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Monday, 14 December 2009

The Invisible City

Theinvisiblecity I am developing a growing respect for historical novelists. The lengths to which they go to personally authenticate every scrap of information in their novels has to be admired. While researching The Invisible City Catalan author Emili Rosales travelled to Naples, to Venice and to Saint Petersburg and read extensively about The Enlightenment and neoclassical architects. And all of this to solve a niggling little problem. You see, the one thing I've learned about historical novelists is that they like to plug holes in history. If they can plug 'em with facts, great, if not, fiction will do quite nicely, thank you very much.

Rosales' family arrived in the Ebro delta two hundred years ago at the time a new city was being constructed on the behest of Charles III. This city – to be called Sant Carles de la Ràpita – was to be to Madrid what Saint Petersburg was to Moscow, an altogether classier capital. And then, for no good reason it seems (surely not simply on a whim?), all construction ceased and the workers' settlement was left to grow into what it is today.

Early in the book his friend, Armand (an older boy who for no good reason takes Emili under his wing), tells our protagonist:

The surprising thing is that there's really no collective memory of what happened … If you think about it, we're only talking about your great-grandparents' great-grandparents. It's absurd that no recollection exists among the townspeople, not even a distorted, transformed version of events.


The unskilled workers who stayed on after the plans were abandoned were the least informed. The architects, delegates, engineers, the ones in charge of the project, they all left. So, what remains is some sort of mythical echo, or not even that, a collection of terms that have lost their meaning,

Finding out anything as children is hard but a philatelist Armand takes him to visit one day quite out of the blue says:

Did you know I have a plan of the Invisible City?

And he does. And he gets it. But poor testosterone-fuelled Emili gets distracted by a girl who appears from the back room with "porcelain-white skin, moist eyes [and] large pink lips" and all of a sudden the old man is closing the folder and giving him "a tetchy glance" presumably due to his apparent lack of interest.

Coincidentally our protagonist has the same name as his author. In a recent interview Rosales was asked why:

I like to play with that, and I think readers enjoy this ambiguity. A novel is alive while the reader trust the narrator, and if it helps.

Anyway, time passes, the boys grow up, and 'Emili Roselli' the character becomes the young owner of one of Barcelona's top galleries. Then one day though, quite out of the blue, he receives an old manuscript written by an Italian architect, Andrea Roselli (a relative surely?) entitled Memoirs of the Invisible City which details how he became involved in the project to construct Sant Carles and just as importantly (although it's a while before we realise why) how his relationship developed with Giambattista Tiepolo, a prolific a Venetian painter and printmaker.


Museo Civico_G.B. Tiepolo-Il tempo scopre la verità e fuga la menzogna

Il tempo scopre la verità - Giambattista Tiepolo


What we do get is to read the memoir along with Emili as he translates it, every second chapter, and bit by bit we get caught up along with Andrea in the political intrigue of the day and in his romances too.

And then there is "the Tiepolo" – heavy emphasis on the the – which everyone seems to know about bar our contemporary hero. Time and unforeseen circumstances drag both our heroes (because Andrea is no less a hero than Emili is) into deeper and deeper waters; Emili ends up looking for the Tiepolo, Andrea ends up looking to do something with it. Emili first hears the name 'Tiepolo' from the stamp collector who chooses not to explain the connection with the map however by the time Emili receives his mysterious gift the shop has long closed.

This is not the only mystery in Emili's life. While at university he received a phone call from his old headmaster, Father Patrici, urging him to return home as his mother is ill, in fact she is dying. Emili had never known his father and now the headmaster reveals that "[s]omeone who was not your mother or your grandfather … paid for your studies." He does not know who but urges the boy to pursue the matter with his mother while he has yet time. Emili chooses not to and determines to bury the information. How could this possibly have anything to do with the Invisible City? Yes, I wondered that too but I had to wait a very long time to find out.

Usually with a two-pronged storyline line like this you expect it to meet in the final chapters but considering the two protagonists are several centuries apart that seems unlikely which is where "the Tiepolo" comes in. It turns out that Tiepolo was commissioned to do a number of paintings for the new city. That's old news and all his paintings are catalogued and their whereabouts known. So there must be another one and everyone assumes that Emili has been able to work out where it is.

Only he hasn't. Sure the manuscript talks about Tiepolo quite a bit. Andrea Roselli is instructed to collect him from Venice and travel with him to Madrid which he does and certainly a friendship develops between them but that's about it, Andrea carries out his task and then finds himself travelling to Saint Petersburg, once again on the king's behest, but not before managing to fall in love with the royal architect Francesco Sabatini's beautiful fiancée, Cecilia Vanvitelli, a wilful eighteen-year-old, who, bizarrely, he persuades to marry the much older Sabatini so the two of them can be close.

But things don't exactly go to the lovers' plans. The king steps in:

"Señor Roselli, I have asked Minister Esquilache and Señor Sabatini to train you as an architect and engineer, so that one day you might be able to direct the most ambitious undertaking of this kingdom."

"I am pleased, Your Majesty to be able to serve you."

"But that moment has not arrived yet. I wish to send you to Russia to study how Tsar Peter built his city. You are then to return here, prepared to erect a new city that will glorify the country and contribute to the enormous progress of Spain. Use you best endeavours, Señor Roselli; go to St Petersburg and learn all their secrets, see if the marvels we hear about are true."

And that puts the kybosh on that.

Meanwhile, in the present, Emili is having problems of his own. As I've said his childhood friends are all grownup. Armand is now a "fashionable politician", Sofia Mendizábal is into real estate along with her husband Jonàs who's also into drugs, his sister, Ariadna, is in a wheelchair and not too far in the book their mother ends up in mourning; not quite the suspects in an Agatha Christie but it's a start. I can't say I warmed to any of them especially.

Jonàs gets himself arrested and Emili dutifully goes to visit. It is not a great visit and a lot of the past gets dredged up. He leaves and "close[s] the door softly."

Years ago, when we raced together through the Invisible City, we were in a similar situation. None of the group could have known what lay ahead of us. Sometimes I think that Jonàs is what I might have been, and I have the absurd feeling that the worst part of myself was passed to him, in concentrated form, Perhaps for this strange reason I went back into the room and stared at him in silence, He was still talking, as if I'd never left, his eyes curiously fixed on me and the door.

"But I'll tell you one thing. The painter with the shitty exhibition [who he believes is having an affair with his wife], he won't last long. The only thing she wants, the only thing she's ever wanted is the Tiepolo. I did love her."

Having said that, he crumpled down, like a building that collapses after years of being riven with cracks.

The Tiepolo, again.

And then the Mafia appear. Well, they don't appear. Sofia tells Emili that they've been calling, threatening, looking for the money for the drugs that the police confiscated. All will be all right if they can only locate the Tiepolo. Only Emili hasn't a clue. He's translating as fast as he can and then he gets to the end and he's none the wiser.

Time to find out what Ariadna knows.

I'm not a great fan of mysteries. They've been done to death and pretty much every formula there is has been tried out. What works for this book is the fact that the two strands of the story take place so far apart in time. Salient facts are dribbled out as you would expect but it's not until chapter 13 entitled Does the Mystery End or Begin? that things start to come together and then, of course, we have one chapter until the Epilogue where something we've quite forgotten about gets resolved – always a nice bonus.

The actual mystery is effectively handled. It would make a perfectly watchable TV movie. And the writing is fine too. It's a good story, told well enough but, and I have to be honest I've found this with all the historical novels I've read of late, the history takes up a lot of space and there're a pile of names and places to keep in your head a lot of which are just mentioned in passing.

da_vinci_code_xlg I'm not sure who this book would appeal to especially. I'm tempted to suggest the Da Vinci Code Brigade but since I've neither read the book nor seen the film I could be wrong. Art is important in the book as is architecture but you don't need to know that much about them to get the idea what's going on. If I did have one major criticism, and this is something that Agatha Christie is guilty of, the novel's readers are deprived of one major clue right up until the big reveal at the end. This is annoying but I got over it because by that point I was dead keen to get to the solution which, as most solutions are, is fairly obvious once you think about it. The trouble is hindsight is a great thing.

The Invisible City won one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the Catalan language in 2004, The Sant Jordi Prize and since then Rosales has been touted as "one of the brightest and more promising new voices in recent Catalan literature" which doesn't really mean anything to me I'm afraid. I'm sure that's a good thing but he's the first Catalan writer I've read I have nothing to compare him to. There's a list in Wikipedia but none of the names ring a bell besides what I got to read was a translation and although Rosales says he's happy with it I can't say what subtleties might have been lost.


Photo of the author Emili Rosales is a writer and publisher who, after spending his childhood and adolescence in Sant Carles de la Ràpita, moved to Barcelona where he studied Philology. He soon began to work with a number of different publishing projects until he started his present job as literary director of Planeta’s Catalan-language publications. He has also worked as a secondary school teacher and translator. Although The Invisible City was his fourth novel it was the first to be published. The others have now also appeared in print, although not in English translations as far as I can see: La casa de la platja (The Beach House, 1995), Els amos del món (Lords of the Earth, 1997) and Mentre Barcelona dorm (While Barcelona Sleeps, 1998).

The Invisible City is available from Alma Books, priced £7.99.


PDF of the first 9 pages of the novel

Interview with Emili Rosales in The View from Here


Sorlil said...

Just to say your book came this morning. If I'd known you'd be posting it out I'd have asked for a signed copy. However I'm sure I'll get you to sign it at some point! Just having flicked through it, it's a gorgeous book - great size, design, font etc, I'm really looking forward to getting into it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry about that, Sorlil. I tend to forget about that. I have mixed feelings about signed books. It always feels like I'm defacing them in some way. Glad you like the look of the thing though.

Dave King said...

The book does sound intriguing, but I'm a bit of a sucker for any novel for which art is important - though I draw the line at The da Vinci Code. So I'm a bit confused. Is the book as good as the review? That's the thing. If so, I'll buy it.

Jim Murdoch said...

My big problem here, Dave, is that this isn't really my kind of book. I've tried to be objective but at the same time I can't pretend it excited me because it didn't. It's obvious though that a lot of others got really excited over it. The best thing is to see what other reviewers say before you decide which is what I would recommend everyone does anyway.

Kass said...

This is NOT your kind of book?! Boy, you'd never know it from reading your review. Historical novels have never been up there on my list of things to read, but I'm almost (I said, almost) tempted to read this one.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, Kass, it really wasn’t. History has never excited me. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what went on last week – that still counts as ‘news’ – but the further back you go the less I care. Basically once you move out of the 20th century you start to lose me. I’ve read very little pre-20th century literature for example. I’m dipping my toe in a little by agreeing to review the odd book but nothing’s really gripped me. I feel a bit guilty for not appreciating a lot of the great art of the past like the artists mentioned in this book because their technical ability is astounding but if the subject doesn’t grab me then all the technical ability under the sun is not going to save the piece. And that’s a bit how I felt about this book. Technically there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s well-researched, well-written (although not very literary) and obviously a lot of people have enjoyed it but the a lot of people like Die Fledermaus but it does nothing for me. At least I got to the end of this and tried to be objective. I’m not sure I could sit through the whole of Die Fledermaus.

Conda V. Douglas said...

As a history major in college, I always have tremendous respect (and sometimes awe) for historical novelists--if they get it right. So I'm also a bit leery of such novels. I'm sometimes horridly disappointed. "The Invisible City" sounds like the author knew his history.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think my problem.Conda, is that I've read so few - just the ones I've reviewed on this blog - so that's the only benchmark I have. Knowing me as well as I do I cannot see me ever bouncing up and down with excitement at the prospect of a new historical novel but at the same time that internal groan at the prospect of having to read one has gone.

As for The Invisible City, my problem there is that I don't know the history so he could be making the whole thing up and I wouldn't be able to argue. So in many respects (and I expect this is true for the greatest majority of his readership) his hard work was for nothing because my tastes are not refined enough to appreciate his effort.

Louise said...

Great review! It must have taken you a while to write. I have to say, though, I think I'll probably be buying this one. Thank-you.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Louise, it took a couple of days to pull this together but it wasn’t really hard work unlike some of the books I’ve had to do recently. I’m glad it’s encouraged you to buy the book. There are so many things demanding our attention these days that we really need to be grabbed by the lapels to notice anything.

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Always appreciated.

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