Lorenzo Mediano's svelte novel, "The Frost on His Shoulders" (Europa Editions, 137 pages, $15), fuses a traditional rural folk tale with the kind of political allegory popular around the time of the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s in Biesco de Obago, a rocky cattle village in the Spanish Pyrenees, a poor shepherd named Ramón has the misfortune of falling in love with the daughter of a prominent landholder. Barred by feudal custom from receiving her hand, Ramón turns to smuggling, intent on earning enough money to claim her.
Mr. Mediano (aided by Lisa Dillman's smart translation from the Spanish) emphasizes how, in a remote place barren of recreation or entertainment, emotions can run very hot. "Nobody here just rubs you the wrong way: you hate them to death; you're not simply taken with a woman: you love her madly. You'd die for a friend, kill for an insult."
Yet Ramón is not simply a star-crossed swain—as a notorious smuggler, he is also a "man who dares to stand up to the powerful." His rebellion makes him a symbol of peasant resentment, and soon the whole town is riven by "the hatred of the rich for the poor, and the hatred of the poor for the rich." Salty and unsentimental, "The Frost on His Shoulders" brings those long-suppressed conflicts to a head while closing Ramón's story with a satisfying twist. Short though it is, the book offers both passionate, romantic derring-do and a vivid picture of class-driven mob hysteria.