Thursday, April 4, 2013

Spain: The Windmills of Sergio Prim

The Scale of Maps

 “A Knight Errant going mad for a good reason— there is neither pleasure nor merit in that. The thing is to become insane without a cause and have my lady think: If I do all this when dry, what would I not do when wet?” 

                                                              Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

 “We shall do our best to avoid the fatal error of looking for so-called ‘real life’ in novels,” declares Vladimir Nabokov in the first of his six-part lecture series on Don Quixote.  “Let us not try and reconcile the fiction of facts with the facts of fiction. Don Quixote is a fairy tale, so is Bleak House, so is Dead Souls. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenin are supreme fairy tales. But without these fairy tales the world would not be real. A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader.” This admonition is fitting not only as a description of the dazzling surreality of Belén Gopegui’s lyrical novel The Scale of Maps (La escala de los mapas), a story as fairy a tale as “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Snow White,” but—perhaps more aptly—its main character, Sergio Prim, a humble, ‘prematurely old’ geographer/ philosopher with ‘a cracked mental map,’ is nothing if not a modern (more modern) Don Quixote adrift amidst the windmills of 20th century Madrid. And, as in Don Quixote, the Spain depicted in The Scale of Maps  bears little resemblance to the familiar, geographical Spain we know, which is certainly a part of the novel’s charm. So unwonted, so unfamiliar is the story’s landscape, that one feels one has stumbled into some byzantine tale by Nabokov or Borges, say, Ada, or Ardor or “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

Quickened by hallucinations, pricked and bewildered by his own Dulcinea, a flighty fellow geographer name Brezo Varela, Sergio Prim struggles daily through the fog of his brilliant, anxious, sometimes paranoid madness to map his way to a place, a ‘hollow,’ a gap between time and space, in which love—his late-term love of Brezo—is forever safe from harm. Just as Don Quixote waxes poetic over Dulcinea’s beauty, praising her lips as coral, her teeth as pearls, her neck as alabaster, so too does Sergio Prim exult in the manifold wonders of his baffling, beautiful Brezo—his ‘little automatic umbrella,’ his ‘sea-swell,’ his ‘love without a perch.’  

Alternating deftly between first-, second-, and third-person perspective, the novel that unfolds between these covers is a marvel for its unpredictability and strangeness, for the daring versatility of Gopegui’s prose. Even at its most elusive, most confounding, its imagery and language work a kind of magic on the senses, the mind, propelling one swiftly through this adroit and bewitching tale.

Belén Gopegui,  Belén Ruiz de Gopegui, was born in the city of Madrid in 1963 as the daughter of the aerospace scientist, Luis Ruiz de Gopegui. Belén chose to study in Madrid at the Autonomous University of Madrid where she studied for her degree in Law, but before she even finished her studies, she had already decided that what she truly wanted to be was a writer. Once she finished her degree, she began her career by collaborating in the literary sections of a number of publications, including 'El Sol', for which she carried out interviews. She continued working in this manner up until the publication of her first novel, La escala de los mapas, in 1993. This novel was published by Anagrama and was met with great success, winning the Tigre Juan and the Ibero-American Santiago del Nuevo Extremo Prizes. An ardent communist, she has written numerous articles about Cuba.

She has been praised for the maturity of her prose and literary approach, her very original narrative structures, the brilliance of her metaphors, through which she shows a more than superficial understanding of the world, her scientific vocabulary, and her intimate and poetic character.*

The Scale of Maps, translated by Mark Schafer, is published by City Lights Books


Peter Adam Nash

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