Category Archives: Spanish

Talk and cock is all I got

The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dilllman

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World remains the leading contender for my book of the year. I was blown away by his use of myth and language to create something that seemed both archetypal and yet wholly new.

The Transmigration of Bodies isn’t in that league, but it’s still well worth reading. Signs married classical Greek and Aztec mythology to a contemporary plot; Transmigration does something similar, save that here the mythology is that of Sam Spade and Lew Archer, the mythology of hardboiled and noir fiction.

Transmigration

Love that cover. Here’s the opening sentences, as hardboiled as you could wish:

A scurvy thirst awoke him and he got up to get a glass of water, but the tap was dry and all that trickled out was a thin stream of dank air. Eyeing the third of mezcal on the table with venom, he got the feeling it was going to be an awful day.

That him is “The Redeemer”, a lawyer and general fixer who gets things done for people who need things doing and who doesn’t ask too many questions. He’s a man who “excelled at nothing but the ability to diminish malediction; to free folks from cell blocks, or their own promises.” Right now he’s holed up in his apartment long on hangover and short on food and water, but unwilling to go out since an epidemic which the government has indicated “may be a tad more aggressive than we’d initially thought” is sweeping the country leaving bodies and chaos in its wake.

He whiles away the time drinking mezcal and fooling around with his neighbour the “Three-Times Blonde”. Her boyfriend’s not at home and nobody wants to travel and risk exposure to infection. The Redeemer may never get another opportunity to screw the Three-Times Blonde, but there’s no condoms and anyway local crime boss the “Dolphin” (so nicknamed for having “burned a hole in his nose snorting too much blow”) calls up with a job. Down these mean streets a man must go…

The job’s a messy one. They always are. The Dolphin’s son’s been kidnapped by a rival crime family, and in return he’s kidnapped one of theirs, Baby Girl. Problem is she’s dead, killed by the epidemic. That’s bad, but it turns out Dolphin’s son’s dead too of a hit and run. Both families have kidnapped corpses, but they still need an exchange so they can bury their own and for an exchange to work you need middlemen to make the necessary arrangements.

The Redeemer takes local heavy the Neeyanderthal along by way of muscle, but mostly he does his job through a mix of attitude and chat:

He helped the man who let himself be helped. Often, people were really just waiting for someone to talk them down, offer a way out of the fight. That was why when he talked sweet he really worked his word. The word is ergonomic, he said. You just have to know how to shape it to each person. One time this little gaggle of teenage boys had gone to the neighbor’s on the other side of the street and stoned the windows and kicked the door for a full half-hour, shouting Come on out, motherfucker, we’ll crack your skull, and the pigs hadn’t deigned to appear; that was one of the first times the Redeemer had done his job. He went out, asked in surprise how it was they’d yet to bust down the door and added You want, I’ll bring you out a pickax right now, and that sure calmed them down; see, it’s one thing to front, to act like a big thing, but burning bridges, well that’s a whole ’nother thing. Soon as he saw what was what the Redeemer added: Tho, really, why even bother, right? Man’s in there shitting himself right now, and they all laughed and they all left.

The language here is a mix of high-end and slang. Words get thrown in like dieresis, ergonomic, but though is shortened throughout to tho. Everyone who can be given a nickname has one, so much so that when a character is described by their actual name I wondered why they didn’t stand out enough to get called something new.

The Redeemer’s equivalent working for the other family is the Mennonite. Dolphin’s daughter is the Unruly. Names here have power. A name captures character while providing protection and camouflage. If you call the Redeemer you expect redemption, his name is his calling card, but his personal life stays screened behind it and he can remain both public and anonymous. That’s useful whether you’re dealing with criminals or the authorities (assuming you can draw a distinction).

The epidemic has stripped their world back to its essence, but there’s a sense it hasn’t changed anything. Even before the police and government withdrew they were never in charge. If you have a problem you go to one of the families or you go to the Redeemer or the Mennonite or someone like them. If you know something you keep your mouth shut about it, and if you don’t know anything you pretend you do. It’s a world of connections, favours owed and repaid, social currency.

As with Signs there’s some lovely imagery. I’ve discarded more quotes than I’ve used here, but I couldn’t resist this one from a brothel the Redeemer visits while working out what happened to the dead son:

One girl was dancing before a cluster of liquored-up fools, naked but for the mask over her mouth; each time she leaned close she made as if to take it off, and the boozers whooped in titillation.

Sex and death. There’s nothing like a crisis to take us back to the essentials. The epidemic allows Herrera to cut away everything but that he wishes to explore: existence in anarchy; the use of informal social networks where formal ones are inadequate; navigating a world where potentially lethal violence is rarely more than a wrong word away. The parallels with Mexico as it actually is today are obvious. The epidemic will burn itself out, nobody here thinks it’s the end of the world, but when it does all that will change is more people on the streets. That and it’ll be easier to find an open pharmacy in which to buy some condoms.

While I don’t think this has quite the depth of Signs it’s still a fun read that works well as noir novel and reasonably well as social allegory. I was left with a sense of futility; all this effort to exchange people already dead. At the same time there is a nobility here; all this effort to exchange people already dead. It’ll be interesting to see how this one settles in memory.

Other reviews

Unsurprisingly, there are many. Tony of Tony’s Reading List reviewed it here; Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes here (I absolutely agree with his final two paragraphs); and David Hebblethwaite wrote two posts on it, one on the use of names in the fiction here and the other on networks and conversations here. I also rather liked this James Lasdun review in the Guardian, which is a little more critical of it than I am (though still overall positive). I’m sure there are many more, and if you wrote one or know of one please do leave a link in the comments.

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Filed under Hardboiled, Herrera, Yuri, Mexican fiction, Spanish

It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dillman

Some books just blaze off the page. Signs is one of them. I’ll be amazed if this doesn’t make my end of year list.

Signs Preceding

At one level Signs is a novel about a young woman illegally crossing over from Mexico to the US. It opens with a literal descent into the underworld:

I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she failed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.

It’s a deservedly confident opening. Already in just that paragraph Makina is scrambling for survival, constantly and instinctively in motion. As the narrative broadens out it becomes a metaphor for her life. She’s an intermediary who survives by speaking several languages and acting as both a messenger and as operator of the town’s switchboard (they don’t have a local cell tower).

Makina needs to cross over to look for her brother who left pursuing some fruitless land claim and never returned. To go she needs permissions from the town’s big men and, of course, has to do one of them (a man “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”) a favour in return by making a delivery for him.

So far so naturalistic, but the journey quickly takes on mythic dimensions. The literal descent becomes a metaphorical one as Makina crosses a fierce river to reach an otherworld that you risk becoming part of if you linger too long, after which you will never return. Her brother was lost there and now like Orpheus before her she risks losing herself to bring him back.

What dazzles here is the use of language. Herrera creates new meanings for words reflecting both Makina’s use of slang and the linguistic melting-pot she personally represents (a particularly common example is Herrera’s use of “verse” to mean travel, as in “She versed to the street”.) It’s never confusing, but creates a sense of language that like Makina herself is constantly in motion.

The crossing over is sharply captured both in terms of its challenges and particular horrors (a pregnant woman resting under a tree, soon discovered in fact to be a corpse bloated with gas). The US itself proves an alien and unfamiliar landscape filled with parallel populations of noisy anglos and “homegrown” like her who she realises are omnipresent but curiously muted.

The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse, and it was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.

Out on the concrete and steel-girder plain, though, she sensed another presence straight off, scattered about like bolts fallen from a window: on street corners, on scaffolding, on sidewalks; fleeting looks of recognition quickly concealed and then evasive. These were her compatriots, her homegrown, armed with work: builders, florists, loaders, drivers; playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders. They were the same as back home but with less whistling, and no begging.

There’s some wonderful language in that quote: “salt of the only earth worth knowing”; “anglogaggle”; but also a nice juxtaposition of the two populations co-dependent but seemingly immiscible.

As Makina verses through the city following clues leading to her brother and making her promised delivery she comes to realise that there is something more there than just alienation and subjugation. The anglos and homegrown may seem to coexist without overlapping, but the reality is more fluid and the act of transition between places is transformative. There’s a reason people don’t go home again, and partly it’s because what they’ve left is no longer home.

They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. … In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.

There is an end of the world here. It’s an end to Makina’s world and perhaps too an end to the Anglo’s assumed world which they built on the homegrown’s labour while pretending they didn’t need to adapt to the people they’d invited into their very homes. Language creates reality and as people create new words for their new shared experiences they create a new world with them.

This is a book filled with signs preceding the end of the world, but recognising too that the world must end for new worlds to be born. It’s a book rooted squarely in the particular: the journey across the Rio Bravo; ethnic and income divides; racist police and opportunistic gangmasters; but beyond all that it’s a book that raises all this to the status of myth or dream. It is an exceptional work, quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently and genuinely exciting to encounter.

Other reviews

This has been very widely reviewed, so apologies to those I miss here. Please do feel free to link to your reviews in the comments if I’ve missed them. Ones I had noted included Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog here; Shigekuni here; David Hebblethwaite at his blog here but more fully at Words Without Borders here; and Grant at 1streading’s blog here. I know I read more but I lost note of where.

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Filed under Herrera, Yuri, Mexican fiction, Spanish

May nobody call me an unreliable narrator.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell

Some books are just delightful. The other day I finished a rereading of The Illiad, an epic poem over 3,000 years old full of tragedy and loss and extraordinary humanity. It’s hard after something like that to know what to read next. Then I happened to read a review at JacquiWine’s Journal, here, and there was the answer. I bought Where There’s Love, There’s Hate immediately on finishing her review; started it that night and drank it down over the next couple of days. It’s a Tom Collins of a novel, refreshing and a perfect palate cleanser.

Here’s how it opens:

The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly. To my left, on the desk, I have a copy, a beautiful Bodoni, of Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon. To my right, the fragrant tea tray, with its delicate chinaware and its nutritive jars. Suffice to say that the book’s pages are well worn from innumerable readings; the tea is from China; the toast is crisp and delicate; the honey is from bees that have sipped from acacia flowers and lilacs. And so, in this encapsulated paradise, I shall begin to write the story of the murder at Bosque del Mar.

The narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, and he starts his tale with him en route to a much-needed holiday and writing retreat by the seaside. As he assures the couple he shares a train carriage with, he is not only a respected physician but also a writer of screenplays, currently writing a contemporary film treatment of Petronius’ Satyricon. How could any reader not put their full trust in such a companion?

The arsenic by the way is not Dr Huberman committing suicide, it’s a daily medicinal dosage for Dr Huberman prides himself on having seen past the limitations of mere conventional medicine; Dr Huberman is a homeopath and it’s surely only my own prejudices that had me seeing him within a handful of pages as essentially a self-important quack.

As Huberman is carried through the night, he reflects to himself:

When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality? When will we return to the path of the salubrious picaresque and pleasant local color?

When indeed?

Where-Theres-Love-Theres-Hate
Huberman has a romantic dream of a seaside idyll and a secluded private resort. It’s certainly isolated: “The building, white and modern, appeared picturesquely set in the sand like a ship on the sea, or an oasis in the desert.” What he finds though is a failing hotel with windows that can’t be opened due to endless sandstorms; where heat and flies make the inside intolerable and treacherous terrain makes the outside positively dangerous.

The other guests include one of his patients, Mary, to whom he had recommended a rest cure at the same resort. With Mary is her sister Emilia and Emilia’s fiancé, Atuel, as well as a Dr Cornejo. The only other guest is an older man named Dr Manning who spends most of his time quietly losing at solitaire.

The hotel’s run by Dr Huberman’s cousin Esteban which soon explains why Dr Huberman’s really staying there – he’s not paying. There’s also Esteban’s resentful wife Andrea and her oddly sinister nephew, Miguel, a boy with a fondness for killing and embalming animals and a marked fixation on Mary. Finally, there’s an elderly and possibly simple typist who wanders about swatting flies and ringing the bell for meals.

Before long it’s apparent that not all is well in this sandy paradise. On his first day Dr Huberman overhears a seemingly needlessly bitter argument involving Mary, Emilia, Atuel and Dr Cornejo. At dinner that night Emilia has evidently been crying, and Mary rather than sympathise bullies her into playing the piano for everyone. Later Dr Huberman sees Mary throwing herself passionately at Atuel. Something is most definitely up.

In the morning Dr Huberman is woken early by Andrea calling through his door, asking for help:

Andrea looked at me with weepy eyes, as if preparing to throw herself into my arms. I kept my hands resolutely in my pockets.

Mary has been found dead, killed by strychnine poisoning. There’s no strychnine bottle in her room, and no apparent shortage of people who might have wished her harm. It’s fortunate for everyone really that Dr Huberman is there to take charge of the investigation until the police come, and to assist them once they do.

In a more ordinary novel Dr Huberman would be a Miss Marple, a Poirot, and in a sense he is. The difference is Miss Marple and Poirot are actually genuinely gifted amateur detectives, keen psychologists ever attentive to the smallest detail. Dr Huberman by contrast is in love with the idea of finding himself the hero in a real-life detective novel, misses virtually every clue and repeatedly shows a near complete indifference to the feelings of others (particularly when they get between him and his meals, which are his real focus of interest):

Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable. I decided it would be prudent not to speak until it had been served.

What follows is hilarious. The police soon arrive and begin their own investigation, and once they’ve cleared Dr Huberman as their initial chief suspect they bring him on board to assist, though whether it’s because his help is wanted or because it keeps him quiet isn’t entirely clear. When the Victor Hugo-quoting chief detective moves to arrest Emilia, Dr Huberman becomes convinced she’s innocent and sets out to identify the real criminal.

Dr Huberman though isn’t the only amateur detective present. The police surgeon, an apparent drunk, shows signs of being a Columbo-esque figure whose insight is masked by a feigned bumbling exterior; Manning, who seemed a harmless old man concerned only with his cards, turns out to have a sharp and perceptive eye for clues; it goes on. Soon it seems there are more detectives than suspects.

What’s wonderful here is Dr Huberman’s utter incompetence, irrelevance even. At one point he deduces where some missing jewels must be based on where they would be were this a novel. He’s wrong, but not even momentarily daunted. He interprets everything according to his own prejudices, for example describing Atuel at various points as behaving slyly, as having unnatural composure, the manner ” of an overly debonair tango crooner”. Dr Huberman though has half-convinced himself he’s in love with Emilia (as the hero of a novel would be of course), and it’s fairly obvious that mostly he’s just jealous of Atuel.

As an aside, sometimes when a mediocre blockbuster movie or romcom comes out I see people argue that you should just turn your brain off as you enter the theatre and have fun. It’s just entertainment they cry, just enjoy it. Why should we have to do that though? Why should we have to turn our brains off to have fun? Why can’t a blockbuster or a romcom be smart? They can be of course. Anyone who’s seen His Girl’s Friday would never dare argue that a romcom for example can’t be both funny and almost cuttingly clever.

I see the same argument made for books every summer in the broadsheets, which should know better. They start recommending “beach reads”; the suggestion again is that you should just switch off your critical faculties and ignore dull prose and clichéd plotting. Why? Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is an utter refutation of that. It’s pure entertainment, but it’s good entertainment, it’s well written entertainment, more to the point it’s intelligent entertainment.

This is a hugely fun book. It’s incredibly silly, knowingly so with Dr Huberman even flat-out stating that he’s not an unreliable narrator. It’s a perfect choice for a beach or flight; it’s not remotely taxing, but nor does it once ask you to turn your brain off. It laughs with you, not for you.

As I said at the opening I discovered this through Jacqui’s review, which in turn was inspired by 1stReading’s Blog’s review here. Another interesting review is at the mookseandthegripes here.

18 Comments

Filed under Argentinian fiction, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Comic fiction, Crime, Ocampo, Silvina, South-American fiction, Spanish

safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to you

Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France

The thing about recessions is that people tend to assume they’re bad for everyone, maybe not equally bad but generally not good. That’s not true though.

You might lose your job, have your wages frozen or slashed, be asked to do more work for the same pay. In any recession a lot of people are hurting, some very badly. Not all the pain’s visible. If someone’s now unemployed their friends and family likely know about it. If someone’s struggling to pay the bills though, having to cut back on luxuries and perhaps reevaluate what counts as a necessity; if holidays are being cancelled and purchases postponed, it’s quite possible that from the outside everything still looks fine.

On the other side of the coin though, some people do very well out of recessions. If you’re still in work and making good money (and generally plenty are even in the worst of times) then prices are likely falling or stagnant, restaurants are easier to get into, there’s good deals to be had and you’re in a position to take advantage of all of it. If you’re an employer you can squeeze wages and conditions and the chances are your employees won’t complain too hard about it.

There’s even an argument that recessions are necessary, part of the engine of capitalism, and that provided they don’t turn into extended slumps they ultimately make the majority of us better off. Poorly run companies go bust (as do some well run ones of course), questionable projects get cancelled, shaky business ideas abandoned. A recession on this view is like a forest fire that burns away dead wood, clearing room for fresh new growth. Of course, how much you agree with that view may well depend on how likely you think you are to find yourself dead wood or new growth.

What’s all this got to do with Claudia Piñeiro’s excellent Thursday Night Widows? Quite a lot as it happens.

thursday-night-widows

Cascade Heights is a gated community outside Buenos Aires. It’s an oasis for the well-off, a place where for the residents everything is exactly as it should be. The outside world might seem dangerous and uncertain, but in Cascade Heights you’re secure and the only time you see poverty it’s wearing a uniform.

As a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear it’s a domestic servant or gardener.

Every Thursday a few of the men of Cascade Heights get together for cards and a drink. As the book opens though, in late September 2001, something happens and three of those men are found floating dead in a pool. The only survivor left early, or at least that’s what he says.

That survivor is Ronie, and his wife Virginia Guevara is the book’s chief narrator. Ronie lost his job a few years back, so Virginia had to step-up and became the estate agent for Cascade Heights. She helps the residents sell their homes when time comes to move or money gets tight, and matches new buyers to the right properties inside the fence (or gently discourages them if they’re not what the community would see as the right sort of buyer, this is not an ethnically diverse community and there’s a distinct strain of quietly spoken anti-semitism).

Virginia’s position is unusual in Cascade Heights, unique even. She’s a woman, but she works. Everyone else, their husbands make the money and they spend their days shopping, decorating, organising charity functions and taking classes.

In 2001 of course Argentina is deep in recession. It wasn’t always that way though and after that opening, those deaths, the book quickly backtracks to show Cascade Heights in better times. Most of the ’90s were boom years, a time when everyone seemed to be making money and the whole economy was spiralling dizzyingly upwards. It didn’t last of course. It never does.

The bulk of the book then isn’t about the dead men in the pool, and it would be a mistake to read this as a whodunnit. This is an examination of the Argentinian boom and bust, seen through the lens of a small group of particularly well off people. Cascade Heights is intended by design to shut out the wider Argentina, but however high you build your fence the world always still creeps in.

Inside the Heights is a tightly knit social world where local status depends in large part on how well you play tennis and where strict rules ensure that everything is just so. There are rules on how long your grass should be, what paint colours are permitted, where fences are allowed. Everything is harmonious, on the surface at any rate. Underneath though, lives can’t be made as neat as lawns and there are failing marriages, rebellious children, affairs, secrets and lies.

In well under 300 pages Piñeiro paints a sharply defined portrait of a range of characters. She dissects what passes for their moral structures, their hypocrisies and their utter near-wilful ignorance of the realities of life for most outside the fence. At the same time it’s not a crude satire, and there’ real sympathy here for some of the characters’ situations even if they’re not necessarily particularly easy people to like.

A wife whose husband leaves her risks losing everything. She has no career, she likely has no independent income or capital to speak of. This is a 19th Century world preserved at the end of the 20th where divorce can quite literally mean ruin, can mean being forced from your home and since that home’s within the fence being forced out of your community. Life here is comfortable, but it’s a comfort that can quickly curdle and the women live in large part at the mercy of the men. Lose your looks, get old, and you could find the world suddenly a much colder place than you were raised to expect. If the husband loses his job, dies, well that’s another home for Virginia to sell because this is a paradise with a definite price tag.

During the boom years though few think about this. Everyone’s making money, so nobody asks questions. These are utterly shallow lives, particularly for the women who have no jobs but still must outsource care of their houses to maids and their children to nannies leaving them with no possible contribution of their own. People take pleasure in sport and parties, and in their own ever-increasing wealth:

When we multiplied the surface area of our homes by the value of a square foot, we experienced a euphoria unequalled by almost any other: the pleasure principle of an algorithm. Because we weren’t planning to sell our houses to anyone. It was the maths alone, that simple multiplication, that caused us joy.

The good times don’t end overnight, and they don’t end for everyone either. As the end of the century approaches though things start to creak, cracks start to appear (“1998 was the year of suspicious suicides”):

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned for ever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, looking up at the shower head, from which not a single drop of water falls any more.

At times the critique here is absolutely biting. There’s a simply brilliant section where the wives (calling themselves the “Ladies of the Heights”) have a jumble sale in which they sell their cast-off clothes to their maids for charity. Normally the maids would just be given the wives’ old clothes, or could retrieve them from the rubbish. Now the maids have to pay from the wages the wives gave them so that the wives can give the money to the poor, ignoring the fact the poor are right in front of them. It’s utterly credible, unfortunately.

For all that the book’s never heavy handed. This is an easy read, cleanly written and full of sharp observation, and while I can’t speak to how accurate the translation is I can say that if I didn’t know it was originally written in Spanish I generally wouldn’t have guessed.

Occasionally of course there’s a social detail which might not make sense to those outside Argentina, and here the translator has taken a slightly unusual approach by including some very sparingly used brief explanatory footnotes. By way of example, the word asado can’t easily be translated, but a footnote flags that it’s an elaborate barbecue. Obviously the translator could just have said that, but it would have disrupted the flow of the sentence in a way the footnote doesn’t. Later on a separate footnote provides more detail, when it becomes important, on what an asado typically involves and the role it plays in Argentinian culture.  The footnoting works extremely well, and I wish more translated novels adopted this approach.

Thursday Night Widows is crime novel as social critique, but done so well the crime is almost forgotten and by the time you realise that’s what’s happening it doesn’t matter because while the deaths are interesting, the lives are fascinating.

As with so many other books, I learned about Thursday Night Widows from Guy Savage’s blog. His review is here. There are also a nice review at a blog I’m less familiar with called A Work in Progress, here.

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Filed under Argentinian fiction, Crime, Piñeiro, Claudia, South-American fiction, Spanish

By my faith, Señor Master, other people’s troubles don’t matter very much

Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman

If you’ve not read Don Quixote, there’s a few things you probably don’t know about it. The first is that although everyone talks about it as if it were one novel, it’s not. It’s two novels, written ten years apart. We put them together as one title now, but that’s not how they were originally published. Trying to read them in one go makes for a much tougher read than is actually necessary.

The second thing you probably don’t know is that every famous incident from Don Quixote, everything people who’ve not read the books have heard of, is from the first book. The irony of that is that while it’s the first volume that made Cervantes famous, the second is actually the more interesting and enjoyable.

grossman-cover

The events of the second volume take place a while after the first. During the break between adventures the first volume has been published and become a bestseller. In fact, it’s already had a sequel written, but it’s a copycat work written by another author – a crude pastiche that pretends to tell the story of what happened next but that’s not a patch on the original and that makes caricatures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (all of this really happened by the way, the characters therefore come to comment on their own fictional portrayal).

Don Quixote has been avoiding chivalric fiction so he doesn’t know that he’s now a celebrity until Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, a gentleman of Don Quixote’s village and of known good character (“people like him can’t lie except if they feel like it or it’s very convenient”), breaks the news. Naturally, Don Quixote is curious to hear how his story has been received:

“but tell me, Señor Bachelor: which deeds of mine are praised the most in this history?”

“In that regard,” responded the bachelor, “there are different opinions, just as there are different tastes: some prefer the adventure of the windmills, which your grace thought were Briareuses and giants; others, that of the waterwheel; one man favors the description of the two armies that turned out to be two flocks of sheeps; the other praises the adventure of the body that was being carried to Segovia for burial; one says that the adventure of the galley slaves is superior to all the rest; another, that none equals that of the two gigantic Benedictines and the dispute with the valiant Basque.”

“It seems to me,” said Don Quixote, “there is no human history in the world that does not have its ups and downs, especially those that deal with chivalry; they cannot be filled with nothing but successful exploits.”

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

Quite. To quote myself from my review of the first volume of “this great and accurate history” – it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.

Carrasco continues to explain the criticisms volume one received:

“One of the objections people make to the history,” said the bachelor, “is that its author put into it a novel called The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious, not because it is a bad novel or badly told, but because it is out of place and has nothing to do with the history of his grace Señor Don Quixote.”

Again, quite. This was also one of the issues I mentioned having in my review of volume one. There were actually two interpolated novels, and Carrasco is right that they weren’t badly told, it’s just that neither remotely fit the rest of the book.

It turns out that there isn’t a single criticism I had of the first book that some contemporary of Cervantes didn’t also have, and Carrasco covers pretty much every one of them. It may not sound it, but it’s incredibly funny. Volume one wasn’t a quick read and while I loved it overall there were definitely parts that I had to push my way through. There is something quite joyous in starting volume two and seeing Carrasco and Don Quixote candidly discussing those failings. Carrasco even covers the various plot holes:

some have found fault and failure in the author’s memory, because he forgets to tell who the thief was who stole Sancho’s donkey, for it is never stated and can only be inferred from the writing that it was stolen, and soon after that we see Sancho riding on that same donkey and don’t know how it reappears. They also say that he forgot to put in what Sancho did with the hundred escudos he found in the traveling case in the Sierra Morena, for it is never mentioned again, and there are many who wish to know what he did with them, or how he spent them, for that is one of the substantive points of error in the work.”

It’s incredibly audacious, and utterly modern. That’s perhaps an odd thing to say of a book written in the early 17th Century, but it’s one of the most striking things about it.

Soon after their conversations with Carrasco, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza fall back into their old madness and folly and decide to go back on the road. The difference this time though is that pretty much everyone they meet knows who they are from reading volume one. Where once they deceived themselves, now they find themselves deceived by others as strangers play to Quixote’s madness hoping to see him act as he did in the book they read.

Whether the result is funny or tragic depends in part on the individual reader. In a way it’s both, and I’ll return to that below.

People prey upon Quixote’s madness for their own amusement, inventing elaborate schemes in the hope of leading him to greater follies. For much of the book he falls in with a duke and duchess who put him to a variety of sadistic trials, testing his chivalry for the diversion of their court.

At the same time Quixote and Sancho are more knowing here. At one point Sancho deliberately deceives Quixote, relying on Quixote’s madness to avoid the consequences of Sancho’s own misdeeds. Another time, Quixote goes alone into a cave and comes out telling of strange adventures he had within, which is fine and in line with his normal behaviour except that some of his later comments suggest he knows perfectly well that he simply made those particular exploits up.

What we’re seeing then is a loss of innocence. In the original Quixote is purely mad, Sancho purely a fool. Here Quixote is still mad and Sancho still a fool, but through Carrasco and Cervantes they have a greater sense of what they are. They are becoming disenchanted.

That’s what makes it hard to say whether this book is comedy or tragedy (of course the truth is it’s both at the same time). In some ways it’s crueler than the first book, because where previously they were beaten or humiliated by reason of their own misunderstandings here people see their innocence and take advantage of it. In a sense they meet Cervantes’ readership, laughing at them.

What makes it perhaps worse is that while Quixote’s chivalry is a romantic nonsense that doesn’t change the truth of his goodness. Time and again it’s commented how wise and intelligent he is when speaking to matters outside of his madness. His madness though drives him into the world to help others, to defend the weak and help the helpless. It’s a divine madness.

Sancho Panza seems avaricious, lazy and vulgar, but that isn’t of course what defines him. Rather it’s his wonderful loyalty. When eventually he is given a governorship as he was long promised (the result of another of the duke and duchess’ pranks) he turns out to be rather good at it because when put to the test his desire to do what right is greater than his desire to line his own pockets. He passes sensible laws and makes careful judgments. He is a good man. His folly lies in his faithfulness to Don Quixote even though he knows perfectly well that Quixote is mad, but it’s a folly that brings out his better self.

Quixote’s madness then is elevating. It makes Quixote risk himself for others, it makes Sancho Panza deny himself for others. It is a beautiful dream that is better than the savage Spain that is the reality around them. The comedy is how their dream is so ill-fitted to the world they live in, and the tragedy is that too.

I’m starting to make it sound gloomy, and perhaps it is but the act of reading it isn’t gloomy at all. It’s packed with sharp little one-liners and asides, much of the best dialogue of course going to Sancho Panza (“Señor, the devil has made off with my donkey.”). There’s a wonderful comic double-act between him and Quixote, with Sancho peppering his speech with quotes and sayings in such profusion that his meaning gets quite lost (although as he astutely observes sometimes his meaning remains quite clear and Quixote is simply indulging in snobbery, refusing to understand because he finds Sancho’s manner vulgar).

Sancho’s dialogue and insights are much more sophisticated here than in the first volume. So much so in fact that the translator within the fiction (the conceit is that Cervantes has had the work translated into Spanish) comments that he considers some passages apocryphal on the basis that they show more intelligence in Sancho than he possesses. We’re back to that ultra-modernity there of course, a text that comments on itself and that casts doubt on its own authority – therefore underlining its own artificiality. It’s much clearer to me having read this volume why Josipovici called it the first modernist novel.

For all his greater intelligence though, Sancho couldn’t get to the point if his life depended on it. At the court of the mischievous duke and duchess he tells a nicely observed story about the realities of power. It needs about two paragraphs. At this point he’s already half a page into it:

“Well, then, Señores,” Sancho continued, “I say that this nobleman, and I know him like I know my own hands because it’s only the distance of a crossbow shot from my house to his, gave an invitation to a farmer who was poor but honorable.” “Go on, brother,” the cleric said at this point. “You’re on the way to not finishing your story until you’re in the next world.”

“I’ll stop when I’m less than halfway there, God willing,” responded Sancho. “And so, I say that when this farmer came to the house of this nobleman, and may his soul rest in peace because he’s dead now, and he died the death of an angel from what people tell me, since I wasn’t present at the time because I had gone to Tembleque to work in the harvest—”

“On your life, my son, return quickly from Tembleque, and without burying the nobleman, and unless you want more funerals, finish your story.”

“Well, the fact of the matter is,” replied Sancho, “that when the two of them were ready to sit down at the table, and it seems to me I can see both of them now as clear as ever …”

I quote that because it’s easy when discussing this to make it sound terribly serious, whereas much of it in fact is closer to a Morecambe and Wise sketch set in early 17th century Spain. The point perhaps is that it’s just not possible to do justice to a book like this.  Theses have been written on it. It’s been the subject of literally centuries of scholarship. I could write 10,000 words and barely have scratched its surface and along the way I’d have lost the sheer fun of it.

This is a novel packed with perceptive insights into psychology and society, personal power and political, the nature of fiction and how we engage with reality. It has in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza two of the funniest and yet saddest characters ever to inhabit literature. Along with the duke and duchess we read about the two of them and their adventures, and we laugh at them, but the true joke is on us because they inhabit marvellous dreams while we only live in a crass reality of our own making and our adventures are lived through them.

Cervantes isn’t a romantic, and he’s not one to offer pat interpretations. Any conclusion I could try for would be defeated by some quote, some passage from the book which refuted it. I won’t therefore try for any kind of final judgement on the book. It’s too good for that, too magnificent. Instead I’ll end by urging you if you’re still reading this to read Don Quixote, ideally in this marvellous Edith Grossman translation. Literature literally does not get better than this.

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Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Modernist fiction, Spanish

SOMEWHERE IN LA MANCHA, in a place whose name I do not care to remember

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman, the first volume

How do you write about a book widely considered as being the first modern novel, the first novel in the sense in which we use that word today? A book thought by many, some of whom have even read it, as one of the greatest ever written? Well, the same way as any other I guess. Nothing kills literature faster than treating it with respect.

Emma of bookaroundthecorner has mentioned in the past having a mental category of daunting books. If ever a book fit that category, it’s Ulysses. And perhaps Gravity’s Rainbow. But however you cut it, Don Quixote is probably in the top three.

It’s not just a question of sheer physical bulk, though the Grossman translation clocks in at around 940 pages which isn’t to be sniffed at (though by way of comparison, the first two Game of Thrones’ novels alone add up to over 1,500 or so). It’s also a question of complexity, of unfamiliarity, and if I’m honest of the question of whether I’m up to a book that important.

What does it mean though to be up to a book? It speaks to us or it doesn’t. We enjoy it or we don’t. If others get more from it, well, that’s great for them but it doesn’t diminish our own experience of it (or shouldn’t anyway). If I knew more about early 17th Century Spain, about chivalric literature, about the cultural scene Cervantes was part of there’s no doubt that I’d take more from this book. That isn’t, however, a reason not to read it.

grossman-cover

What’s odd when you start Don Quixote is of course how familiar so much of it is. Don Quixote, the old knight driven mad by his books of chivalry who imitates what he read in them as if it were all true. Sancho Panza, his loyal if not particularly bright squire. Rocinante, Don Quixote’s broken down old nag of a horse. The makeshift armour, and of course the windmills.

If it were just all that this would be a fun book, but not perhaps a great one. It’s also though a satire of contemporary politics and of popular fiction, it embraces exploration of psychology rather than mere recounting of deeds, it mixes tragedy and comedy so that as I read it I alternated between laughing and being appalled. It asks whether it’s better to live in a mediocre and indifferent reality rather than a glorious but wholly fallacious fantasy. It’s all that and more. It’s slippery.

Don Quixote inhabits a dream of a better world, a dream informed by the chivalric romances that he has read so many of (and which the book sets out to skewer, an element of satire perhaps slightly less topical now than when it was written). His is a kingdom inhabited by noble knights, beautiful and virtuous maidens, sorcerors both helpful and maleficient, giants and magical devices of great power. It is literally a wonderful place, driven by grand passions. A knight errant can do great deeds, be remembered in this world and rewarded in heaven.

Don Quixote inhabits a Spain driven by commerce and petty cruelty. His world is one inhabited by grasping innkeepers, lecherous prostitutes, irreligious priests, bandits and poverty. It is a profoundly vulgar place, driven by self-interest. A man can do what he likes and can get away with, but in the end he like everyone else will die and be forgotten.

“That’s the way,” said Sancho, “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”

It’s that contrast, the gap between Don Quixote’s shining and beautiful dream and his grubby reality, that drives the book’s comedy and its tragedy. I loved watching Don Quixote justify to Sancho Panza the absurd outcomes of their adventures by reference to evil enchanters and strange illusions and truths that only a true knight can see. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.  

Much of the comedy is at the character level, but there is a great deal too at a metatextual level. In one scene two characters go through Don Quixote’s library in his absence, deciding which books should be burnt as dangerous and which preserved as worthwhile:

But what’s that book next to it?” “La Galatea, by Miguel de Cervantes,” said the barber. “This Cervantes has been a good friend of mine for many years, and I know that he is better versed in misfortunes than in verses. His book has a certain creativity; it proposes something and concludes nothing. We have to wait for the second part he has promised; perhaps with that addition it will achieve the mercy denied to it now; in the meantime, keep it locked away in your house, my friend.”

Similarly, Cervantes has fun with the conceit that this isn’t actually his book but merely one that he has found and had translated  (apparently a common literary device at his time):

Saying this, and grasping his sword, and protecting himself with his shield, and attacking the Basque were all one, for he was determined to venture everything on the fortune of a single blow. The Basque, seeing him attack in this fashion, clearly understood the courage in this rash act and resolved to do the same as Don Quixote. And so he waited for him, shielded by his pillow, and unable to turn the mule one way or the other, for the mule, utterly exhausted and not made for such foolishness, could not take another step. As has been said, Don Quixote was charging the wary Basque with his sword on high, determined to cut him in half, and the Basque, well-protected by his pillow, was waiting for him, his sword also raised, and all the onlookers were filled with fear and suspense regarding the outcome of the great blows they threatened to give to each other, and the lady in the carriage and all her maids were making a thousand vows and offerings to all the images and houses of devotion in Spain so that God would deliver the squire and themselves from the great danger in which they found themselves. But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted.

Cervantes loves playing this kind of game with the reader. There’s often a sense of him winking at you, commenting on what he’s doing as he’s doing it and knowingly playing with the artificiality of his form. This is not a book you can disappear into, a sort of alternate reality that offers escape from the everyday.

Gabriel Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? argued that Don Quixote was the first modernist novel, and while so far at least I don’t fully agree with him (I think he underemphasises the traditions that Don Quixote grew out of) he does still have a point. Most fiction does present a world that the reader can escape into, a sort of Quixotean alternative to the quotidian. Cervantes denies that. As you read he reminds you that you are holding a written artefact, crafted by a person behind the narrative. Ironically Don Quixote is a novel that precludes the reader from the Quixotean experience that fiction generally offers.

I don’t want though to give the impression that reading Don Quixote is a highbrow experience. The more you dig the more you’ll get out of the book, certainly there’s more in there than I’ve discovered, but it’s also deeply rooted in physical comedy and a certain theatre of the absurd:

“… come here and see how many molars and teeth I have lost, because it seems to me I do not have a single one left in my mouth.” Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face. “Mother of God!” said Sancho. “What’s happened? Surely this poor sinner is mortally wounded, for he’s vomiting blood from his mouth.” But looking a little more closely, he realized by the color, taste, and smell that it was not blood but the balm from the cruet, which he had seen him drink, and he was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.

This is of course only a review of the first volume. The second volume was written about ten years after the first, which means that for the book’s earliest readers this first volume was all there was. I’ve found before with major classic works that were published over a space of years that it can be much more rewarding not to try to swallow them all at once. There’s a risk of turning a book into a chore if you don’t allow yourself a break, whereas if you take it in the original installments you can have the pleasure of looking forward to the next part.

In this case I’m particularly pleased to have taken that approach. The first volume of Don Quixote contains two interpolated novellas within the text. These are stories told by characters within the narrative which bear no particular relation to the wider story. One is a tale of the perils of too rigorously testing your wife’s fidelity, while the other is a romantic tale of adventure among the Moors.  Apparently this sort of interpolated text was routine in Cervantes’ day, As the ever-helpful endnotes explain – “it was a fairly common practice to insert a romantic tale with Moorish themes into works that otherwise seemed to have little to do with either romance or the Moors.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t the faintest interest in romantic adventures with the Moors, and so I found that part of the book fairly heavy going. In the context of knowing that I was just reading the first part that was fine. There was plenty otherwise that I liked and there was an end in sight. Had I been going straight on to the second part I might have been a bit more demoralised by having to plough through a section that I just plain didn’t care about with several hundred pages to go afterwards.

My edition is the Edith Grossman translation. I’ve not read the original, but I can say that the language here is fluid and lively and a pleasure to read. The volume and content of the endnotes is well chosen – not so many that you drown in references, but illuminating and identifying elements I might have missed or explaining things that genuinely puzzled me. There’s also a nice sense of humour occasionally in the explanations, as here where Grossman explains a latin quote:

These lines are from Ovid, not Cato, and they translate roughly as “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”

As I write this I’m preparing to launch back in and read the second part. Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can make, both to the book and the translation. I’ve read some 450 pages so far and I plan to read another 500 or so more. I’m looking forward to them. This really is a great book, and like most great books while it can seem a little forbidding from a distance once you launch into it it’s quickly apparent why it’s lasted as long as it has.

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Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Modernist fiction, Spanish

Spanish fury

Arturo Pérez-Reverte is probably Spain’s most successful contemporary writer, hugely popular in his home country and widely translated outside it. He is perhaps best known outside Spain for his contemporary thrillers, often involving a central motif taken from art or history. Increasingly, however, he is known for his Captain Alatriste series of swashbuckling historical novels, which have made his name in Spain and which are now becoming available in English. To my frustration, I could not see who the translator was in the edition I read, which given I thought the English persuasive and free from jarring literalisms is a shame as I would have preferred to credit them in this entry.

The Sun over Breda is the third of the Captain Alatriste novels, so in order for this entry to make sense I shall step back a bit and set the scene. Pérez-Reverte is a fan of the work of Dumas, in particular the Three Musketeers series. Captain Alatriste is his homage to that earlier sequence of works, Pérez-Reverte’s own swashbuckling hero to add to the ranks of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis.

The series is set in Spain in the 1620s, in the reign of the rather hapless Phillip IV. Already, Spain is in decline with vast numbers of unemployed soldiers thronging the streets of Madrid and with a man’s pride and honour often being the only possessions left to him. Of utmost importance is Hidalguia, being a Hidalgo. A Hidalgo is a noble, of the lowest rank but sufficient rank to be exempt from many taxes. Many Hidalgos are dirt poor, they have nothing but their name and their honour, and those and their Hidalguia are the only bequests they have to leave their children. It is, therefore, a violent time and men are touchy and easily drawn to fatal argument.

It is also a time of great art, among Alatriste’s acquaintances is a young court artist, Diego de Velasquez, and poetry is vibrant and as much a weapon between men of honour as swords can be.

Captain Alatriste is himself an aging veteran, an honorary captain with no real rank and little employment or prospects. He is accompanied by a boy who acts as narrator, Íñigo Balboa, the framing device being that these are his memoirs of his days with the captain written when the boy has become an old man. Like the Flashman novels, Alatriste is inserted into history where he encounters and interacts with famous events and figures, and where notionally at least he is portrayed as genuinely being part of our history.

In the first two novels, we meet the major characters and Alatriste’s chilling nemesis (who plays no part in this third novel, so won’t be referred to further here). The first is an amusing and successful Dumas-esque piece of swashbuckling entertainment, hugely fun and a fitting tribute to the skill of Dumas’s original works (which I rate very highly, and which are much darker in their original literary form than many –Pérez-Reverte being an obvious exception – realise). The second examines in detail the principle of Purity of Blood, a highly political doctrine in Spain of that day under which men with any hint of Jewish blood in their background were barred from public office. With the third novel, war with the rebellious United Provinces has once again arisen, giving employment (if not generally pay) to anyone capable of bearing a musket or pike. We find Alatriste and his young narrator Íñigo fighting the Dutch and their Protestant allies, a fight that will lead inexorably to the famous siege of Breda, as immortalised by Velasquez in his masterpiece The Surrender at Breda.

Indeed, that painting is the heart of this novel. This is the novelisation of a painting, of the events leading up to it, of how that which it commemorates came to pass. The painting even exists in the novel, we are told that Velasquez took the details for it from Íñigo and near the end we meet Velasquez as he works upon it. Pérez-Reverte has a fondness for games of this sort, for placing artistic references in his works that make the external work of art a piece of his own work, taking our world into his.

Where the first two Alatriste novels were a mixture of swashbuckling vigour and historical intrigue however, this third novel is a much bleaker affair. Before reading it, I lent it to a friend who returned it with the comment that there was too little swashbuckling for his taste, and too much trench warfare. Although I enjoyed it more than he did, having now read it myself I do know what he meant. This is a grim novel. Men fight, kill and die and they do so in terrible conditions and with little meaningful reason to their sacrifices. We are in the Europe of the 30 year war, and it is a terrible place where hunger is the norm and a man’s life of no import whatsoever. This is not a novel to read for some enjoyable escapism (but then, nor is Twenty Years After, as Pérez-Reverte might well point out).

The book opens with an assault on the Dutch town of Oudkerk, we see a ruse open its gates to the Spanish troops without who fall upon it in a historic massacre, 150 men taking a town garrisoned with 700 enemy troops (according to Pérez-Reverte anyway, and since the history that I know is correctly portrayed in this novel I have every reason to believe the history I do not know is equally accurate). In what will become a theme, the Spanish forces decline to take prisoners of the enemy forces, killing all those they encounter (not all of whom may even be combatants) and sacking the town brutally. As Íñigo is at pains to point out however, this is a lawful sacking, the town was offered the chance to surrender and declined to do so and so as the custom of the day had it (a custom which harked back to Roman times originally I believe) a conquered town which had not chosen to surrender was at the mercy of those who had taken it.

Discipline in the Spanish army is brutal too, on the eve of attack some soldiers are hanged for sexual offences, so as to discourage others on the day from assaulting the women of Oudkerk (as opposed to killing all the men and stealing everything they find, including that which is nailed down). By way of comment on the need for discipline, Íñigo remarks:

“No unit and no company is perfect. Even in Christ’s, which was one he had recruited himself, there was one who betrayed him, another who denied him and yet another who failed to believe him.”

These are practical men, superstitious and religious both, but well able to put both to one side when need demands it and with little difficulty reconciling their own occupations with the religion they see themselves as promoting.

And so we continue, we see camp life under a Colonel nicknamed by his men Ropeshitter due to his fondness for hanging soldiers for any infraction however minor. We see battles, we see slow siege-work in which rival trenches are dug by each side while snipers kill any man unwise enough to put his head too high. All this is an accurate depiction of the warfare of the period, trench warfare was far from a 1914 invention. It is also, however, pretty dark stuff as men die frequently without sight of their aggressor and where more time is spent digging than actually engaging an enemy. Opportunities for glory seem few, the army is bankrupt and pay long overdue, hunger is a constant companion.

Despite all this slow toil and grind, combat is a frequent occurrence in the book, and as one might hope is skilfully described carrying an immediacy and a horror which although again not at all swashbuckling in nature nonetheless carries a real power. An excerpt here from a passage in which Íñigo, who is at this point just 14 years old, is caught in the midst of a vicious open field engagement where the force he is part of must hold the ground at all costs:

“At our backs, behind the pikes, rippled the shot-shredded crosses of St. Andrew. The Hollanders were right upon us, an avalanche of frightened or terrible eyes and blood-covered faces. Large, blond, courageous heretics were attempting to bury their pikes and halberds in us or run us through with their swords. I watched as Alatriste and Copons, shoulder to shoulder, dropped their harquebuses to the ground and unsheathed their Toledo blades, planting their feet firmly. I also watched as Dutch pikes penetrated our lines, and saw their lances wound and mutilate, twisting in bloody flesh. Diego Alatriste was slashing with sword and dagger among the long ash pikes. I grabbed one as it went by me and a Spaniard beside me plunged his sword into the neck of the Hollander holding the far end, his blood streamed down the shaft onto my hands. Now Spanish pikes were coming to our aid, approaching from behind us to attack the Dutch over our backs and through the spaces left by the dead. Everything was a labyrinth of lances and a crescendo of carnage.

I fought my way toward Alatriste, pushing through our comrades. When a Hollander cut his way through our men with his sword and fell at the captain’s feet, locking his arm around his legs with the intention of pulling him down as well, I gave a loud shout, pulled out my dagger and sprang toward him, determined to defend my master, even if I was cut to pieces in the process. Blinded by my madness, I fell upon the heretic, flattened my hand over his face and pressed his head to the ground. Alatriste kicked and pulled to be free of him and twice plunged his sword into the man’s body from above. The Hollander rolled over but was not willing to give up the ghost. He was a hearty man but he was bleeding from his mouth and nose like a Jarama bull at the end of a corrida. I can remember the sticky feel of his blood – red and streaked with gunpowder – and the dirt and blond stubble on his white, freckled faced. He fought me, unresigned to dying, whoreson that he was, and I fought him back. Still holding him down with my left hand, I tightened my grip on the dagger in my right and stabbed him three times in the ribs, but I was so close to his chest that all three attempts slid across the leather buffcoat protecting his torso. He felt the blows, for I saw his eyes open wide, and at last he released my master’s legs in order to protect his face, as if he were afraid I would wound him there. He moaned. I was blinded by fear and fury, deranged by this mongrel, who so obstinately refused to die. I stuck the tip of my dagger between the fastenings of his buffcoat. ‘Neee. …Srinden. …Nee,’ the heretic murmured, and I pressed down with all the weight of my body. In less than an Ave Maria he spat up one last vomit of blood, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he lay as still as if he had never had life.”

Now, there is much in that prose one could criticise were one minded to, phrases such as “give up the ghost” are clichéd and the language is in many ways quite workmanlike, but as a description of a horrific battle to the death culminating in a boy taking a man’s life with his dagger as they grapple in dirt and filth, I find it very effective and I am not persuaded that more sophisticated prose would actually improve the passage. The very flatness of the text, the matter of fact descriptions and the quotidianity of the language, each add to the horror and to the impression that what is happening no matter how terrible is in fact no more than a job of work for these individuals.

Later, on a battle turning irrevocably in their favour, the Spaniards go into a revel of killing, chasing the enemy as they flee and cutting them down without mercy. Again, they do not take surrenders, those they catch, they kill. They rob corpses, they slaughter men who have hands raised in surrender and who are pleading for mercy, when a group retreats into a farmhouse they burn it down and kill all who emerge. They kill until the Spanish fury (a phrase of the time) deserts them and they collapse in sheer exhaustion. This is not a war of duels and gentlemen (though more on that later, for some of it is), it is carnage and butchery in which the sheer relief of being alive is expressed more often than not in the killing of others.

In between battles, soldiers manage to offend each other to the point of fighting duels to the death, a rebellion over backpay arises (but not before a town is taken, the troops pride themselves on only rebelling after victories so that none can accuse them of cowardice), a tyrant commander takes vicious pleasure in hanging his own men, the book despite it’s relatively short length (partly disguised by needlessly wide spacing in the Phoenix edition I read) contains much incident. We see the lives of the men at camp as well as at battle, but life at camp is a prelude to battle and the book’s most memorable sequences tend in the main to be in its battles.

As the siege continues, Alatriste and others are sent into tunnels to intercept Dutch counter-tunnels (or possibly Dutch counter-counter tunnels, it was common practice for each side to undermine the other’s works). In an unrelenting seven page sequence Alatriste and a small number of others crawl through narrow and unstable passages to intercept the Dutch, on encountering them they fight in darkness and in the knowledge that once again neither side will be taking prisoners and that surrender is simply a means of hastening your own execution. Using sharpened digging tools as weapons, they butcher the Dutch, feeling for them in darkness. They then must flee (crawling on their bellies all the while) when the Dutch outside the immediate attack flood the tunnels with poisonous sulphur in a bid to kill the Spaniards, even if they kill their own in the process. This is not portrayed as anything noble, it is killing as a chore, as a task which must be performed but in which no great pleasure is taken. Killing, like digging, is simply another job for the tired and hungry Spanish soldier to accomplish, and there is no greater moral weight to one action than there is to the other.

I mentioned above this not being a war for gentleman, and yet as the book shows us some absurd fragments of what passes for chivalry remain. At one point the Dutch besieged in Breda send out a challenge, five Protestant men will fight five Spaniards. Nothing hangs on this, the Dutch will not surrender if they lose nor the Spaniards depart if they should fail. It is simply a matter of honour, a further pointless piece of butchery under the guise of gentlemanly conduct.

The duel itself is briefly described:

“Don Luis de Bobadilla, the younger of the two guzmanes, went down with the first shots, while the others closed in on each other with great energy and deadly intent. One of the Dutchmen was felled by a pistol shot that broke his neck, and another of his companions, the Scot, was wounded in the torso, run through by the sword of Pedro Martin, who lost it there. Finding himself with no sword and two discharged pistols, he was then knifed in the throat and chest, falling upon the man he had just killed. As for Don Carlos del Arco, he engaged the Frenchman so skilfully that, between thrust and counter thrust, he was able to aim a shot at his face, though he then withdrew from the fight, hobbled by a wicked wound to his thigh. Minaya finished off the Frenchman with Captain Alatriste’s pistol and badly wounded the second Dutchman with his own, emerging without a scratch himself. And Egiluz, his left hand crippled by a musket ball but with his sword in his right, dealt to clean blows to the last of their opponents, one on an arm and the other to the flank. The heretic, seeing himself wounded and alone, resolved, like Antigone, not to flee exactly, but to fall back and check his resources. The three Spaniards still standing relieved their adversaries of their weapons and their bands, which were orange, according to the custom of those who served the Estates General. They would even have carried the bodies of Bobadilla and Martin to our lines had the Dutch, furious at the outcome, not consoled themselves over their defeat with a hailstorm of musket balls. Our men, therefore, were slowly quitting the field when a musketeer’s lead struck Egiluz in the kidneys, and although, helped by his companions, he reached the trenches, he died three days later. As for the seven bodies, they lay on open ground almost all day, until there was a brief truce at dusk and each side was able to recover its own.”

Thus goes chivalry in 1625.

Again, the prose is workmanlike rather than refined, and Pérez-Reverte shows a great fondness for commas, but given the narrative is supposed to be that of a retired soldier looking back, and given the intent is to portray the events of the day as in a picture, for me, it works well and I think the style of language well suited to the effect Pérez-Reverte seeks to achieve.

Battles and bloodshed continues, culminating in a twelve page depiction of a vicious battle in which the Spanish are overrun and fight near to the last man to prevent their banner falling into enemy hands and so dishonouring their tercio (a body of men of the time). Preferring to die defending their honour than to die fleeing, and knowing that as so often in this novel surrender will not be accepted, for twelve pages men fight and die in a welter of fatigued savagery as bullets run out long before the advancing enemy are depleted.

“’This is the end,’ said Pablo Olivares.
We looked at one another, undecided, hearing the cries of the English drawing closer up the slope. Their clamour was making me quake with terror, a bottomless despair. We had less time left than it takes to recite the Credo, and no options but the enemy or the swamp.[Note, earlier in the novel they themselves slaughtered men who fled to a swamp.] Some men started drawing their swords.
‘The standard,’ said Alatriste.
Several looked at him as if they did not understand his words. Others, Copons first among them, went and stood by the Captain.
‘He’s right,’ said Mendieta, ‘better with the standard’.
I knew what he meant. Better out there with the standard, fighting around it, than here behind the gabions, cornered like rabbits. I know longer felt any fear, only a deep and ancient weariness, and a wish to finish this thing.”

Once again we have the same refrains as earlier, fatigue, desperation, an utter lack of meaningful choice before the protagonists. Religion as a constant source of reference (Christ’s company, in less than an Ave Maria, less time left than it takes to recite the Credo), but a source of seemingly no comfort at all. Death is a matter of duty and obligation, the death of others and one’s own.

So, overall a grim and fairly unrelenting work. One in which war is portrayed as bloody and brutal, with Pérez-Reverte intentionally setting the whole of the novel in the smoky ruin that merely forms an element of backdrop to Velasquez’s masterpiece. Here orders are not explained, men are sent on missions from which there is little meaningful prospect of return (and many do not return), life is fragile and very fleeting but these are not men who by virtue of that fact hold it all the more precious. Rather, they are hardened, accustomed to death, it is not in the end a matter of great importance to them. It is certainly of far less importance than their honour.

A final quote, before some final thoughts, a comment by Íñigo on the nature of the Spanish troops:

“…despised, cruel, arrogant Spaniards disciplined only when under fire, who suffered everything in any assault but would allow no man to raise his voice to them.”

On the matter of final thoughts, as that last quote shows, this is a novel with an ambiguous relationship to its subject matter. It is hard on reading it not to feel a pride on Pérez-Reverte’s part in these men and in what they, and Spain, achieved. Again, like Flashman and George MacDonald Fraser, although much is condemned and much held up as idiocy, there is a feeling that the Empire is seen as something glorious and the sacrifices made for it perhaps at some level worthwhile. As in MacDonald Fraser, war is a terrible and bloody business, but the men who fight it are glorious despite the utter lack of any glory. It is, as I say, an ambiguous attitude to the source material but it is an ambiguity which I think MacDonald Fraser also shares and is perhaps unavoidable in writing of such terrible events in which such surprising courage was sometimes displayed.

Pérez-Reverte also plays a number of games with the reader, poems are included in the back which may or may not be historical (some clearly are not since they reference Alatriste himself, some it is not so clear – to me at any rate). He includes an essay on why although Alatriste is said to be in the Velasquez painting he cannot be seen in it today, he recovers excerpts which he claims were deleted from a play of the period and which when reinserted into it refer to Alatriste’s exploits. He maintains the fiction of Alatriste’s reality, and once again the comparison with MacDonald Fraser seems apt.

Do I recommend this novel? It’s hard to say. My friend was right, it is short on swashbuckling and long on trench warfare. It makes for a surprisingly grim read, and is by no means the light hearted romp the (rather glorious) cover portrays it as. For all that, as an evocation of the experience of war in the early 17th Century it succeeds amply and as a work of historical fiction it certainly has its rewards. I do hope, however, that the next instalment sees a return to Madrid, intrigue and a little romance and humour placed back in to the mix.

http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/showbook.php?id=0753823608

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Filed under Historical fiction, Military fiction, Pérez-Reverte, Arturo, Spanish