Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Million Drops by Víctor del Árbol

Paperback, 672 pgs, Expected publication: May 15th 2018 by Other Press (NY), ISBN13: 9781590518458

America’s literary scene is so robust and successful that it tends to influence and eclipse exciting work appearing around the world. Other Press of New York has a terrific record of finding and translating for us the best of European fiction and this month we are treated to a historical thriller from Spain, first published in 2014 in Barcelona. The author Víctor del Árbol was a seminarian and historian before embarking on a successful literary career, so his thrillers have recognizable historical underpinnings and a rich and brutal context of war and conflict.

Árbol’s name has begun to show up in lists for literary prizes at home and in Europe. With this second novel to be translated into English, we experience the emotional and historical depths of a Spain struggling with its political past. The richness of the novel stems from Árbol’s contextual complexity and recognized divergence from old societal norms, e.g., the centrality of strong but flawed female characters, acknowledged homosexuality, police misconduct, and in a predominantly Christian country, an important Jewish character who suffered Stalin-era torture at the hands of leftists, leading to lifelong psychological affliction.

Russia and Spain have long been intertwined, and the twentieth century brought enthusiastic support for communist ideals in Spain. Students from all over Europe travelled to offer their services to a Russian government trying to consolidate power under Stalin, but they found “being a non-Soviet Communist is seen as suspicious even in the USSR.” When a purge of dissident elements was undertaken, the Spanish engineering student Elías along with his cohort of fellow Europeans were caught up in the melee and deported to the now-infamous Nazino Island.

Nazino Island was home to a little-known real-life atrocity perpetrated by the Head of the Secret Police Genrikh Yagoda and the Head of Labor Camps Matvei Berman and approved by Stalin in May 1933 in which 6,000 deportees made up of petty criminals and political prisoners were forcibly relocated to a small island in western Siberia. The group was meant to construct a camp designed to bring unproductive land under cultivation during a time of nationwide famine. Few provisions accompanied the prisoners and within thirteen weeks 4,000 had died of starvation, sickness, or at the hands of others. Árbol allows his imagination to construct the camp, describing the depraved behaviors the survivors are thought to have witnessed. Elías’s hope for escape from Nazino looks extremely unlikely, lending a thriller-like air to the telling.

Elías’s 20th-century story is interspersed with the 21st-century stories of his children and the children of people Elías knew from his time in Nazino. His daughter Laura is a journalist-turned-policewoman, and his son Gonzalo is a lawyer with leftist sympathies. In fact, the novel opens with a shockingly brutal incident that leaves us gasping for air, and we are propelled to explain that event by looking for clues in the past.

The structure of the novel is deceptively simple, jumping from one century to the next through chapter headings, but not always immediately addressing the questions we have formulated—another source of tension in the novel. References to important historical moments in Spanish history are intriguing in their own right, generating an enthusiasm in readers to investigate more straightforward accounts that would explain the larger forces at work.

If I had any criticism of the book, it would be that the novel seems indulgent in length. While the situations of Elías and his family are intrinsically interesting and filled with tension, that sense of urgency is difficult to sustain over 600+ pages. Sometimes less really is more, especially in a mystery/thriller. Were the novel shorter, the author wouldn’t need to explain so much, as the reader would be following step-by-step.

The character list takes a toll, and begins to put a strain on our ability to remember an unfamiliar history along with strikingly similar-sounding names, e.g., Gonzalo-Gonzalez, Luis-Luisa, Lola-Laura. And finally, after the complicated relationships carried throughout the novel, the Epilogue seemed too easy, once again usurping the reader’s role to imagine.

While I wouldn’t call this international crime fiction, it has some elements common to that genre. It is closer to historical literary fiction in the way that books about WWII bring that era back to life. This mentions WWII, particularly Stalingrad, but for the Jewish character Elías that horror show just brought back memories of worse. Perhaps not enough was made of Elías’s Jewishness, unless the author meant for that to layer lightly over other elements without being explicit about what it means. In my own country, I’d know what that means. In Spain, I’m not too sure.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel for me was Barcelona living and the mindset of current residents there. Descriptions of tourists blowing in for a week of sun rang as true as the description of a popular Spanish architect living in London coming to introduce his latest commission to the public. I am not entirely sure I got my fill of the authentic experience un-moderated by American TV scenarios (like Miami Vice, mentioned in the final pages) but I very much look forward to more.

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