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Haunting novel is truly a ghost's story

THE YELLOW RAIN. By Julio Llamazares. Harcourt. 130 pages. $22.

Yellow Rain is set in the village of Ainielle, a collection of about 15 buildings set high and lonely in the Spanish Pyrenees. Starting in the 1930s, a combination of Civil War and unemployment forced its handful of dwellers to seek a future elsewhere. The final resident left in 1971, leaving behind a real-life ghost town.

In this slim novel, author Julio Llamazares creates an alternative scenario: The last inhabitant chooses to live what remains of his life alone in the village he concedes is already dead.

Andres is an elderly widower. His wife, Sabina - crushed by the intolerable weight of their shared solitude - took her own life some 10 years before, in 1961.

And, even as he speaks, it is unclear if Andres is himself still alive. Whether or not he is, this is a ghost's story.

The rest of his family is beyond recall for him. His elder son and small daughter are long dead, and the younger son, an outcast, has gone to work in far-off Germany.

Andres' only companion is a dog that does not have a name: "What use was a name to a dog in a village where there were no other dogs to distinguish it from?"

But Andres is not without company. After his wife's death he is visited by what he recognizes as the spirits of his mother, daughter, and other long-gone family members. His terror gradually turns to acceptance, and the ghosts come and go in his tumbledown house. His past becomes his future.

The changing seasons bring physical trials along with the mental. Buildings rot and collapse into rubble.

The first to go is a stable, ''one January night, in the middle of the snow, like an animal felled by a bullet."

One summer he barely survives a snake bite. Another winter he comes close to starving.

Year after year the yellow rain of autumn leaves falls, leaves that, ". . . day after day, slowly destroyed and corroded the plastered walls, the calendars, the edges of letters and photographs, the abandoned machinery of the mill and of my heart."

He admits his stubborn determination to stay is not reasonable. The other villagers "had raised their eyes and noticed the poverty they lived in and realized there was the possibility of a better life elsewhere. No one ever came back."

And yet this old man clings stubbornly to his roots. He becomes a half-crazed hermit in the process, resigned to and unafraid of his imminent extinction.

He imagines the party of men from the village in the valley who will trek up to Ainielle when the winter snow has melted to locate his body and bury it in the grave that he has already dug with his few remaining gasps.

By now it will be clear that this is not a fun book, but it is a remarkable one, and richly rewarding to read. For all its bleak and unflinching finality, it is emphatically life-enhancing.

First printed in Spain 15 years ago, it has been reprinted several times before this fine English translation.

Llamazares' other works include poetry, which does not surprise, as this book reads like a prose poem and frequently reminded me of verses by his wider-known countryman, Federico Garcia Llorca.

Julio Llamazares deserves a wide audience for this somber and timeless testament to solitude, which may well turn out to be a classic.

We deserve and await a chance to savor his other works in English.

rick O'Gara is a retired Blade senior editor.

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