Books Burn Badly, By Manuel Rivas trans. Jonathan Dunne

Reviewed,Amanda Hopkinson
Friday 12 March 2010 01:00 GMT

This is an exceptional book by an exceptional writer. Even among the near-industrial quantity of books now published on the Spanish Civil War, it is unusual. And within Manuel Rivas's own measured and exquisite output, not only does it attain the stature of a magnum opus, being roughly the combined length of his four preceding novels (all ably translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne). It combines the folkloric lyricism of his In the Wilderness with the theme of the civil war already pursued by his first novel, The Carpenter's Pencil.

Essentially, this is the account of one day in the first year of the war, 19th August 1936, when pyres of books were assembled and abused by posses of Falangists on the beaches of Galicia, and its aftermath. Even Rivas, steeped in his native land, was formerly unaware of this event overlooked in previous histories. There can be little more emotive subject than for an author already absorbed by the legacy of the war to uncover the destruction of his literary antecedents.

Rivas's book has a cast of characters that includes a local boxer and a washerwoman, along with the matchgirls and the fishermen in the strategically vital port of La Coruna. But a subplot concerns the biography not of a person but of a unique copy of the New Testament. It the only book the British writer George Borrow ever dedicated: to the man who saved his life, Antonio de la Trava, "Valiente [musketeer] of Finisterra", in 1836. Borrow, an itinerant preacher, writer and translator, had been awarded the singular distinction of having his translation of von Klinger's Faust publicly burnt by Norfolk's Public Subscription Libraries.

De la Trava's New Testament, dedicated at the height of the Peninsular Wars, resurfaces in 1936, rescued from the pyres by the boxer, Vicente Curtis. Curtis is also known as Hercules, a name shared not simply with the most famous hero of Greek mythology but also with that of the La Coruna lighthouse, whose insignia involves an open book beaming out light. Hercules would have preferred to have been called Kid Kafka or Maxim: better for the ring, and inspired by names on the spines in the barrow-loads of books he transported from the station to the Faith bookshop in better days. It is Rivas's constant re-immersion of universal legend in local history which gives this complex novel its unique character.

For Rivas's and Borrow's books possess lives of their own. Their history bears witness as much as an inventory of survival as a catalogue of wanton death. "The book fires are not part of the city's memory. They're happening now... This is why the fire progresses slowly, because it has to overcome resistance, the arsonists' incompetence, the unusualness of burning books". At the same time, according to Hercules, "books are a kind of graft": they not only derive from trees but they grow and alter in the sharing and in the imagination. In La Coruna, they were also subversively distributed to coastal villages by a travelling library – a fishing boat.

In the first year of the civil war, the transformations were only just beginning. Names were changed, yes, as were professions, until everyone seemed to be using an alias. Books were used to excise encoded messages, concealed within matchboxes. Olinda, the matchgirl, risks her life to save others through unspoken words – until she and her 300 co-workers are summarily sacked from the factory, their union banned.

It reopens almost immediately, staffed with members of the Glorious Movement of the Falange, who start each day with the Roman salute. Olinda, now pregnant, changes elements - from fire to water - and becomes a laundress. With the disappearance of so many around her, she found herself obliged to hold a candle to their memory. And candles need a light, as do key comrades like the long-imprisoned Polka and the Catalan architect Joan Sert. When Polka opens his mouth and lets forth a stream of ants, introduced into his body through the open wounds of his torture, Sert declares: "You're a surrealist!"

Part real, like Sert or Borrow; part surreal, like Polka or Hercules; the characters, like the events, are only superficially fictitious. The book has an oneirically timeless quality that collapses past into present, and towards its end steers the reader back to England in 1968. The Odyssean journey is accomplished as the most "anthropomorphic" of artefacts returns. For books, like humans, can sometimes "survive the flames, the dampness of the dungeons, the robbers in the Palace of Justice". This tour de force comes full circle in a unique literary enterprise.

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at the University of East Anglia. Her most recent translation (with Ros Schwartz) is of 'Affairs of State' by Dominique Manotti (Arcadia)

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