15 jun. 2017

Care Santos's Diamant blau: A Review

Care Santos, Diamant blau (Barcelona: Columna, 2016). 433 pages.
Researching your family history is a hugely popular hobby in Australia. Most descendants of European settlers can only look back at a 200-year-old history in Australia, and some (or, rather, very few) are able to precisely retrace their origins beyond the local records to European roots. Whether our ancestors remain somehow present in us or not is certainly debatable; yet writing about them certainly amounts to remembering something that may have not occurred at all.

Creating a family saga out of one’s own family is a risky literary proposition, and Care Santos gets away with it in Diamant blau. But only just. The family are the Pujolars (the patriarch drops the ‘r’ from the name after he decides to move the family from Olot to Mataró). The story spans two centuries, from the early 1700s to the decade just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The narrative is at times somewhat chaotic rather than fragmentary, as it takes leaps forwards and backwards through time without much of an obvious order to it.

This old church in Olot has seen more history than you and me... Source: Wikicommons
It is 1853 and Silvestre Pujolar is leading a less than peaceful existence in Olot, where he runs a textile dyeing business. The Carlist wars force his hand and resolve; he packs everything of value in a horse-drawn cart and sets course for Mataró, close to the textile factories and the growing metropolis that is the capital of Catalonia. He has a good eye for business, a convincing tone of voice and the manners that create friends rather than enemies. In just a few years he will become a well-off, respected gentleman. Pity that his son Florià is not endowed with the same shrewdness and talent.

Over the decades, the family’s fortunes change from success to ruin. Not even the First World War was to be sufficient for Florià to make the dyeing business flourish. Some of the decisions he makes soon after his father’s demise are plain dumb – the biggest mistake being asking for Margarida’s hand in marriage. They have four children, three girls and a boy, Josep, a pusillanimous prat who cannot stand the pestilent stenches of the business. The eldest is Teresa (the author’s grandmother), who is by far the most charismatic character in the whole book.

Teresa has been betrothed to a … how can we put it? An idiot? Someone who spends his days and nights studying in order to try and pass the examinations that will make a notary public of him. Allow me at this point to stray off the topic a little and remark that the incompetent PM currently in charge of the central Spanish government used to “work” as a notary public. These “professionals” enjoy some “special reputation” in Spain. Just ask anyone who has gone through the ordeal of trying to get an inheritance.

The market at Plaça de Cuba in Mataró is frequently mentioned in Diamant blau. Source: wikicommons
But let’s go back to the literature. I will not deny there is some in the novel, but it rarely reaches the heights of that which constitutes ‘high literature’. It seems to me that Care Santos throws all caution to the wind and chooses to tell a story rather than a history. In other words, Santos eliminates the possibility of creating a great work of literature right from the beginning, choosing the path of plain, simple storytelling. Which is fine as well, of course, but makes the book appear curtailed in its scope and generally underwhelming.

Two aspects need to be mentioned in this regard. First, the poorly finished portrayal of some characters, who seem to merely appear for the purposes of pushing on with the plot. For a novel with so many leaps forward and flashbacks into the 18th and 19th centuries and such a long cast of characters, it is regrettable that some of them come across as mere fillers. I daresay this is due to the author’s obstinate eagerness to construct a story out of a few historical facts.

Secondly, there is at times a palpably condescending tone towards the reader. This is most evident when the novel creates a parenthesis in the narrative by presenting a cul-de-sac stub in the plotline (a rather superfluous one, if not outright annoying). For example, the brief chapter devoted to William Perkin, the discoverer of mauveine, the first synthetic organic chemical dye, which concludes in this fashion: “And this was, my dear friends, my modest contribution to the story. I hope I did not commit the sin of boring you. I wish you all a very colourful life.” (p. 370, my translation). Oh my, 😬.

As in any family story, many are the themes that are central to the narrative: there is a family curse embodied in a grandfather clock; there is melodrama around marriages, unrequited love and illegitimate children; there is the hard fall from affluence and the despair poverty brings about; and there is the bravery of the women who defied social taboos and conventions in the early 20th century.

Do all these themes, subplots and gratuitous trimmings add to a great work of literature? Let other readers decide. For my part, I have made up my mind about the Diamant blau: the title refers to a feathered automaton kept in the birdcage the Pujolàs have in their back yard.

Set the bird free, I say.

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