Pushkin Press can always be relied upon to produce interesting and high quality books and I was pleased to receive Barcelona Shadows from them as a review copy. My praise of this book is nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t pay for it – I reject many books that come my way, but this one is really good.
In the early part of the last century, Barcelona was horrified by the crimes of a the real-life Enriqueta Marti, a child murderer and procuress. The city’s population had been swollen by wave after wave of peasants and working class people, together with soldiers returning from the Moroccan Wars. Atrocious slums developed and the lack of employment meant that everyone was trying to scrape a living by whatever means they had at their disposal.
Among this maelstrom of poverty and desperation, Enriquesta Marti began to horrify the population with a series of child abductions and murders, the full of extent of which only became known when she was discovered and arrested. It is possible that she was the most prolific murderer every active in Spain, so many were the remnants of small bodies found in her apartment and other properties. The final tally of her murders is now unlikely ever to be known.
Marc Pastor, a Catalan writer and also a professional crime scene investigator, has written a novel based on the short period leading up to the arrest of Enriqueta Marti. Amazingly, he finds a way of doing this which does not terrify the reader with the gruesomeness of the crimes, by focusing on a policemen, Moisès Corvo who is investigating the disappearances, along with his sidekick Malsano. Despite the seriousness of their quest, Corvo and Malsano keep up a nice flow of scurrilous banter going as they travel around the dark places of the city. Corvo is a well drawn character who would have the making of a fine fictional detective if Mark Pastor felt inclined to write another novel set in Barcelona. We read a lot about his back story, his child-less marriage and his disappointed wife. He has a profound world-weariness but his detective work keeps him going, along with relationships with women of the night and a never-empty bottle on the table.
Reading two books at a time
I’ve never liked reading more than one book at a time, and so its not been particularly easy to interrupt my current book to return to Don Quixote which I am reading over the course of ten weeks. However, I soon get back into the tales of the valiant knight and his exploits with his servant Sancho Panza.
This week’s reading in Don Quixote covers pages 276 to 368. I am reading the book in ten chunks of about 90 pages each, and this is chunk number four.
Untangling a mistaken coupling
This week we read of two pairs of lovers, previously mis-matched, now reorganising themselves so they are in the correct pairs! Don Quixote has little part in this, it being left to the noble Don Fernando to be persuaded of the rightness of the new arrangements – after all, he was to get the lovely Dorotea who his associates assured him was unequalled among women, humble, beautiful, virtuous and loved him greatly. Who could resist?
The war against the wineskins
Meanwhile our brave Don Quixote persisted with the belief that he had resolved the amorous confusion by doing battle with two huge wineskins containing about 18 gallons (about 70) litres) of wine believing it to be a giant.
Well, that’s about 280 pages of adventuring with Don Quixote so far. Fortunately, Miguel de Cervantes has turned out to be the writer everyone says he is and my interest has been held.
I’ve pulled out three themes from this week’s reading:
Spain is a country of mountain ranges and high sierras and in the 16th century it wasn’t difficult to get off the track and find yourself in a place only inhabited by lonely goat-herds and the creatures of wild places (wolves are mentioned but I think these were the Iberian wolf which is less dangerous to humans than some other varieties). In the Gospels, the mad man who had enough devils cast out of him to drive a herd of pigs over a cliff wandered in the wild places. The wilderness is a place of lunatics and mad adventurers, which must make it hard to those who have to scrape a living in those places by hunting animals or tending goats.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza travel through the wilderness while fleeing retribution for freeing a group of convicts destined to become galley slaves. They meet a young man with lacerations all over his body and wearing ragged clothes. His tale seems lucid enough – the Duke’s son he served had stolen his beloved Luscinda from him by trickery. But while he started his tale with sanity, a fit of madness came over him half way through, causing him to throw a rock at Don Quixote then beat Sancho to the ground and jump up and down on his ribs.
So far, my reading of Don Quixote has shown me that its humour is its strongest feature, quite apart from the compelling drama of the ridiculous “adventures” and the lyrical tales which are told along the way (by the way, the idea of reading Don Quixote over ten weeks came from Stu of Winstonsdad’s blog).
In a recent interview for Reading Matters Triple Choice Tuesday I selected A Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith as my favorite book of all time and I am now struck by the similarities between Charles Pooter and Don Quixote.
- Both are pompous, believing themselves a cut above everyone else.
- Pooter takes over-weening pride in being a member of the new middle-class of Victorian London with housemaids and tradesmen to boss around. Don Quixote is so self-deluded that he gets an inn-keeper to make him a knight and then goes round proclaiming chivalric duties and privileges wherever he goes. Pooter makes himself into a ridiculous figure without realising it, just as Don Quixote makes a fool of himself wherever he goes.
- Pooter’s voice of reason his wife Carrie, whereas Don Quixote spends as much time ignoring the wise counsel of his “steward” Sancho Panza, with equally disastrous results.
Along with Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog, I am reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes at the rate of 92 pages a week (it will take us ten weeks to complete the book). We are using the acclaimed 2003 translation by Edith Grossman whose Wikipedia entry suggests that she deserves a review of her own – I’d recommend anyone who reads Don Quixote to read the interview with her here.
I’m not going to provide background information on the book or any sense of literary criticism – there are vast amounts of material already on the net including a comprehensive and highly informative Wikipedia entry. I shall instead concentrate as usual on my reading experience, what I thought of the book, passages I particularly enjoyed, overall impressions.
Firstly, I was impressed with the sheer modernity of this book. De Cervantes’ humour and satire is bang up to date, and the whole book has a freshness about it which made me feel it could be a modern novel. It wasn’t a difficult read, but raced along from one episode to another with terrific pace. If the next eight hundred pages are going to be anything like the first hundred that I’m really not going to be bored in the company of Don Quixote. Let me just pick up a few points that struck me –
Reading can make you go mad
Well, we all know that – Timothy Ryback’s book Hitler’s Private Library shows the power of literature to shape character with disastrous results. Don Quixote developed an obsession with “books of chivalry” and read them with such devotion and enthusiasm that the he let his affairs go to pot and “with these words and phrases the poor gentleman lost his mind”. In fact he read from dusk to dawn and sunrise to sunset and was caught up in so much reading “that his brains dried up”. A warning there for book bloggers I think. This takes me back to being eighteen and reading the whold of Lord of the Rings in one weekend and expecting to see hobbits in the woods when I next took a walk in the country (a belief that soon faded I’m pleased to say).
Thanks to everyone who visited while I was away in Germany. I did a lot of reading and have taken plenty of notes for future reviews.
Now on to today’s book, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal. Spanish Catalonia has a very distinctive culture of its own, with its own language, Catalonian, and many traditions and festivals unique to the region. I have long had an interest in the Pyrenees, not least because of the folk songs adapted for guitar by Miguel Llobet, and recently made popular by Catalan musicians like Toti Soler and Ester Formosa. If any readers have Spotify on their computer, then I would recommend listening to the album L’Arxiver De Tortosa, particularly songs like La Filadora (The Spinner) and Rossinyol (The Cuckoo). You will rapidly get a good impression of difficulties for an English speaker of the Catalonian language!
It was a pleasure to read Stone in a Landslide, the ficitional life-story of a Catalonian woman living in a village deep in the Pyrenees. The author, Maria Barbal, is a highly regarded Catalan writer and I can only admire the translators Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell who have done such a good job of translating the harsh tones of this difficult language into sparse but elegant English. The translation was supported by a grant from the Institut Ramon Llull who support the translation of works from original Catalan
The story is told in the first person by Conxa (real name Concepcion but whose family evidently needed something shorter in a noisy household to call out to one of their six children). Conxa is now an old lady of 80 and looks back on her life, reflecting on the events that shaped her and reluctantly accepting what has been a difficult journey for her. The voice the author gives her is totally convincing and changes through the book reflecting the innocence of childhood, the griefs and suffering of the years of the Civil War and the resignation of an old woman far from happy with life in the modern world. Continue reading