On page 1, a man is standing in a crowd at Pennsylvania Station. On page 457 he finally alights from the train. Clearly, this is not a fast-moving book. At 640 pages in length, it is a real door-stopper, with bulky convoluted sentences that extend over half a page at a time. Will it never finish? And yet, must it finish? As I found with other books that immerse their reader into a rich and complex inner world, I didn’t want to leave.
Ignatio Abel is a Spanish architect who has been contracted to design University City, just outside Madrid in 1935. Always conscious of his humble origins as the only son of a factory worker, he has married into a stolidly middle-upper class family and has two children, even though his love for his wife Adela faded over the years. Despite his left-leaning politics, he is accepted into his wife’s staunchly Catholic, conservative family, although he is increasingly disturbed by his brother-in-law’s increasing involvement in Falangist activities. Ignatio had travelled to Germany in the late 1920s and studied in the Bauhaus – a contact that bolstered his career and reputation, and gave him entree into the intellectual and wealthy elite.
His first glimpse of the American Judith Biely is when he inadvertently opens the door to a room where she is playing the piano. He then encounters her again when she slips into a lecture room where he is presenting, and in the crowded room, she sits beside his wife. He is quickly swept into an affair with her which is carried out in sordid hotel rooms and cafes where no-one he knows will recognize him. Already a distant husband and father, he becomes immersed in the affair, betraying his wife and disappointing his children. As a reader, you are just waiting for it all to come unstuck.
The tension and danger of the affair mirrors, in the personal realm, the slow descent of Spanish society into the Civil War in the political realm. The Republicans in Madrid, with whom Ignacio aligns himself, are continuing to proclaim themselves the legitimate government and trumpeting their victories while the rebels are inexorably moving towards Madrid. Once again, as a reader, you are just waiting for it all to come unstuck.
I was attracted to this book because of its Civil War setting, especially after recently seeing the film While at War and having read Hotel Florida and Amnesia Road. I guess that I’m on a bit of a Spanish Civil War kick at the moment. But this is not about the war itself in terms of geography or politics. Instead, it is a view of war stripped of ideology, capturing so well the juxtaposition of the banal and the horrific, and the distrust of former colleagues as life becomes more and more surreal. Against all this trauma and dissolution, Ignatio’s obsession with Judith seems even more discordant and self-absorbed.
There is a first-person ‘I’ narrator who appears at various places in the book, commenting on what he is observing. This narrator is not a constant presence, and he/she does not explain their connection with the story. I found this erratic commentary rather intrusive, I must admit. There is also a great deal of introspection from Ignacio’s perspective, and we spend most of the time in this book in his head, and looking through his eyes.
The book also captures so poignantly the way that an exile – especially one who has left to escape to safety- takes his memories and fears with him. He cannot unsee what he has seen, and his own relief at escape is tempered by his guilt over those left behind.
This book has been likened to War and Peace and Lisa Hill, whose review prompted me to read it, saw parallels with Proust. For me, I was reminded of Doctor Zhivago although it must have been forty years since I read it. It’s interesting that all of these are big books, just like this one is, and it speaks to the power of this book that it keeps company with such classics. It is not an easy read. It is damned long: probably too long, although I don’t think that a 300 page paperback would do it justice because the length and introspection and slow unravelling is part of its strength. It is also very dense, with very long sentences, and a forensic almost obsessive pulling apart of Ignacio’s thoughts. It’s the sort of book that makes demands of you as a reader, and you need to give it space and time. I admit that I veered between eyeing the number of pages left to wonder how much longer it was going to take, and ruing the small number of pages as I neared the end, because I wasn’t ready to leave it yet. It’s a remarkable, frustrating, immersive read.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library