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Authors: Louis Carmain


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English translation copyright © Rhonda Mullins, 2015

Original French text © Louis Carmain, 2015

First English edition. Originally published in French in 2013 as
by Les Éditions de l'Hexagone.

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the National Translation Program for Book Publishing, an initiative of the
Roadmap for Canada's Official Languages 2013–2018: Education, Immigration, Communities
, for our translation activities. Published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. Coach House Books also acknowledges the support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.


Carmain, Louis, 1983-

[Guano. English]

Guano / Louis Carmain ; Rhonda Mullins, translator.

Translation of: Guano.

Issued in print and electronic formats.

978-1-55245-315-5 (paperback)

I. Mullins, Rhonda, 1966-, translator II. Title. III. Title: Guano. English.

8213 2015      

is available as an ebook:
978 1 77056 424 4

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Pinzón, 1862–1863

Salazar, 1864

Pareja, 1864–1865

Núñez, 1865–1866

Because after all, if literature is not a collection of femmes fatales and creatures on the road to ruin, it's not worth reading.

– Julien Gracq



This is a story of love and war. Since both diversions often spring from the most trivial of things – borders strained, smiles exchanged – and, to everyone's astonishment, turn into much more – death, tears, other surprises – there was nothing particularly remarkable at the beginning.

A city in the background, a port in foreground – such is Cadix. In six years' time, a revolution will become part of the landscape, but for the time being, there are just a few preparations and their fallout. Two Spanish navy ships, seagulls circling the masts, twice as many men as seagulls. Twice as many, and half of them are bare chested and carrying barrels, cannonballs, butterfly nets and grapeshot, jumbled together with a pile of lenses, magnifying glasses and a
Systema Naturae
. They are indiscriminately loading nails and insect pins with undoubtedly interchangeable uses. Nearby, scientists beg the handlers to make the necessary distinctions (a setting block is not a gangplank) and perhaps even to discern (nor is a microscope a telescope), to be gentler as they hold the fates of a botanist indisposed by the August heat and a herbarium in their hands.

All the same, some must assume their rank: the admiral, the captains, a minister of Her Majesty. Indeed, they are wearing frogged uniforms with épaulettes so broad they tempt the pigeons, the men all cinched and strapped in, making either chests or paunches more prominent, depending on the regimen. They are sweating more than the seamen.

Bare chest to the wind, navel free.

Gentlemen, we can dream.

The minister mops his brow with a navy blue handkerchief. What a sun, Admiral, the very idea of the sun. Would you agree that the moon is preferable, the mere memory of the sun? Its melancholy, its
gentleness, its craters offering proof that it wears no makeup. The admiral has thick eyebrows that jut out like awnings, protecting his eyes from the drips. Do you wax them?

We'll come back to that. It was a bit of a non sequitur.

The lieutenants, a thankless rank, offer a bit of help hauling cargo, assuming their station for a moment, the deck, then the dock, then the deck. Finally they break rank completely, roll up their sleeves and leave their cocked hats on the edge of the jetties. Let's pick up the pace.

The doñas and their ladies-in-waiting eye the torsos and uniforms. The barrels, not so much. A parasol hides their eyes, a hand hides their mouth. It's hard to hear what they are whispering: an aesthetic appraisal, a verdict of ugliness, don't go, sweet Roberto. The rising sun stretches the indistinct shadows of these dissimilar women as far as the docks, equality being found in the shadowy shapes and the longing, and extends the shadows' black peaks – to which the rigging adds a lacy touch – as far as the water. The sailors step on the shadows as they work, provoking a frisson in their owners … a transposition, a secret desire. They excuse themselves, needlessly, afraid that the ladies' only memory of them will be an indiscretion. After all, who knows when they will see these familiar silhouettes again? So many
au revoir
s become

And suddenly Spain is too beautiful to leave. That's the way it is with adventure: when it becomes real, when the time comes to take to the seas, suddenly we are better suited to our slippers.

It was Isabelle II who had dreamed up this particular adventure, albeit steered a little in the direction by her government. She has been on the throne for nineteen years and feels entitled to her whims.
She is very much of her time: pale skin, black hair, more than pleasingly plump. Her exile in Paris lies six years ahead of her, when her chin will grow fourfold.

At the time our story begins, people are still merely grumbling in the corridors about the virtues of her reign. She is growing fatter at the expense of Spain, whose weight on the world stage is dwindling. She has a penchant for intrigue and French cuisine. She has too many small dogs. And yet, under her reign, Spain is once again the fourth greatest naval power, and military spending is more than respectable.

Isabelle is doing everything possible – in other words, she is doing something at least. But it all lacks fanfare and sizzle. People are searching for prestige lost and not finding it. Castilian dignitaries demand a red carpet wherever they go; it's not too much to ask. Instead, in the courts of Europe, they are received as a courtesy between a businessman's grievances and a Turkish emissary's ultimatums. Questionable wines follow half-hearted bows, accompanied by a glaring lack of nubile heiresses. And then there are the newspapers in London, Rome and Moscow, where Spain is relegated to mere snippets – even in the Madrid papers.

So Isabelle, suddenly thirsty for knowledge, had the idea of mounting a scientific expedition. Destination: the waters of South America, a continent that has been all the rage since Darwin. People now know it as a destination where rare birds chirp, the latest fish swim, tenthousand-year-old lizards do, well, not much of anything. And, while we're there, we can collect some of the money that the newly independent colonies – not to name names – owe the crown. While we're at it, we can discreetly throw our weight behind the legal and financial demands of Spanish citizens still living there. It is a question of honour. But, above all, it is a question of science, lest we forget, of two-headed tortoises, five-legged salamanders, chaffinches with teeth,
and if a geologist were to find some leftover gold lying about, so much the better.

The admiral with the awnings is Luis Hernandez Pinzón. He commands the fleet with no great distinction. He is a direct descendant of the brothers Pinzón, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on that other voyage (a lineage that makes him uncertain of the value of his admiralty), and his bloodline will show those people overseas that Spain is not messing about. It will show them that the expedition will revolutionize the world of science as surely as that other one revolutionized the world, full stop. He wears a dark uniform trimmed in red for the occasion, and long sideburns, not for the occasion. It simply looks more serious, more dignified, and his wife told him that they make his jaw seem stronger.

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