you live. The photo wasn't very good. It had been taken at the party, and they'd published it as a birthday present. And, incredible as it may seem, Salva had managed to see it. Fredrik had been merciless, up to his neck in blood. Perhaps, being a non-German Aryan, he had to prove his trustworthiness, earn the respect of his superiors. He had served in several Waffen-SS units, overseeing the extermination of hundreds of Norwegian Jews. I had an inkling of how cruel he had to be in order to become the only foreigner who was awarded a Gold Cross.

The photo showed them sitting side by side on the sofa. His large bony hands lay flopped on his knees. Even seated he looked enormous. It was very difficult for him to go unnoticed. She, in contrast, was more difficult to recognize. Age had disfigured her more. I didn't need to rummage around for her in my memory. She'd been one of those young, round-faced, ingenuous-looking blondes with arms raised in a Nazi salute who filled my files.

"I can't see very well, my hands are shaky and you'd be a great help to me, so if you've got nothing better to do, I'll be waiting for you. Who knows, you might even find eternal youth," Salva wrote in his letter. He must have been referring to the sun, the drink and the cigar. And I wasn't going to let him down. After all, I'd been lucky enough to marry Raquel and have a family, while he'd given himself body and soul to his cause. Raquel had the gift of turning bad into good, and I took it as yet another punishment that she'd died before me, leaving the world bereft of her good thoughts while mine remained. But after a while I realized that Raquel hadn't totally abandoned me, and that thinking of her gave me peace and filled my head with small rays of sunshine.

My daughter wanted to come with me, as she was frightened my heart would fail. The poor girl thought that at my age everything's harder — and it's true. Yet it was also true that I preferred to die doing this rather than torment myself about whether my blood-sugar levels were rising. Then again, things might be different for once, and Fredrik Christensen's heart could fail before mine. Even though he is very old, he must think he can live a little longer, and would be very upset if we cropped up in his life and put the fear of God into him right at the end, after he's managed to elude us for so long.

It was great to think that Salva and I could get to that sofa and that Fredrik would be shitting his pants as soon as he saw us.


My sister let me have her beach house so I could think calmly about what would be best for me — whether to marry the father of my baby or not. I was five months pregnant now, and less and less sure that I wanted to have a family of my own, although I'd foolishly left my job — just at a time when it was so difficult to find a job and so hard for me to raise the baby alone. For the time being, I was getting around with the baby in my belly, but then ... Jesus! End up in a marriage of convenience? I loved Santi, but not as much as I knew I could love. Santi was a hand's breadth — just a hand's breadth away from being the great love. Though it might be that the great love only existed in my mind, that it was a figment of the imagination, like heaven, hell, paradise, the Promised Land, Atlantis and all the other things we can't see and, as we already know, we'll never see.

I didn't want to make any final decision. As long as there was food in the fridge and the baby hadn't come out and wasn't asking me for anything, I was happy just to let my thoughts float around without getting weighed down by the various possibilities that were as intangible at the moment as the clouds. It was a comfortable enough situation, but one which unfortunately wasn't going to last long, as my sister had found a tenant for the month of November.

It was now the end of September, and we could still swim and bask in the sun. The neighbouring houses had already been shut down, to be reopened the following summer or to be used for some weekends or for longer breaks. Only a handful, like ours, would be occupied throughout the year, and there were so few of them scattered around that when their lights were on they looked incredibly lonely. I liked this feeling, until I began to miss having someone to talk to, or someone who'd just be there making a noise, and then I'd start thinking about Santi. These were moments of weakness, moments that conspire to keep couples together for a long time — like my parents, for example. I only had to think about them to pluck up enough courage to overcome my loneliness. I knew that if I didn't deal with this now, I'd never again be able to deal with it for the rest of my life.

To get to the sandy beach I only had to get on my little motorbike, a Vespino. My sister, brother-in-law and nephews had told me over and over again not even to think about parking it without chaining it. As soon as I had breakfast and had watered the plants (one of the duties imposed by my sister), I'd take some old magazine from a wicker basket and put it in a Calvin Klein plastic bag, grab a bottle of water, a peaked cap and a towel, then head off to lie on the sand. Out in the sun there were no problems. The tourists had practically disappeared. Most of the time I met the same people along the route: a lady with two little dogs, a few fishermen sitting next to their taut rods, a black man in a jellaba who seemed to have no better place to go, people running along the beach and, under a beach umbrella splashed with large flowers, a retired foreign couple with whom I exchanged greeting glances.

And thanks to them that morning I didn't pass out and fall flat on my face in the sand, but only sank to my knees and vomited. It was too hot, one of those days when the thermometer shoots up as if broken. The peaked cap gave very little shade, and I'd forgotten my bottle of water. Sometimes people were right when they said I was a disaster. Everyone who was close to me said the same thing. If they didn't say it sooner they said it later — you're a disaster — and, when everyone tells you that all your life, there has to be some truth in it. When I sat up on my towel I felt sick, and everything started to spin, but even so I managed to stagger to the water's edge to cool off — and it was then that I could resist no more and threw up. I'd had too much for breakfast. Since I got pregnant, the fear of losing strength made me eat too much. The foreign couple came running over as fast as old people can run on burning hot sand. They took for ever to get to me and I was sinking my hands in the wet sand trying to get a grip on it but it kept melting away, again and again.

My God, don't let me die, I was thinking when some large bony hands took hold of me. Then I felt the coolness of water in my mouth. A hand wet my forehead and ran water through my hair. I could hear their words, strange and far away, and didn't understand a thing. They sat me on the sand, and I saw that it was them. The man brought over his umbrella to shelter me from the sun.

His first words in Spanish were, "Are you all right?"

I nodded.

"We can take you to the hospital."

"No, thank you. I must have had too much for breakfast."

The woman rested her small blue eyes on my belly sticking out over the bikini in a slightly rounded bump. I didn't give her time to ask.

"I'm pregnant. Sometimes my stomach plays up."

"Just rest now," she said, cooling me down with a fan on which I saw, double, the words advertising the Nordic Club. "Do you want some more water?"

I drank a little as they stared at me without blinking, as if trying to sustain me with their gaze.

After a while, by which time they must have been dizzier than me, they accompanied me to the motorbike and then followed me in their car in case I felt sick again on the way. We were moving so slowly that all the drivers were tooting at us and, when I turned into the track to my sister's house — which looks as if it has been eased in with a shoehorn on the left-hand side — I beeped my horn and waved goodbye.

Perhaps I should have asked them in and offered them something to eat or drink, or to sit for a while on the porch, which always had a very nice breeze wafting through. I hated myself for not being friendlier, since I'd ruined their morning on the beach, though it was also true that interrupting the monotony of these old couples who spend all day brooding over the past wouldn't do them any harm either. I showered under the hose and lay in a hammock in the shade. I didn't want to think about the dizzy spell on the beach, because I didn't want to feel weak. From now on I'd be more careful: the fact was that my body wasn't the same any more, and it was constantly taking me by surprise.


It bothered me that I had to spend some of my savings on a business-class seat, but I did so to set my daughter's mind at rest, and also because I wanted to reach my destination in the best possible shape, so the journey wouldn't be in vain. And because of that, I drank only alcohol-free beer with my meal and, after shaking off my demons as best I could, slept the sleep of the just while my fellow passengers downed one whisky on the rocks after another.


Excerpted from The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sánchez, Julie Wark. Copyright © 2010 Clara Sánchez. Excerpted by permission of Alma Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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