Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wrong Blood

Manuel de Lope, whose work is well-known in his native Spain, makes his English-language debut with a translation of The Wrong Blood, a novel as quiet and ineluctable as the estuarial waters on the Bay of Biscay that serve as the setting for much of the action. That de Lope is less interesting in suspense than atmosphere is made evident even in the title, which tips us off before we’ve even opened the book to the likelihood that issues of paternity or inheritance lie in store. Though the story is told in the third person, de Lope often proposes several motives for a given action, thus shattering the immediacy of his narrative and giving the story the character of a personal reminiscence rather than an omniscient recount.

There are plenty of astute observations and descriptive details to hold our interest throughout the tale, but in the early chapters the narrator’s bemused detachment tends to leave the characters a little flat, like lifeless tin soldiers being set in place for the purpose of recreating the phases of an important battle. This is the case especially with Maria Antonia Etxarri, a sixteen-year-old living with her mother and step-father at an inn as the story commences. De Lope’s description of the onset of the Civil War carries the bewildering flavor that such events undoubtedly have to those caught in the midst of them, but when Maria’s parents flee the inn, we’re given no explanation as the why she's left behind. When rebels occupy the premises, Maria is convinced she’ll be raped before they leave, though she seems strangely unperturbed by the fact. As a character she remains opaque.

The book develops greater resonance when it jumps to the present day and we’re introduced to an elderly physician with a bum leg who is fascinated to discover that the grandson of the woman who used to own the neighboring estate has arrived to spend a few months studying for exams. By a strange quirk of fate, that estate now belongs to Maria Antonia, who had worked there as a servant after the war and inherited it when her employer, the grandmother of her current visitor, died. The doctor is eager to impart some tidbits of information to the new arrival about the lad’s past—though the visitor is too busy with his studies to pay much attention. As this intriguingly avuncular, if one-sided, relationship develops, the narrator gradually fills us in about the doctor’s relations with his neighbors during the war and the fate of the student’s grandfather.

The course de Lope is charting in The Wrong Blood can be predicted easily enough simply by reading the table of contents, but that’s not the point. Reading the book is like looking at an album of old photographs under the tutelage of a man who, due to a freak motorcycle accident, spent most of his life on the outside looking in at the happiness, and the misery, of others. He knows who these characters are, knows their secrets. He might even have loved one of them. In any case, it’s a rich skein of impressions and conjectures about war, class, family, and the lush Basque landscape that ought to give satisfaction to any serious reader.

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