Escaping Barcelona (Mad Days of Me #1)Escaping Barcelona by Henry Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to Henry Martin’s book following a discussion of literary fiction in the modern day. I mentioned the cult novel Trainspotting and pointed out that difficulties with the heavy Scottish dialect did not override the fact that it was totally realistic in its handling of drug addiction. Escaping Barcelona also has a form of gritty realism dealing as it does with uncomfortable and unpleasant issues like statelessness, homelessness, exploitation and homosexual rape. It is however a much more approachable book.

The quality of the writing here is excellent and it is not written in dialect or the vernacular which makes it easier for the general reader to get into. To me, the language of evocation and description is vital. One of my favourite poets, for example, is the war poet Wilfred Owen because he brings a talent for visual description to things we don’t consider poetic subjects. In this way Owen gives the horror of war a striking and vivid reality. Henry Martin, for me, achieves something similar on a smaller scale in Escaping Barcelona from the trilogy Mad Days of Me.

In an era where increasingly readers have little time for description, characterization or exposition, he allows us more than just a glimpse of his protagonist’s world. The author is not just content with what his character does and what happens to him; you feel Rudy’s initial sense of awe and excitement on arriving in Barcelona, you smell, taste and see his surroundings. Later the same skills are applied to his physical deterioration, how the fabric of his unwashed socks becomes embedded in the skin of his feet for instance.

Rudy starts out, as many young people do, by feeling trapped at home. He longs for freedom and adventure and leaves the safety and security of his home to seek that freedom on the road. Ironically his search leads to virtual imprisonment in a world where everything is reduced to the absolute basics of survival and where it is hard to trust anybody. His interactions with young women on holiday draw attention to this irony. They too seek freedom and adventure through travel, but unlike Rudy they have not been victimized; they have not lost the physical means of escape and they are still in control of their own destinies. He envies them and he fears for them too. His eventual escape is almost a very final escape, the significance of which was not lost on me.

The novel Escaping Barcelona deals with issues on the underbelly of society; issues of criminality, exploitation of the weak, powerlessness, hopelessness and the all too convenient invisibility of the poor and the homeless. Its premise that this can happen to anybody young, innocent and trusting is sadly built on truth. Your hopes rise and are dashed along with the young protagonist, you see life at its most fundamental, learning survival skills and dealing with frustration and fear along the way.

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I just posted a short review of Suite Française on Goodreads. It is short because I wanted to digest the reading experience before committing anything final to the ether. First, here is an apologia. I studied French to A-level standard and can understand quite a bit of what I read but I never spoke French well and my days of writing criticism of French literature in French are well past. Having read Suite Française in English, I would feel daunted approaching it in its home language because it is a complex and intricate work full of description and characterization. Camus, which I read at school, is stark and simple in comparison.

Despite my linguistic failings, I would not dream of reading French poetry in English translation and I feel the French language has a gentler, altogether fluffier feel to it that can be lost in translation. When you read an author in translation, you are in danger of missing the music of their words. If the translator is worth their salt then the ideas will not be lost even if their execution is modified. This translation works well.

Suite Française was originally intended to be a five part novel of approximately 1000 pages. It was influenced by Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Nemirovsky also found inspiration in Chekhov and Flaubert. What we have therefore is very much an unfinished project. She was constantly planning changes and had sketched out the direction for the other other three books but this is as far as it got. What intervened was deportation and a month after this she was gassed at Auschwitz.

Bearing in mind that this is a draft of under one half of a novel, how do we fare as readers and does she achieve her goals? Reading the appendices was useful here. I particularly enjoyed this resource and the opportunity it gives to get inside the creative process of a talented writer. It set out her plans for the further development of story and characters; it set out the main purpose too and was really informative. I felt that the style was an impersonal one; Flaubert’s ideas were important to her, and she sets out ideas through the lives and actions of ordinary people. This is done with fine attention to detail, the preoccupations of a populace fleeing from a conquering army in all its sometimes banal detail. If anyone is killed there is a cold detachment that seems to say; “There you are, that’s all there is to it.” This flies in the face of the prior self importance of these characters, who are very much prisoners of the ego – as we all are from time to time. There is talk of the “hive community” of the Germans, but this comes through the French characters too perhaps.

Be prepared for some unorthodox punctuation. “Points de suspension” tend to be frowned upon by modern readers, as I know only too well. (I am fond of them in poetry and it has invited harsh criticism from some critics.) They are used extensively in the scene where Bruno plays the piano and emotions and ideas flow with a breathless and excited quality. It is a shame this way of using them is dying out…

Suite Française is not an easy read or a page turner, but it is a beautifully executed work of fiction based on real life and experience and as such I can highly recommend it. For those who prefer something more approachable, the film is also very enjoyable and much warmer than the fiction.