Forgive me, Father.
I have sinned.
It has been four weeks since my last post.
It wouldn’t have been. But I just had to take on a 750 page postmodern European novel, didn’t I. Ah, I thought. The perfect complement to my hysterical workload while all my team are away; the perfect snippet to read in 10-page-pops as I slump into bed before waking 2 hours later to a toddler’s wails: a “monumental novel about the problem of evil.” Translated from Catalan.
I’ve reviewed several extremely long books on the blog now, so it comes as no surprise to me or probably you that 750+ pages is a pretty fair guarantee that the gamut of subject matter is run. This one is a bit more focussed than some, being totally centred on the narrator (or is he?) Adria. The novel follows the course of Adria’s life, from growing up in the loveless household of his shady artefact-dealing father to becoming an academic who speaks eleven languages and publishes books about the history of ideas. But even more than that, it’s a story of a violin – Vial, a Storioni (think Stradivarius) of incalculable worth. What initially seems to be unrelated sections of history, centering on the Spanish Inquisition period middle ages and the Holocaust, gradually become united as part of the tale of this magnificent violin, with a tone to make men weep. Oh, and it’s also a love story (though that was the weakest element by far. Total lifelong devotion without question falls flat.)
You may notice that I questioned whether Adria is the narrator. That’s because there’s a heavy postmodern erraticism that starts off as something you just have to deal with but increasingly becomes key to the book. Sometimes Adria is “I”, sometimes “he”, frequently in the same paragraph or sentence without any context or explanation. You need to be on your game. More importantly though, different periods run into one another without explanation – from modern day to middle ages and back again. History is fluid for Adria – as his best friend Bernat says to him: “You have a historic life. Everything is history to you.”
The time-period-crossing happens most noticeably and consistently between the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust, depicting atrocities and torture at the hand of evil Catholic or Nazi zealots. The character mirroring between these two periods is very clearly drawn, and the message is clear: evil is evil, 500 years ago or today. Its essence is the same, its execution is the same, its characters are the same. Throughout Confessions, Adria is struggling to write a book about the nature of evil and it’s in these sections that you sense he is developing his thinking (as all of these historical stories take place in his head).
This whole element gets a totally new level of meaning when you understand that the document of the novel is supposedly written by Adria while his mind is disintegrating into dementia, and thus is confused, plus part rewritten by his novelist best friend hence the ‘he’ and ‘I’. Lost yet?! Basically this is playing with form done brilliantly and with reason upon reason upon reason. I was going to give you an example but you wouldn’t have a bloody clue what was going on.
As is customary, as I draw to the close of this fevered analysis, a practical moment: I’m so relieved to have finished it. It weighed a tonne, it was rather pleased with itself, it went on, and on, and on. It’s one of those books where you’ve learned about life and literature but haven’t necessarily enjoyed the process of doing so.
Nevertheless, learn I have – periods of history have been brought to life in a way that makes them inherently modern, touchable almost. But I think the genius here is not in historic specificity, but what’s general. In the mind of a man who knows so many languages, so much history, so much knowledge, the common themes of humanity emerge. Evil, love, pride, lust, stretch beyond time and place. It’s both celebration and indictment of human nature – for better for worse, for it’s something we can only escape in this life with the loss of our minds – and thus ourselves.