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B+ : enjoyable, determinedly conventional big historical novel
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The complete review's Review:
The Anarchist Who Shared My Name begins with a Prologue explaining the inspiration for the novel: while Googling his name, author Pablo Martín Sánchez came across a reference to a group of Spanish anarchists condemned to death for their involvement in the Vera de Bidasoa incident in 1924 which someone with the exact same name as him was part of -- and though he couldn't find any other online references to him, eventually:
I tracked down periodicals from the time at the National Library, consulted dozens of books about the events in Vera de Bidasoa, and traveled to the very site of the incidents. Only then did I understand that I had to write the story of this anarchist who had stolen my name.The 1924 incident was part of an ill-fated small-time effort at revolution and the overthrow of Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera, this earlier Martín Sánchez part of one of the ragtag bands of a few dozen anarchists and other revolutionaries who came across the border from France, anticipating the revolution to be in full swing already but instead almost all falling quickly ino the hands of the authorities. The author's namesake wasn't entirely obscure -- his dramatic death made the cover of Le Petit Journal (21/12/1924) -- but it's a small and largely forgotten piece of history, and there apparently isn't too much other biographical information about him -- allowing the present-day Pablo Martín Sánchez to spin a tale based loosely on some facts but also requiring lots of imaginative filling-in, a documentary novel with an emphasis on the fiction but firmly grounded in history.
In, for the most part, alternating chapters, The Anarchist Who Shared My Name presents the story of the author's namesake: one set of chapters, numbered with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) is set in 1924 and follow Martín Sánchez from Paris to Spain and his death-sentence; the other set, numbered with Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.) takes the reader back to his earlier life, from his 1890 birth on, and cover a greater span of time (and movement), showing how he came to be where he was in 1924. The chapters run in near-parallel -- though ultimately we get to chapter 27, but only chapter XXIV; there is also an Epilogue (author Pablo Martín Sánchez emerging again for a summing up) and a final Addendum.
The converging story-lines are quite entertaining, even if the story -- especially the 1924-action -- is quite drawn out. Focused on Martín Sánchez, The Anarchist Who Shared My Name isn't exactly a sprawling historic epic -- up-close and personal, it is limited in its scope, and the few more far-flung adventures (Martín Sánchez visits Verdun during the First World War, or travels to the New World) are kept quite brief and contrast with the more routine Spanish and French scenes that dominate the story. It is, however, a fat historic novel, taking its time; The Anarchist Who Shared My Name isn't plodding, but it doesn't gallop or flit about in fast-paced action either.
As with much historical fiction, The Anarchist Who Shared My Name has to deal with the fact that its conclusion is foregone: pretty much the first thing we learn about the anarchist is that he was in a group "condemned to death and executed" in 1924. So the success of the revolutionary expedition that Martín Sánchez was part of ... wasn't one -- putting considerable pressure on the author to make more of what got the anarchist-Martín Sánchez there (than the actual, final, fatal there). Fortunately, author-Martín Sánchez does a good job of this -- for the most part not trying to make too much of his hero, but nevertheless making for a detailed canvas of Spain 1890 to 1924, the anarchist movement of the times, and especially the Spanish émigré-community in Paris in the early 1920s, prominently featuring Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and Miguel de Unamuno.
Author-Martín Sánchez has some fun in (re)creating his protagonist: given how little is known about him, he can add a few distinctive quirks -- in this case, for example, having him have the rare condition of anosmia (he has no sense of smell), as well as situs inversus (his major organs are on the other side of his body, a mirror-image of the usual arrangement). These contribute, in small ways, to the plot, without being too annoyingly prominent. With his father getting a position as a schools-inspector, Martín Sánchez has an itinerant childhood, "eight years of continuous pilgrimage, eight years of wandering from place to place" -- generally also away from his mother and beloved younger sister. He does make two friends in one spot that he and his father repeatedly return to: a boy calling himself Robinsón (who introduces him to Robinson Crusoe -- though as throughout, real-life adventures (even of the small-scale schoolboy-sort) easily win out over bookish ones) and the girl Angela whom he is quickly smitten by.
Robinsón already appeared in the chapters set in 1924 (and then figures prominently in the storyline set in that year), so readers know that the friendship continued; Angela is notable for her absence, unmentioned and unseen -- so readers must suspect that that relationship did not last. Robinsón already warned Martín Sánchez from early on that her cousin was the jealous type, and he and her family do indeed pose an ultimately near insurmountable hurdle to their happiness. There is a love story here -- Angela is as completely devoted to Martín Sánchez as she is to him -- but only briefly are they able to enjoy their bliss; instead, it comes down to a show-down -- an actual duel. And as a consequence, the two lovers are tragically separated -- but Martín Sánchez certainly refuses to let go of his dream, insisting to Robinsón:
you're not going to get Angela out of my head. You do what you like. I'm going to make the search for her the meaning of my life.So, yes, this nominally deeply political novel nevertheless relies heavily on the most basic novel-trope, the near-impossible quest for a lost true love. It's a bit much to demand of the story-line, which does indeed creak a bit under the weight of this, but Martín Sánchez has enough else going on (including three years of dreariest military service) for the action to continue moving along engagingly enough.
Meanwhile, all along, there's also the 1924-action. Here in Paris Martín Sánchez has a job a few days a week as a typesetter (where he is also the de facto editor of Ex-Ilio: The Spanish Immigrant's Weekly), and as a caretaker of a small country-house. He's not too politically engaged at the moment -- unlike Robinsón -- but does get drawn back into the anarchist circles he's always been sympathetic to. He's asked to help with the printing of some supporting material, and gets pulled deeper into the cause; when the call to revolution comes, he initially has no intention of going along -- but, as readers know, he eventually changes his mind and joins those heading for the Spanish border. There, of course, things do not go very well.
The other timeline, of Martín Sánchez reaching 1924, does have him frequently pining for (and seeking) Angela, but ranges considerably further too. As a correspondent he visits Verdun, mid-battle, while in his desperation he at one point considers carrying out an assassination-attempt on Alfonso XIII. (Among the amusing recurring bits in the novel is the seemingly unkillable pop-up doll that is the Spanish king: they keep trying to blow him up or gun him down, and again and again he emerges unscathed.) The political unrest in Spain affects him as well, and he even ventures far abroad -- to North and South America. For a while he finally settles with his mother and sister in Spain, but when Primo de Rivera takes over he knows he has to go into exile -- leading him eventually to Paris.
Author-Martín Sánchez is very good on the historic detail -- both the political activity of the times, especially in the Spanish circles, as well as the minutiae of the day and age: most of the latter may simply be background-color, but it's very well done; his attention to detail -- for example, of various living conditions, from various rooms to prison cells -- is very impressive (without being ostentatious: he doesn't let it get in the way of the story, as happens far too often in historical fiction). Conscientious about the history he relates, Martín Sánchez gives a good picture of the Spanish-émigré scene in Paris and the revolutionary ambitions -- including the role of Blasco Ibáñez -- as well as the anarchist scene of the early twentieth century more generally. Only a few bits feel forced into the narrative (he had to go to Verdun ? -- and that leads to his being able to get a plane ride-along ?); overall, it's an impressive picture of the Spain (and the exiled-Spaniards) situation of those years.
Author Pablo Martín Sánchez is a member of the Oulipo, but readers shouldn't expect anything particularly experimental and constrained to this novel. Indeed, if there's anything that's striking about it, it's how incredibly conventional The Anarchist Who Shared My Name is. Aside from the odd name-coïncidence that sets the narrative in motion, this is a practically paint-by-the-numbers exemplar of traditional, oh-so-familiar historic-romantic fiction. Of course, that's part of the point: taking the liberties his story gives him -- there's almost no information about his protagonist, save his fate -- Martín Sánchez fashions a life-story around him that checks off all the traditional historic-romantic novel requirements. And it does so quite beautifully: The Anarchist Who Shared My Name is a nineteenth-century novel, through and through, in pace (a bit drawn-out, but not painfully so) and style and story (the quest for a lost love ! the fight against political and judicial injustices ! death sentences ! a duel ! the itinerant life ! betrayals !) with some early twentieth-century setting and subject-matter.
Bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue (and Addendum) in which author-Martín Sánchez comments on his story, the only thing that really disappoints somewhat about The Anarchist Who Shared My Name is that he doesn't integrate the name-coïncidence more fully in the text and story. At one point in the Prologue, he does phrase it not as the 'anarchist who shared my name' but rather as the 'anarchist who had stolen my name', and for a while one hopes that it's that he builds his story on; alas, that opportunity is left mostly by the wayside.
In its conclusion, Martín Sánchez does add a bit of a twist to The Anarchist Who Shared My Name, suggesting that there is a bit more to the story, or rather that events unfolded slightly differently. It's an appealing enough piece of playing-with-history, but could have used a bit more foundation leading up to it; indeed, although The Anarchist Who Shared My Name is a novel that takes its time and describes some events in great detail, there are some bits and pieces that Martín Sánchez could devote considerably more space to -- so also Angela, who is an absence, rather than presence for too much of the novel.
The Anarchist Who Shared My Name is, in the best possible way, an unexceptional novel; indeed, its success lies in how very well Martín Sánchez makes his novel conform so closely to all the expectations we have of the historic-romantic genre -- and the entertaining bits and frills (and accurate local color) of the time-period and events he fills it with. Contemporary Spanish fiction is chock-full of oversize historic fiction like this, so The Anarchist Who Shared My Name doesn't really stand out as much as it otherwise might, but it's a fine novel and an enjoyable, good read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 6 November 2018
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Spanish author Pablo Martín Sánchez was born in 1977.
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© 2018 the complete review