Jordi Punti's debut novel, translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark, centres on four brothers in search of their father. The brothers have never met up – nor do they know of one another's existence – until their father, Gabriel, is pronounced missing by the Spanish police. Gabriel had, during the 1960s, been a lorry driver, impregnating four different women in four European cities until his life was knocked off course by a terrible accident.
The premise provides a marvellous platform for digressive riffs, often witty and insightful, on language and European-ness. In part one, Gabriel's early life is pieced together by the sons' alternating accounts. These interlinked narratives detail his meetings with their mothers and his friendship with lorry-driving partner Bundó. In the course of their storytelling, the brothers develop a "linguistic synergy" that brings them closer to their father, who "spoke all our languages yet none of them".
Much of the writing is evocative. The conceit of the four brothers representing a microcosm of modern Europe suggests the possibility of a shared consciousness, and yet when the point-of-view reverts to the collective "we", it fails to sustain momentum.
Unfortunately, too, in the depiction of female characters, the language is close to caricature. This is echoed when Gabriel meets Sarah, a nurse, and the English recipient of his long-distance haulier's Latin seed: "There was also a sort of Spanish machismo about him, something primitive and exotic and, I confess, I was doomed from the start." Fortunately Gabriel, an orphan, is also attractively vulnerable and his sexual adventures are presented as though he were a victim of circumstance.
Despite some good set pieces in the first half, "Departures", the story at times descends into the kind of tedium associated with long motorway journeys. But part two, "Arrivals", is worth waiting for. As the French brother, Christophe, tells the others: "The passage of time always distorts reality." Perhaps the sprawling ambition of this entertaining but flawed novel is let down by a similar distortion.
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