Front cover of Simpatia

An extract from Simpatía by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, translated by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn

Simpatía, originally written in Spanish, is longlisted or the International Booker Prize 2024. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

Set in the Venezuela of Nicolas Maduro amid a mass exodus of the intellectual class who have been leaving their pets behind. Ulises Kan, the protagonist and a movie buff, receives a text message from his wife, Paulina, saying she is leaving the country (and him). Ulises is not heartbroken, but liberated by Paulina’s departure. As two other events end up disrupting his life even further, Ulises discovers that he has been entrusted with a mission – to transform Los Argonautas, the great family home, into a shelter for abandoned dogs. If he manages to do it in time, he will inherit the luxurious apartment that he had shared with Paulina.

Written by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn

Publication date and time: Published


On the day his wife left the country, Ulises Kan decided to get himself a dog. 

When he saw everything from the merciless vantage point that a marriage brings when it ends, it made sense. Before they married, he’d warned her he didn’t want children. Paulina had replied that she was allergic to dogs. 

Martín, his father-in-law, in the first conversation they’d had shortly after the honeymoon, informed him that, no, his daughter was not allergic to dogs, or dust, or anything. 

“If anything, allergic to joy, like her mother. God rest her soul.” 

Then he let out a loud guffaw. Ulises wanted to laugh, too, but the old man had such a coughing fit that Ulises thought he was dying. 

“It’s true, it is possible to live without dogs, but there’s really no need,” Martín said when he had finally caught his breath. 

From that day on, Ulises knew his marriage was doomed. Now that he was searching online for information about dog shelters that gave the animals up for adoption, he understood that Martín was right. He’d been right all along. 

His father-in-law was “fucking handsome.” That’s how he’d described him in imaginary conversations with friends. When the last of these friends moved to Buenos Aires with their family, Ulises left the shared WhatsApp group. 

Portrait of author Rodrigo Blanco Calderón

That’s how we—those of us who stay behind—leave, he thought. 

His father-in-law’s beauty was like Alain Delon’s. Ulises got the sense that Martín was not only aware of the resemblance, but secretly cultivated it. The abandonment he suffered as a child, the hatred he felt for his children and for women, the idyllic memories of his army days, the dog cemetery in the garden of the house, the addiction to loneliness that only got worse as the end of his life drew nearer. All the distinctive traits of Alain Delon’s life, well-documented or otherwise, were echoed in Martín’s. 

He’d first made the connection on the day the two of them had watched a TV documentary to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Delon was interviewed in the Palermo district where the Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi was located, the same palace where the famous ball scene was filmed. 

“There’s never been so much beauty in one place: Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, and Burt Lancaster,” said Martín, counting off the cast with his fingers, as if naming the 1987 Napoli lineup. 

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Ulises thought that in his father-in-law’s life, in some sumptuous room of his past, there must have been a Claudia Cardinale. 

Martín snorted when he asked him. 

“You ask such dumb questions, Ulises. Of course I have my Claudia Cardinale! And I know that you do too. But even a man who’s never had his Claudia Cardinale can still watch Claudia Cardinale,” he said, pointing at the TV screen. “You understand?” 

Ulises nodded, though he wasn’t sure he did. 

He didn’t know why his father-in-law had stopped talking to his children. Paulina wasn’t sure either and, though she claimed to be over it, deep down she remained bitter. Ulises only got to meet him because he’d really persevered. He thought the idea of just not meeting your father-in-law at all was outrageous. She avoided the subject as long as she could, but one fine day, she drove him to a house next to Los Chorros Park, at the top of a steep cul-de-sac. Ulises had only been once before to that park in the northeast of Caracas, one of the oldest in the city, famous for its waterfalls and springs. The Khans had taken him there for a picnic to celebrate the news of Señora Khan’s pregnancy. “You’re going to have a baby brother,” they told him with a strained smile. Ulises could still recall the silence that engulfed that childhood excursion, only interrupted by the sound of falling water. 

“Where is it coming from?” asked Ulises, pointing to a waterfall. 

“The water?” said Señor Khan. 


“From the Ávila,” replied Señor Khan. “From up there.” 

Ulises looked at the enormous green mass that Señor Khan’s arm was pointing at. The mountain-range that guarded the city, its back turned like a sleeping giant.  

“I thought this was the Ávila,” he said. 

“No, Ulises. This is Los Chorros Park. The Ávila is further up. But if you go upstream, you do get to the mountain.” 

On that first visit, when Paulina stopped the car outside a brick house with a black door, she warned him: 

“Don’t even think about mentioning it.” 

“Mentioning what?” 

“Why we don’t talk and all that. He’ll get mad at you and throw you out of the house. Well, he still might.” 

After she’d pulled up and dropped him alone by the doorbell, Ulises felt like Chris O’Donnell about to walk into Al Pacino’s cabin in Scent of a Woman. But unlike the character in the movie, Martín was cut off from the world not by blindness, but pulmonary emphysema. 

“Stage four. I’m fucked,” said his father-in-law, by way of greeting. 

Portrait of translator Noel Hernández González

He didn’t know why his father-in-law had stopped talking to his children. Paulina wasn’t sure either and, though she claimed to be over it, deep down she remained bitter.

Martín spent his time watching old movies and reading. His only other hobbies in his retirement were gardening and walking the dogs. Every day, he and Señor Segovia, his chauffeur and right-hand man, would take Michael, Sonny, and Fredo out for a walk. Two German Shepherds and a stray who were, according to him, “quite a sight.” They’d drive them in the pickup to a park just before Cota Mil and let them run loose. Sometimes Martín would get out with them. At other times, he preferred to watch from his seat in the truck, following their comings and goings, the jumping, the barking, the growling, and the biting, as if they were running at some crazy racecourse. Martín would always come back home happy, as if he had won, or lost, a bet against himself. 

They talked for about six hours on that first afternoon. When Paulina picked him up that night, she couldn’t believe it. She wanted to know how her father was, what they’d talked about, how everything had gone. 

Ulises attempted a summary, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. All he knew was that he’d had a great evening. 

“By the way, your father’s very handsome,” Ulises said. “Now I know where you get your eyes.” 

Her expression softened, and, for an instant, Ulises saw the child resurfacing like a drowned girl from the depths of Paulina’s face, only to sink back a second later. 

“I think it’s because I’m an orphan too,” said Ulises, almost as an excuse. 

“Did you talk about that?” 


“Aw, so poor little orphans just recognize each other, then?” 

After thinking about it for a couple of seconds, Ulises answered: 

“Yes, I think so.” 

They drove the rest of the way in silence. As they entered the apartment, Paulina said: 


“Don’t worry about it,” said Ulises. 

“Honestly, thank you for going to see him.” 

“It’s a pleasure. We agreed to meet again next week.” 


“But I won’t go if it bothers you.” 

“Why would it? Just go.” 

And that’s how Ulises Kan became friends with his father-in-law, a man so handsome that he looked like Alain Delon. 

Daniel Hahn