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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Joy of Being Awake

Hector Abad

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To purchase The Joy of Being Awake

Title: The Joy of Being Awake
Author: Hector Abad
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 1996)
Length: 202 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Joy of Being Awake - US
Asuntos de un hidalgo disoluto - US
The Joy of Being Awake - UK
The Joy of Being Awake - Canada
Asuntos de un hidalgo disoluto - España
  • Spanish title: Asuntos de un hidalgo disoluto
  • Translated by Nathan Budoff

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Our Assessment:

B : stylish; enjoyable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post . 22/12/1996 Steven Moore

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) bittersweet account of the life and opinions of a man at odds with himself, narrated in nonchronological fashion with plenty of entertaining digressions and the occasional formal game. (...) Like both Sterne's and Voltaire's books (though not in the same league as either), Abad's novel has a surface geniality that barely conceals undercurrents of discontent and despair." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

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:

       The Joy of Being Awake is narrated by Gaspar Medina, now seventy-two and reflecting on a life nearing its end. Medina is, as the original Spanish title suggests, a 'hidalgo disoluto', and that element is certainly the dominant one of his life-tale -- even if his dissolution is only part of the story, and of his unusual character. (The English title comes from his observation that it was in reading that he found "the joy of being awake"; now, in penning (or, more accurately, largely dictating) these reminiscences he finds also: "the joy of remembering".)
       Orphaned at sixteen -- "the first orphan of the Spanish Civil War", in fact (and rather unnecessarily, Abad not really making much of this) --, Medina's parents left him enough money for him to live in considerable comfort, and never have to worry about working for a living. The death of his parents certainly marked him, but he was already somewhat of an odd duck even before that. He begins his story acknowledging that he wasn't like the other boys -- and, indeed, that sinful behavior (of almost any kind) baffled him, as did most indulgence: food, for example, or sex -- to the extent that he: "developed schematic rituals in pursuit of carnality", dutifully masturbating at a set time once a week in attempting to conform to expectations. It's not that he was physically incapable, it's just that he lacked the hunger -- which also applied to any appetite for food.
       He notes:

     At times I was tormented (although the verb is undoubtedly exaggerated) by the idea of being a sort of innate ascetic.
       Yet there's passion here too, even as sex is often lacking, at least with the women he is closest to (elsewhere, he does experiment reasonably extensively, but those episodes barely rate a mention). The one great love of his life, Angela Pietragrua, entangled him in an affair that was very much hands-on -- but also, ultimately unconsummated, as then is also his marriage to the young woman he hires and who serves as his secretary, Cunegunda Bonaventura, who is taking dictation here (though when he gets to the chapters about his one great love it gets to be a bit much for her). (It is, to quite an extent, a marriage of convenience, pro forma: Medina doesn't think he'll last more than another year and he leaves a sizable estate and would rather it not go to the state or the underserving; beyond that, there's obviously a genuine attachment between them, too -- though amusingly Medina refers to her a: "Miss Bonaventura -- I don't know if I should call her Mrs. Medina".)
       Medina relates a variety of episodes from and periods of life, but The Joy of Being Awake isn't straightforward memoir. To some extent, Medina is in dialogue with himself -- "But I don't know why I revealed my age", he observes when he first does -, shaping the telling of his life to capture what remains of its essences and significance, and ignoring or only quickly and casually dealing with large swaths of it. As he nicely -- and accurately -- puts it, near the end, his account is an "absurd zigzag":
The memories have not grown like a line, in order, but rather through agglomeration like a raspberry. Or even better: like a cancer. The metastasis of my old age has propagated throughout the entire book, contaminating with my evil tongue even the luminous days of my less bitter youth.
       The episodes are often amusing -- Medina taking up a majordomo-position, and all it entails, for example -- and the presentation and telling reminds of picaresque novels, though with a slightly more melancholy air underneath the sharp wit than usual. Stylized, the writing (and translation) can feel forced, but for the most part Abad (and Budoff) show a good ear, and there's much here that really is very nicely turned -- "My childhood is composed of memories of a house overflowing with women and doors", for example.
       There's a bit of a loose feel to the narrative -- just as Medina at times doesn't seem quite sure of what he's after, so Abad seems to be unsure what exactly he wants his protagonist to be, and to do. But it's good serious rambling fun, by a well-read author, bubbling along nicely -- and often quite cleverly-amusingly. The Joy of Being Awake is not an overly ambitious book, but one in which the author clearly still takes his craft very seriously, and it's a pleasing, enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 December 2017

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The Joy of Being Awake: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colombian author Héctor Abad Faciolince was born in 1958.

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