This is a book I bought (and got signed) at the Ibero-American Literature Festival at Foyles. I hadn’t heard of the author before, well, it’s the first work of Galician literature I’ve read. (I chose this one because I liked the title and the cover – but apparently it’s the most translated Galician novel). I really enjoyed it, the latter half more than the first, but I must say I found the plot difficult to get into. The main characters are Doctor Da Barca (a medical doctor), a kind-hearted and witty political prisoner during the Civil War, and Herbal, the prison guard who’s in charge of keeping an eye on him, and who’s also in love with the doctor’s wife. The events of 1936 are narrated by Herbal a few years later to an escort girl at the club where he also works, with the narration going back and forth in time. There is the carpenter, also a prisoner, who dies early on in the book, but his pencil joins the cast of characters – a touch of magic realism. So I struggled with who was who and who was doing what until I reached the half, but was really hooked by the touching plot afterwards.
One of my favourite passages, with Doctor Da Barca, and Genghis Khan, a fellow inmate and a former boxer – a big guy, but a bit dim:
“The second time [Doctor Da Barca] went into shock, Genghis Khan kept watch by his side.
When he woke up, he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, LP?’
‘Getting rid of the lice, doctor. And keeping the rats at bay.’
‘Have I slept for so long?’
‘Three days and three nights.’
‘Thank you Genghis. I’m going to buy you lunch.’
At lunchtime, in the dining hall, Doctor Da Barca and Genghis Khan sat down opposite one another and all the prisoners were astonished witnesses of that banquet.
‘You’re going to start with a seafood cocktail. Lobster with mayonnaise, served on a heart of lettuce from the Barcia Valley.’
‘And to drink?’ Genghis Khan asked incredulously.
‘To drink,’ Doctor Da Barca said very seriously, ‘a white Rosal.’
He was staring at him, drawing him into his eyes and something was happening because Genghis Khan stopped laughing, hesitated for a moment as if he were at a height and suffering vertigo, and then fell into a daze. Doctor Da Barca stood up, went around the table and gently closed his eyelids as if they were lace curtains.” (66-67). So the doctor hypnotizes him, and Genghis Khan enjoys a main course of rump steak and creamed potatoes, washed down with a red Amanti, followed by boiled chestnuts from the Courel Mountains, a treat from his childhood, which makes him cry with joy.
Chapters 16 and 19 are really romantic, and moving. I loved chapter 16 because it’s from the point of view of a boy selling newspapers at the train station – a character who features only in that chapter. He converses with Old Betun, who sells tobacco to the passengers, and simply repeats something he heard from him to a prospective newspaper buyer on the platform (who happens to be Da Barca’s wife), which has a devastating effect for the woman. Chapter 19, the penultimate, is the finale really. It was one of those book endings that I savoured slowly and read five pages at a time.
So, I would describe this book as a love story against the backdrop of a political turmoil – a sad one, occasionally lit up by the main character’s good humour. I’d recommend it to anyone who liked Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.