This book is a nonesuch, a hybrid, the literary equivalent of ‘neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring’, and it’s all the better for that. We can engage with Martín Cullen’s The Estancia as a straightforward childhood memoir or as the kind of fiction which harnesses a traditional genre to produce a dreamlike elaboration on a more prosaic original. Although many of its episodes, characters and interchanges may remind us of other writers – the author is evidently a Proustian by conviction, but there’s also a pronounced flavour of Lampedusa’s The Leopard in Cullen’s strategic deployment of detail – the work achieves its own stylistic individuality in creating an echo chamber for a vanished world.
Few of The Estancia’s British readers will have more than a nodding acquaintance with 1950s Argentina, where the author grew up. But by the end of the book we have become intimates of a society whose continuing alienness is deliciously unsettling. The planet on which Cullen lands us is that