Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Cervantes Street by Jaime Manrique

Cervantes Street by Jaime Manrique
Akashic Books, 320 pages (paperback)
ISBN 978-1617751264

After reading this review by Lawrence Norfolk about Cervantes Street I was sure I wanted to read the book. The structure of Cervantes Street alternates chapters between the memoirs of Miguel and his rich college friend Luis Lara (with the final chapter told by Lara’s secretary). The opening chapter of each friend sets the stage for what follows in the novel: Cervantes kills a man in a bar fight over his family’s honor and escapes to avoid imprisonment and having his right hand cut off. Lara, after finding out that Cervantes is in love with his intended fiancée, finances Cervantes’ escape, initially from Madrid and ultimately from Spain. What follows in Miguel’s chapters is a speculative biography touching on known points of his life and filling in the unknown with a possible narrative. The speculations include characters and incidents that surface in Cervantes’ plays and novels. Manrique covers Cervantes’ participation in the Battle of Lepanto and his captivity in Algiers for five years before returning to Spain.

While Miguel’s story proves interesting the addition of Luis Lara as Miguel’s archenemy, while almost comic-book like at times, provides the best twists and turns of the story. Lara’s hatred of Miguel colors almost everything he does, changing him into a bitter, warped man. Lara claims to have provided Miguel with the idea for Don Quixote, although Cervantes’ section reflects how much was based on his own experiences.

Consistent with Don Quixote, Manrique's novel contains a lot of irony. One of my favorite turns of fate involves Cervantes' evolution from poet to storyteller. While in captivity he tries to earn money in order to survive by telling stories in the marketplace. A washerwoman upbraids him for his melancholy story, advising him that people want to forget their miserable lives. What Miguel doesn't know at this point (and can never know) is that the more sucessful his stories, the more torture for Luis Lara. Miguel stops mentioning Lara in his memoir, providing another ironic comparison with Lara’s fixation on his former friend. Another playful theme repeatedly occurs in the differences between the two histories—Lara portrays Cervantes in a very different light than Miguel's self-description. One final theme I’ll highlight rests in the comparison between Spain and Algiers. Manrique doesn’t hesitate to point out the cruelty, based on ethnicity or religion, in both locations at the time while avoiding moral relativism.

As in real life, an author going by the pen name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda publishes a spurious sequel to Cervantes’ successful first part of Don Quixote and Manrique shows the motivation its release. Even though his story had initially been hijacked, Cervantes has the last word because of his successful second part to Don Quixote: “Worse...—I had not expected, no one had—that in Cervantes’s Part II, the crippled soldier of Lepanto would borrow the adventures and the characters created” by the spurious sequel's author.

It’s a fun, sad story, often mixing both elements at the same time. So why don’t I recommend it without reserve? I’m at a loss to explain, but I have this blog in order to work through such points. Manrique’s novel assists with some of the more esoteric allusions to Cervantes’ work embedded in the story while other references are obvious, such as having Miguel meeting a Sancho Panza in Algiers that resembles Quixote’s character perfectly. When the novel works, which is often, it is a fun read. Take the following example from Cervantes’ first chapter:

Sevilla was a city of witches and enchanters. You had to be careful not to cross a woman, because any female, aristocratic or peasant, married or unmarried, old or young, beautiful or ugly, Christian or Moor, slave or free, could have satanic powers. Witches made red roses bloom in their homes in December. They could make or break marriages, could make grooms hang themselves or evaporate on the eve of the wedding, could make pregnant women give birth to litters of puppies.

Unlucky men who crossed the enchantresses were turned into donkeys. As husbands and lovers disappeared, new donkeys materialized and the women who owned these donkeys took delight in making them carry heavy loads. It was common to see a woman whose husband had vanished go around the city addressing every donkey she saw by her husband’s name. When an ass brayed in response, the woman would drop on her knees, cross herself, and give thanks to God that she had found her husband. If she wanted her man back, she had to buy the donkey from its owner. Then she would go back home, happy to have found her spouse, and spend the rest of her life trying to undo the enchantment. Or she might be just as happy to keep her husband in donkey form. It was said that some of the happiest marriages in Sevilla were between a woman and her ass. …

When a Sevillano allowed inflated notions to swell his head, he was told, “Remember, today you are a man, but tomorrow you may well be a donkey.”

The prose can be florid and overwrought often—how much of that is intended to mimic what would be in the journals of late 16th/early 17th century Spanish poets I’m not sure, but I found it distracting. I found myself not enjoying some descriptions because of such language and some sections felt unnecessary.

An even larger part of my hesitation may be in comparing the book against Stephen Marlowe’s wonderful novel The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes, another mock autobiography, even though each book takes a different approach to a similar topic. I would recommend Marlowe's book (although with some reservations…see below) ahead of Cervantes Street.

Knowledge of Cervantes and his work isn’t necessary to enjoy Cervantes Street, although it does help the reader understand more of the relevance of particular anecdotes and appreciate some of the storyline. Another review of the novel can be found at the New York Journal of Books. Jamie Manrique’s site provides an excerpt from the novel. To date I seem to be in the minority in hesitations about the novel.

Sidenote: While I loved Marlowe’s book and highly recommend it, I do need to note some of my qualifications or reservations in that commendation. The biggest qualification would be that it’s been over a decade since I’ve read it, well before I began keeping notes on my reading. If I remember correctly, Marlowe doesn't make the parallels between his mock biography and Cervantes' works as explicit as Manrique does, requiring more familiarity with them to fully appreciate the book. What I remember, though, is a wonderful novel that was a little too long and occasionally strayed too much into far-fetched scenarios. But that’s the point of these novels, both spinning an entertaining story to fill the sizeable gaps of Cervantes' biography.

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