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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Juan Filloy

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To purchase Caterva

Title: Caterva
Author: Juan Filloy
Genre: Novel
Written: 1937 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 424 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Caterva - US
Caterva - US (Spanish)
Caterva - UK
Caterva - Canada
Caterva - India
Caterva - España
  • Spanish title: Caterva
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Brendan Riley

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable (socially conscious) vagabonding novel of 1930s Argentina

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 4/11/2015 Paul Pickering

  From the Reviews:
  • "Filloy is more concerned with his characters’ farcical inner lives than their political ones. (...) There are a multitude of demented sub-plots on the journey, swirling around matters as disparate as the newly invented Swiss Army knife and a Nazi intrigue that involves the British Entomological Society and a very strange code -- but these are not the point. It is the impossible solidarity of individuals that is important (.....) Brendan Riley’s masterly translation enters into this bleakly comic spirit but everything is clear, precise and easy to read. This is a heroic achievement" - Paul Pickering, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Caterva begins with a dictionary-entry definition of 'caterva', its meanings listed as:

crowd, mob, rabble, throng, swarm, multitude, the vulgar, the hoi polloi, the great unwashed; in Latin used in describing a flock of birds; a trop of soldiers; a company of actors; a horde of barbarians; a dramatic chorus; (also used pejoratively).
       Many of these could apply to the 'caterva' of Filloy's novel, a band of seven no longer very young men (Filloy likes to do things in sevens -- so also the titles of his books are all seven-lettered). They initially seem to be just a ragtag group of down and outers, but they are hard to pin down: "You all look too clean to be drifters" a suspicious detective observes early on; "They look like criminals but act like playboys", someone else suggests. Moving and working together, they are an organized group (traveling with their own folding cots, no less) -- yet they don't even know all of each others' actual names or backstories. They go by nicknames; one is called 'Lon Chaney', for example, because of his ability to transform himself like the actor -- "he had become variously, Canadian, Chinese, Lapp, Hindu, or Lithuanian, as the occasion required" -- and is considered: "the creative director of our dereliction".
       Foreigners in 1930s Argentina -- only one among them is even just South American -- they appear to be involved in a larger subversive plan, coded messages awaiting them on their various stages as they move through the country. They are definitely involved in some redistributive activity, getting their hands on some money and passing much of it along; if not quite Robin Hoods, they prove themselves quite generous. And they're in this together:
It's gratifying how we continue to see how we continue to understand one another, without sentiment, conscious of partaking in a destiny greater than any one of us alone; and how each man's duty intermeshes so sweetly with the others' as far as the mechanics of our little tour of the country.
       They talk their way out of and into a variety of situations, guided by their own notions of justice -- slightly at odds with many of the prevalent ones. They emphatically stand up for what's right, but, old and a bit jaded, their activism is tempered and somewhat cautious; among the advice they offer is: "Learn as we have the great wisdom of simply ignoring it all !" And yet they continue to involve themselves in a variety of dangerous activities.
       There's limited plot to Caterva: there are a variety of goals and tasks (and escapes), and characters resurface at various points to add new twists (for example the professional beggar-woman whom they stole so much money from at the beginning of the story), but this is much more a come-what-may road-trip novel than the story of a specific adventure. The colorful characters and their interactions, in life and death, are what Filloy focuses on.
       A Nazi plot they uncover makes a nice action-end to the novel -- a decent twist for a 1937 Argentine novel, too -- and the death of one of them adds some poignancy to a general feeling of transition for the group.
       Caterva is an agreeably meandering novel. Social and political issues underlie much of the story and plot, but Filloy knows to keep the focus on the human -- on his seven protagonists and those they encounter -- and it makes for a surprisingly modern-feeling read: this is fiction that feels, in many respects, very contemporary.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 February 2016

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Caterva: Reviews: Other books by Juan Filloy under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Juan Filloy lived 1894 to 2000.

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