June 21, 2012

Literature: Arturo Pérez-Reverte's La tabla de Flandes (1990)... Or why I should really start reading more contemporary Spanish literature

"El alfil blanco se come a la dama negra [...] el escorpión se clava la cola... es la primera vez en mi vida que presencio [...] un suicidio sobre el tablero."— Arturo Pérez-Reverte, La tabla de Flandes
Summer reading. That's why I'm posting this. The hope of influencing your summer reading lists. Maybe I'll post some other book recommendations. I've got a few on my list which are about Spain or are by Spaniards. But mostly I'm recommending this book, and this author, because, after I finished reading it and then looked over my list of books I've read (a list I've kept since I was 12 years old), I realized with great shame that La tabla de Flandes, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, might be the first Spanish novel I've read that wasn't assigned to me for a Spanish language or literature course. How did this happen!?!

It's not that I'm afraid of reading in Spanish. I read _a lot_ of online news in Spanish, especially El País. I've read plenty of history books in Spanish (a professional hazard). And this wasn't even the first novel I've read in Spanish for fun. (Late last year I finished the Murakami 1Q84 trilogy in Spanish translation, rather than English translation, because the Spanish copy came out a month earlier!) It's just that recently I've read so little fiction, so little for fun, and of that even less that is contemporary fiction. (I have a soft spot for 19th-century literature). That when I thought about books I would read in Spanish by Spanish authors, I always tended to fall back on the stereotypes classics: Cervantes, Unamuno, Lorca, Hemingway, Machado, Pardo Bazán, Matute... maybe Blasco Ibáñez, Quevedo, or Ortega y Gasset for the more ambitious. (I'm taking Catalan classes, so also on my long-term list now is Martorell's Tirant lo blanch.)... You know, all those people we were assigned in high school for the College Board Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish Literature test... those works that get mentioned in "Hispanomania" books as "la España profunda". (Any Spaniards reading this, I encourage you to look at the 2012 AP Spanish Lit & Culture prep guide, page 21, "Required Reading List," if you are curious to know what American Hispanophiles read to learn about Spanish-language culture.) But then I'd think, "Ugh, do I really feel like reading Golden Age literature right now." And so I read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games instead. (Did the the search ranking of my blog just jump up a notch with that last sentence?)

Page-hits experiment: I suspect Google Image Search favors images that provide
odd combinations of high profile visuals... So will this visual combo of best-
selling novels draw more web-search traffic to this blog entry? I'll let you know.

Sure, there are a couple of living authors on that Advanced Placement list, and one that is Spanish: Rosa Montero. (Mental note: add Montero to my longterm reading list.) But believe it or not, Spaniards are still publishing great literature, and it is not all about blood and sand, or even flamenco and gypsies. For example, two other names to keep an eye out for: Javier Marías, whose 1992 novel, Corazón tan blanco, was a big hit; and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, whose historical fiction, La sombra del viento (2001), seems to have gradually appeared on all my Spanish friends' bookshelves over the past decade since its release. Clearly that's not an exhaustive list, but a first impression of current best-seller Spanish authors.

And another such living and breathing (and tweeting), and best-selling author is Pérez-Reverte. I knew about him because my well-meaning wife bought me his book, yes this book, many, many years ago as part of Project Get-husband-to-improve-his-Spanish-through-immersion-in-good-popular-contemporary-literature. In my obstinacy laziness, the book languished away on the bookshelf unread, but meanwhile I noticed that Pérez Reverte surfaced in the news with sufficient frequency to confirm my wife's statement that he was an author-to-follow. Born in Cartagena in 1951, he was a war correspondent for a Spanish newspaper and then for TVE for two decades, before settling into writing novels fulltime in the mid 1990s. He tends towards incorporating history into his novels, which means they're full of cultural references (and thus vocabulary), culture which is often as much European as anything specifically Spanish (Welcome to modern Spain!); though Spanish localities feature prominently in the plots, as do Spanish personalities. Non-Spanish audiences discovered Pérez-Reverte through the Capitán Alatriste seven-book series, which was made into a Spanish movie, Alatriste (2006) starring the awesome Viggo Mortenson (whose Spanish in the film was impressive). Pérez-Reverte's other two big sellers, which along with El capitán Alatriste (1996) were digitalized this year for the e-book market, were La Reina del Sur (2002), about present-day Mexico-Spain drug trafficking networks, and El asedio (2010), which takes place in Cádiz just after the Napoleonic wars. Another of his popular novels, El club Dumas (1993), was loosely the inspiration for the Roman Polanski movie The Ninth Gate (1999).

Viggo Mortensen grew up in South America, mostly Argentina,
and because of this is fluent in Spanish... That and his ability to
ride horses made him a clear front candidate for this Spanish production.

La tabla de Flandes (1990) was one of Pérez-Reverte's earliest hits. Following his usual signature of weaving history into his stories, it is a crime novel about an art restorer, Julia, who lives in present-day Madrid but is charged with restoring a mysterious 15th-century Flemish painting, "The Chess Game". Very early in the novel she discovers the painting carries a hidden message, "Quis necavit equitem", Latin for "Quién mató al caballero" ("who killed the knight"). In her efforts to unravel the painting's history and riddle, she and her friends and colleagues become embroiled in a criminal investigation with murder, mystery and suspense... Among the novel's more ingenious story-lines is that Julia and friends attempt to reconstruct the chess game in the painting, leading to some interest chess play and game-of-life plot twists. (I.e. the book is _great_ for chess fans... and also good for learning chess ("ajedrez") vocabulary in Spanish... rey, dama or reina, caballo, alfil, torre, peón... jaque, and jaque mate). Above all, I was impressed with the novel's vivid passages and pauses in the plot where Pérez-Reverte takes the time to describe the setting or surrounding and blend this with the mood of the location or protagonist. (Again, all great moments for non-native readers like me to encounter new vocabulary.) This novel was also made into a movie, Uncovered (1995), which, now that I know about, I'm going to have to hunt down and watch.

Kate Beckinsale in a movie called "uncovered"... hmmm.
If the search ranking of my past blog entries is any predictor,
something tells me including this poster picture of Kate Beckinsale
is going to dramatically increase the page hits of this entry.
(Notice how the "Dark eyes, dark hair, thick lisp..." entry is
always sitting in the "Popular Posts this Week" tab on the right.
I wonder why?)

Reading tip on skimming ("leer por encima"): The trouble with reading good literature in a foreign language is that your mind's eye still hasn't learned how to ignore all those words on the page that you don't need to read in order to understand what's going on in the story. Nobody really reads every word of a book... except (hopefully) the author, (doubtfully) the editor, (probably) some literary critics or graduate students writing their dissertation on it, and (possibly) some future writers who are themselves hoping to learn the art of explication and how to win with words. The rest of us have learned how to ignore "extra" words in a sentence as you read or to pass over descriptive, "internal" sections. (I'm sorry Henry James, but I think I'll pass over that vivid and fascinating description of the estate's well-groomed shrubs; thank you Dostoyevsky, but I think I more than got the psychology of our protagonist 20 pages of inner-monologue earlier.)

What's difficult in foreign languages is that your eye has a harder time picking up those subtle cues which tell you what part of the text is "extraneous" and what is critical. (This can be particularly troublesome in "whodunits", where a missed pronoun might make the difference between catching subtle foreshadowing —the butler in the dining room with the axe versus the maid in the salon with the pistol— and wondering why they haven't come out and said who the killer is. (Parenthetical to the parenthetical comment: note how Pérez-Reverte avoids incriminating gendered-language, e.g. uses lots of gender ambiguous "su", towards the end of this novel when the protagonists guess who did it, but we the reader still don't know.)) So my advice is that you go easy on yourself and not worry about whether you've understood everything on a page. Chances are whatever you missed will be more than clearly spelled out on the next page, or soon enough. It is as important to learn to enjoy reading a book in a foreign language, as it is to master said language by learning through reading books.

Of course, this is not to say that slow reading doesn't have its merits.
The key is to find a balance between pausing every third line to look
up a new word or marvel at a well-written passage, and trying to move
forward through the book at a pace where the plot continues
to engage your interest.

The joy in reading (contemporary) fiction in a foreign language is that you get introduced to an entirely different language than what you'll tend to hear in day-to-day spoken Spanish. You get body motion language, such as fun phrases like to look "de soslayo" (askance or sideways). Authors exercise the "-asa/-ese" imperfect subjunctive form, which is used in literature more frequently than the more commonly uttered or spoken "-ara/-era" form. And you get the particular idioms of the author and/or the unique vocabulary of the story itself. (With Pérez-Reverte, for example, whichever historical period or plot twist he chooses to incorporate into the book in question.)

Few things are more tricky than that pesky mode/mood, the subjunctive.
I've always thought it was better to just learn the most common applications
(e.g. "si yo fuera...", "si tuviera que...") rather than master the tense overall.
Found this graphic on this website, which offers some nice practical Spanish lessons....
but fails to mention, "fuese, fuese a, estuviese, tuviese, pudiese, supiese", also all correct.

So why not add Pérez-Reverte to the reading list this summer? Or at least venture away from the conventional Spanish Lit list and try out some of these more contemporary authors? (Enough Quijote!) You'll get to exercise a more contemporary, "fresher" Spanish, and maybe, just maybe, it will give you a more contemporary "fresher" viewpoint of Spaniards than the usual "Hemingway paradigm" fare.


saracita said...

I bought an e-reader (a Kindle, specifically) before coming to Spain, mostly to travel light (and have 3G internet access when necessary). It can't replace tactile books, but in the end I've found it really good for reading Spanish literature, because I have a Spanish dictionary as the default dictionary - so I can look up unfamiliar words with one click, instead of having a dictionary (or the internet) on hand. Since my enjoyment and willingness to trudge through a book is significantly affected by the number of unknown words, this has been awesome.

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Saracita! My wife has a Kindle and I agree that it is great for people who are mobile, but like to read (i.e. study abroad and expats). We have our account with the U.S., too, so that we can get harder-to-find-in-Spain English books for it. And I agree, the dictionary feature is pretty nice. I haven't yet fully assimilated it into my reading habits, so I can't say whether it solves the steady pace v. depth of understanding reading balance. I suspect there is a fundamental tension there that no amount of technology can solve. Still, good of you to point it out since one can find many of his books on kindle (though not yet this one).

Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

I learn a lot by reading in Spanish. I tried to read El Asedio, but the vocab got to be a bit too much for me, what with the ship vocabulary that even my boyfriend didn't know.

I also read books that have been translated into Spanish. I find that every little bit helps, and especially if I really want to read the book. So I just pick it up in Spanish, and kill two birds with one stone.

jose said...

De Pérez-Reverte yo te recomiendo, En territorio comanche, es una novela autobiográfica en la que cuenta sus vivencias como reportero de guerra en Yugoslavia.
Y de literatura española te recomiendo Los episodios nacionales de Benito Pérez Galdós, es una serie de novelas históricas que seguro te gusta.

An Expat in Spain said...

Kaley, you are totally correct, every little bit helps. I'm no purist about reading translations. (Borges, in his autobiography, joked that he read Cervantes first in English, and only later in the original Spanish... and he preferred the English.) That said, be careful to keep in mind that the translations often maintain the underlying language's structures and idioms. Whereas an original Spanish-language book will have the more natural idioms of the native-speaking author. (I noticed this difference with Murakami's books. The translation was excellent, but it still felt like I was reading a non-Spanish author's book.)

José, muchas gracias por las sugerencias. Los dos me parecen muy interesantes. No soy muy aficionado de leer no ficción (leo demasiados libros de historia para mi profesión), pero las experiencias de Pérez-Reverte deben ser bastante apasionante. La serie de Pérez Galdós es mas a mi gusto. La apuntaré.

Rachel said...

This is a great insight: "the joy in reading (contemporary) fiction in a foreign language is that you get introduced to an entirely different language than what you'll tend to hear in day-to-day spoken Spanish."

Lovely post. Happy reading.

An Expat in Spain said...

Thanks Rachel! It was a joy to read so I'm glad to share. The truth is that this insight isn't only true for foreign-language literature. The written text really is a different medium for language than the spoken word, and is certainly worth dipping into from time to time for language lovers.

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