Book Review: The Moment of Memoir

August 18, 2022

Michael Ugarte, Mercedes Light and Dark. Columbia, MO: Compass Flower Press, 2022. 200pp.

In Mercedes Light and Dark, Michael Ugarte writes about his mother, who moved from Spain to the United States after the end of the Civil War. Ugarte, who recently retired from the University of Missouri after a distinguished career as a Professor of Spanish Literature and Culture, is best known as an expert on Civil War exile and immigrant writers in Spain, although he has also translated fiction and poetry. In this memoir, Ugarte stitches together threads and themes from his scholarly work as he tells us about his mother’s parents, her village, her husband, her move to the United States, her husband’s suicide, her two boys, her later years, and her death at 95.

To write about a parent’s life as both a child and as a scholar could either be serendipitous and easy or fraught and difficult. Yet Ugarte renders his mother’s complicated life—rife with multi-generational intrigue, psychiatric breaks, cruelty, and warmth— skillfully in both registers. We learn about political and diplomatic life in 1930s in Madrid, when Ugarte’s father worked as a translator in the US Embassy in Madrid. Dinners with Martha Gellhorn and dancing with Joseph Kennedy—JFK’s diplomat father—combine with the idiosyncratic details of family strife, gossip, and intrigue, fueled in part by the fact that Mercedes Ugarte’s husband was also her uncle.

Michael Ugarte navigates all of this while also identifying in his family the social and political tensions against which their lives collided. Occasionally, he offers a near-syllabus of literature and films from Spain of the Civil War and the Franco period that mirror his family’s experiences. He also includes helpful suggestions for further reading at the end of the memoir.

The point the book drives home is that Mercedes played many roles and had a wide impact, despite her complications. (The book opens with an expurgated reprint of her “anamnesis,” the medical report of her stay in a Vermont psychiatric clinic after she arrived in the US in 1949.) That complexity is at the heart of Ugarte’s memoir and makes it a fascinating read.