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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Voltaire's Calligrapher" by Pablo De Santis (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Pablo De Santis at Harper Collins
Order "Voltaire's Calligrapher" HERE

INTRODUCTION: I have heard about Pablo de Santis in connection to his 2009 English language debut The Paris Enigma, one of the few recent mysteries I took a closer look at. While still on my reading pile, the few pages I browsed from it put the author's name on my "check any book on publication" list and indeed once I heard of "Voltaire's Calligrapher" with the very exciting blurb below, it became an asap novel.

"Dalessius is twenty when he comes to work for one of the Enlightenment’s most famous minds, the author and philosopher Voltaire. As the great man’s calligrapher, Dalessius becomes witness to many wonders—and finds himself in the middle of a secret battle between the malevolent remnants of the all-but-dead Dark Ages and the progressive elements of the modern age. The calligrapher’s role in this shadowy conflict will carry him to many perilous places— through the gates of sinister castles and to the doors of a bizarre bordello; toward life-and death confrontations with inventive henchmen, ingenious mechanical execution devices, poisonous fish, and murderous automatons. As the conspiracy to halt the Enlightenment’s astonishing progress intensifies, young Dalessius’s courage—as well as Voltaire’s unique cunning and wit—are put to the ultimate test as they strive to ensure the survival of the future. "


FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Voltaire's Calligrapher" stands at close to 150 pages divided into three parts and 38 chapters, all named. The novel is narrated in first person by the hero of the title, Dalessius a 20 year old calligrapher at the time of the novel's story, though the narration is done some 30+ years later and an ocean away...

A translation of the 2001 Spanish language original, "Voltaire's Calligrapher" is what one could call "weird historical fiction" getting very close to sff-nal content with strange automatons, poisoned inks and calligraphy as an exotic "alien" art.

Note: The novel has been translated by Lisa Carter; you can find more of her translated works HERE.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: France 1762, a land in conflict between the tides of the Enlightenment as embodied for example by Voltaire and his famous writings and the obscurantism of the reactionary wing of the Church led by various officials who peddle miracles that can turn sinister as the Calas affair with which the novel starts - and which grounds it in the historical time-line - amply demonstrates. But it is also a time of inventions and technological advancement even if only on a cottage scale for now and "Voltaire's Calligrapher" brings all these strands together in the narration of Dalessius.

Trained as a calligrapher at the best schools and with a desire to be the "greatest such the world has known", Dalessius' hopes conflict with his uncle's wishes who
runs a mortuary transport service from Paris and wants nothing to do with his free-spirited nephew's ideas. Our hero has to get shady jobs that land him into trouble when a lucky break sends Dalessius to Voltaire's refuge at Ferney where the "great man" alternates between hoping the king will let him go back to Paris and preparing to jump over the border into Switzerland to safety and away from the specter of the Bastille or worse .

Since the philosopher needs eyes
and ears on the ground and Dalessius is young and resourceful, he is sent to "infiltrate" the Church and expose a plot against the Enlightenment. In the process, Dalessius makes friends with an executioner (retired) and works for various creepy guys, encountering lots of strange stuff that I will leave the reader to discover.

The first thing I noticed about the arc of "Voltaire's Calligrapher" is how physically thin it was. But the content is fully satisfying and offers a rich and complete reading experience. Each word counts and the visual description of the places Dallesius travels in or to - from the mortuary coach, to a "doomed" house, to places of execution, cemeteries, sinister dwellings, but also fairs, artists' workrooms and opulent churches and monasteries - are one of the main strength of the novel. Add to this, the exotic details about calligraphy, automatons and the search for an effective means of mechanical executions among other stuff the author explores which make reading the novel worth by themselves, though the story is quite interesting too with several twists and turns.

"Voltaire's Calligrapher" has also some memorable action sequences which I greatly enjoyed though its strength lie in its "exoticism in a familiar setting" and of course in the wonderful writing style of the author that is conveyed quite well even in translation. I would have liked the book to be longer since I would have enjoyed spending more time with Dalessius, but the novel does not feel rushed or short in any way. The one slight negative for me was that despite the title, Voltaire appears mostly behind the scenes so we really do not get to see him too much, but Dalesius and his friends and enemies make up for that.

"Voltaire's Calligrapher" (A+) shows how one can write a book that is exotic and familiar at the same time and that uses the innate "interestingness" of speculative fiction at its best, while staying within the bounds of historical possibility.

6 comments:

Gem said...

I will definitely put this on my to be read book. Love translated books always show a different perspective

cmike said...

That's why I love this site. Would never have heard of this book without your review. Thank you for all that is here

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words.

Lisa Carter said...

Lovely to see such a detailed and complementary review of this amazing book. I particularly liked how you highlight its exotic nature in a familiar setting: it's an excellent way of characterizing it. Would it be possible to mention the translator's name with translated works you review? Without our hard work the book wouldn't be available to English readers. ;-) FULL DISCLOSURE: I am the translator of Voltaire's Calligrapher.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comment; added the information in the review and will try to add it from now on since that's a great point.

Liviu said...

To add one more thing regarding translations - while here in the US it seems they are less common, I grew up and lived 21 years in a smaller country so I read thousands of books in translation so for me they are quite a familiar experience, but again I agree completely with the point above that the translators deserve a lot of credit.

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