Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 27, 2020

The Happy City, by Elvira Navarro, translated by Rosalind Harvey

The title is, of course, ironic.  These two novellas, linked together only by the geography of an urban quarter in Madrid, are explorations of adolescent angst.  Nobody’s happy at all.  However these stories transcend the typical YA preoccupation with relevance and relatability (see Felicity Castagna’s thoughts about this here) with circumstances that are not typical at all.

The first novella, The Story of the Chinese Restaurant ‘Happy City’ is about a family of Chinese migrants.  The younger son, Chi-Huei, was left behind in China when the family migrated to Spain, and the story begins when he rejoins the family after an absence that was longer than originally planned.  This first part covers familiar territory — the confusions of a young child experiencing migration: negotiating a new language and encountering different traditions of school and play.

As is usually the case, the boy learns the language of his new country with more dexterity than adult members of the family.  Within the household his mother, stepmother and grandfather speak Chinese albeit with a different accent because the family came from the north, while the aunt with whom Chi-Huei lived in the south spoke the H. dialect and a thickly-accented Mandarin.  This was the language his aunt had always used when she spoke to him, and the one they used at school, although the predominant language in the streets [was] the H. dialect. [Probably either Hokkien or Haikou, which are southern dialects).  After an initial period of awkwardness Chi-Huei becomes adept at switching accents depending on who he’s talking to, and soon also not only speaks Spanish with his older brother, but also with his father.

Navarro deftly explains why the family migrated in this sequence about languages.  Chi-Huei’s father was briefly imprisoned in China, and although it’s not named as such and one needs to read between the lines, he is suffering PTSD from the interrogation.  He can’t now, in Chinese, answer any questions, about anything, because in the interrogation, he had to give the ‘right’ answer, not the truth (whatever that was), and he had to guess what was wanted without incriminating himself.  The Chinese-speaking members of the family have to tell him what to do, never to ask him what he wants or thinks, because it sends him into panic. But in Spanish, which he learned quickly and speaks easily with his sons, he’s not the fool he’s thought to be by his wife, his father and his stepmother.  Not much is made of this in the story because the focus in on the boy’s difficult relationship with his mother, but it’s an illuminating example of the after-effects of torture. It also explains the family preoccupation with making enough money to be secure in their new home.

In adolescence Chi-Huei begins to chafe at the duty he is expected to fulfil.  His older brother is destined to work in the business (a take-away chicken shop that gradually morphs into a somewhat shabby restaurant) while he is expected to study hard and enter one of the professions.  He despises the family preoccupation with money because he comes to realise that it was the reason for his long absence in China.  His relationship with his mother is conflicted partly because she is the driving force in the business and works at it seven days a week and into the night as well, and he doesn’t share her value system that money is security for the family and her sons in the future. But he also resents her abandonment of him.

She in return intrudes on his nostalgic memories of his childhood past with his aunt in China. Driven perhaps by guilt or shame, she insists that this aunt only cared for him because she was paid to do it.  And while Chi-Huei concedes to himself that money may have been a factor in the beginning, his aunt’s kindness to him was real, and he hates his mother’s efforts to dislodge this truth about his life.  I wonder, how often do parents hold some kind of jealous grudge against other adults that their children admire, because they perceive it as a judgement on their own parenting?

Chi-Huei’s story ends abruptly with no link to the second story except for some mild intimations of adolescent sexuality with Sara who plays in the same street…

Chi-Huei is barely mentioned in ‘The Edge’.  He is referred to only as ‘the Chinese boy’ when Sara explains, indirectly, how their friendship came to an end.  Sara’s narrative also begins with a familiar YA trope: adolescent chafing at parental restrictions imposed on her after she goes beyond the boundaries they have set for her.  Like most middle-class parents they have defined a safe area for her to play in, and when she lies about her transgression, they don’t trust her any more and that’s the end of her games with the gang (that included Chi-Huei).


However, her transgression is a catalyst for an unusual relationship with a vagrant, and provides an opportunity for Navarro to explore a value system that is in marked contrast to the diligence of the Chinese family and the aspirations of Sara’s family.  Shortly after running away from the vagrant, Sara becomes aware of his presence everywhere she goes.  There is a mild sense of menace about this, especially when she becomes intrigued by him and starts stalking him.  But when eventually she takes the initiative and joins him in a café, there is an innocence in her curiosity about his way of life, and a simplicity about his contentment with what little he has.  He tolerates her persistent questioning because she buys him chips, and he’s hungry because he can only afford one meal a day. It turns out that he is not homeless: he has a small pension due to a work-related injury and he rents some rudimentary digs where he makes musical instruments from scrap and creates music with them.

It’s a bit of an anti-climax when Sara’s parents eventually find out and confront him.  He apologises, though he’s done Sara no harm, and had no intentions towards her.  This reassures the parents, but they are very concerned about the ideas that he’s put into her head.  Their solution to this disquieting relationship is to offer to help him — with unexpected results.

‘We don’t want to know what circumstances led to you being on the streets, but we’re prepared to help you,’ says my father.  ‘I know of a shop where they’re looking for an assistant.  We can give you some money so you can find somewhere to sleep, and get cleaned up, and buy yourself some clothes too.  Then you could apply for the job. I can give you a reference.  You’re still very young, and you shouldn’t let yourself just waste your existence like this.  You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’

‘He doesn’t want that kind of help, Daddy.’ I say. ‘You’re offending him.’

‘So what kind of help do you want?’

‘I don’t want anything,’ the homeless man says… (p. 183)

Although there is much that is unsaid in The Happy City it’s a book which illuminates the ideas of socio-political movements against capitalism such as the Occupy movement.  I think it’s no coincidence that it was published at the same time as the GFC inflicted austerity on ordinary people while those responsible went on as before…

Author: Elvira Navarro
Title: The Happy City
Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
Publisher: Hispabooks Publishing, 2013, first published as La ciudad feliz 2009
ISBN: 9788494094897
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $30.71

Available from Fishpond: The Happy City


  1. These cross cultural stories are oh so interesting and this is a time when more of us have this in our immediate world thus changing our views on old ways. I have a multicultural cross generational family that is far removed from my early life and has brought me gifts I would never have imagined and more than any traditional ambition I may have followed. Women writers are doing it oh so well.


    • Yes… that’s how I felt about my career. The only time I taught in a monocultural school was the worst two years of that career. It wasn’t just that it was boring and so out of touch with the rest of Melbourne, it was that the community was so smug. Teaching in multicultural schools was a privilege that enriched my private life as well.


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