Two strangers meet on a train on a journey from all stations, travelling to different places at the same time; a train that has no specific origin or final destination, which circulates along a route that has been established only after months of bureaucratic bickering. It is the year 2024 and two thousand wagons make up this enormous iron serpent. The journey between Bagdad and Lisbon is a long one, but the train doesn’t stop to pick up or drop off passengers. Instead it uses a separate wagon that travels next to it on another track, speeding up to catch the wagon before disembarking its passengers. Meanwhile, the occupants of the train travel back and forth across this gigantic convoy as they traverse continents. Two of these passengers: Martin, with the deep voice, and Angel with the brown face, notice each other at the beginning of the story, strike up a relationship and start to sample the wines they come across in each region of their journey. Some glasses of a hearty Romanian wine, afterwards, tipples from the Danube, followed by a crisp white from Friuli and a hearty red from the Rhône. The mixture of alcohol and the strangeness of a velocity that warps time, helps to loosen their tongues and provokes the stories that weave together during this journey to an unexpected destination; stories that coalesce into an oriental but sharply contemporary tale, which crosses Europe while taking us from a close future to a near past.
Both of the protagonists are originally from Spain. Martin has had an affair with a Moroccan girl in the Northern Mountains. Now, life and history have separated them, but the eyes of the girl, which are deep and dark, pursue him from the distance. Angel, the other traveller, has been mixed up with an extremist group. Twenty years have passed, but his partner in crime, ‘The Tunisian’, is threatening to come after him to claim some unpaid dues. Fear and painful recollection, but also hope, are accompanying the passengers on this journey. These particular strangers on a train are not destined to make a pact to carry out a perfect crime, perhaps because imperfect crimes have already happened. Instead, the journey becomes the plot, and the plot is the journey. Through the finite infinity of the train, the parallel tracks of these two lives have just crossed, leading to stories about a champion pig fattener, erotic revelations of a paternalistic sexual athlete or a surrealist football match between Islamic extremists, and finally a revelation of what life was like before March, before that march.
In this novel, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, one of Spain’s most important filmmakers, reveals a talent as a magnificent writer.
"The new winner of the Herralde Prize has produced a novel that starts off in the stylised, earthy world that is so redolent of his work in cinema, to later become, within a surprising science-fiction framework, a story about the authors of the terrorist attacks on the commuter trains in Madrid on that tragic 11th of March... The author’s depiction of the characters allows him to present, within an attractive novelistic mode, the ‘reasons’, and the fanatic and mysterious dark side of this new and lethal form of warfare that is being propagated by Islamic terrorism, motivated to the bloodiest and cruellest extremes by a supposed religious mandate". (Vicente Molina Foix, Tiempo)
"La vida antes de marzo is about the genesis of a terrorist outrage. It is also a portrait of those who are planning it, both consciously and unconsciously... Written with a subtle prose, which is lively and has just the right dose of irony, La vida antes de marzo is a highly successful novel. Gutiérrez Aragón rises to the challenge of transforming a difficult subject into literature. A story of failed lives, touched with strange moments of happiness and fatally encrusted with the shadow of contemporary fanaticism”. (J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia, El País)
"What is interesting in this novel is the way it is narrated, a conversational style that goes beyond dialogue to reach the category of high literature … the style is always suggestive, but also capable of intense carnality, as in its descriptions of memories from childhood, giving this novel an exceptional quality.” (Juan Ángel Juristo, ABC)
"La vida antes de marzo is a book about lost love, about the fear of the past and the future, about friendship or the lack of it, about pain inflicted and received, and, above all, about the possibilities of a train journey where all can be discussed, not including, of course the planning of the perfect crime”. (Luis García, El Comercio)
"A screenplay writer for his own films and those of others, Gutiérrez Aragón knows perfectly the mechanisms of writing, but also knows how to submerge himself in the most troubled corners of human psychology". (Esteve Riambau, Avui)
"A magnificent story told with tones of tenderness, love, desire, brutality, friendship, humour, ambition and, above all, with an intelligent look at the fractured human condition and the unstable relationship between different sensibilities". (José Varela, La Voz de Galicia)
"A writer who is a real discovery and who, without doubt, will continue to impress". (Leer)
"La vida antes de marzo traps the reader from the first page... A novel that contains high doses of charm and narrative expertise". (Pablo Martínez Zarracina, Pérgola) This novel perfectly measures the efficacy of its rhythms, using serious tones to recount a story full of moral complexity and then suddenly, as if it were undermining that gravity, it hits you in the stomach with a deep belly laugh”. (Alfons Cervera, Turia)
Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón (Torrelavega, Cantabria, 1942) joined the School of Cinema in Madrid in 1962, at the same time as he was studying Philosophy and Letters. His first feature film was Habla, mudita (1973), produced by Elías Querejeta and winner of the Critics’ Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Among his best-known films are Camada negra (1977), Golden Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival; Maravillas (1980); Demonios en el jardín (1982), Critics’ Prize at the Moscow Film Festival and Donatello Prize from the Academia de Cine Italiana; La mitad del cielo (1986), Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Film Festival, all produced by Luis Megino. He has won the Fotogramas de Plata Prize for Best Film four times. In 1992, he produced the TV series El Quijote, to public acclaim and with the recognition of the Grand Prize at the Cannes Television Festival. The series was later followed by El Caballero don Quijote (2002), winner at the Venice Festival. He received the Premio Ondas for Cosas que dejé en La Habana, produced by Gerardo Herrero. In 2003 he was chosen as a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, and was given the National Cinema Prize in 2005. He has also directed operas and plays. His most recent film was Todos estamos invitados (2008), which won the Jury Prize at the Malaga Film Festival. He recently announced his retirement from filmmaking.