Victus by Albert Sánchez Piñol
‘There are men who are born smeared in a patina of moral oil; misfortune slides off them like water. But those same men stain everything they touch.’
Victus is a dirty, foul-mouthed, bloody-nosed, big, heavy, long novel about a period in history no historian has ever succeeded in representing as interesting; the dreaded Spanish War of Succession. It’s a period where Europe goes to war in Spain, signs a load of pacts, betrays each other and decides to get out while it still can, leaving Catalonia on its own to fight a war against the vengeful heir to the Spanish throne, Louis XIV’s son, Felipe de Bourbon, the future Felipe V.
Yet, somehow, Piñol manages to turn this confused and demoralizing war into a thrillingly entertaining background to his protagonist’s unpredictable career. The book is the fictitious biography of a Catalan trainee military engineer (and real-life historical personage) Martí Zuviría, who embarks on a dangerous but enlightening apprenticeship in the castle of the French genius Vauban.
Later on, following the death of Vauban, he’s turfed out of the castle and enlists with the Borbón army in time for the battles of Tortosa and Almansa, before returning to Barcelona to settle down in an unorthodox family unit with a prostitute called Amelis, a dwarf and a child-thief called Anfan.
He then enlists for the Barcelona city militia under the orders of General Antonio Villarroel, who has himself switched over from the Borbón side, and begins planning the defence of the city against the onslaught of the Duke of Berwick’s forces. However, he’s captured once again by the other side and is forced to design an approach to the city via a series of complex trenches and underground passages. This siege he unsurprisingly decides to design in the least effective way possible, so as to attempt to save the city from oblivion.
The Spanish War of Succession is phenomenally well documented by first-hand observors - Barcelona's War Council in particular, blogged every conversation and meeting held during the siege, and Piñol has stated in interviews that he has relied on these manuscripts to such an extent he even copies them ad verbatum during certain dialogues. A lot of the success of Piñol’s book is in off-key portraits that hang awkwardly around the necks of the important historical personages that are so well-documented by these records. That Piñol mischievously portrays Berwick (Felipe de Bourbon's military commander, a royal exile from Jacobite England and an ancestor of the lately deceased Duquesa de Alba) as a heartless bisexual dandy called ‘Jimmy’ shows that the author is not afraid to be creative with the historical material at his disposal.
Rafael Casanova meanwhile, mythologized by a dozen statues in Barcelona celebrating his legendary suicide charge over the ruins of city walls into the advancing Borbón ranks, is scathingly portrayed as a dull, doubt-racked pen-pusher who is reluctantly obliged by a pistol in the side to take the flag of Santa Eulalia and lead his men in the last stand, before living on to collude with its new masters.
The haughty Austrian Allied General Stahremeberg is ridiculed for creeping out of the city at dawn during the allied retreat; ‘let it be known Starhemberg didn’t even resign from his office of Viceroy of Catalonia. It’s difficult to imagine a greater ignominy.’
The Hapsburg pretender to the throne, Charles of Austria, is dismissed as a vain coward who can't bring himself to show up in war-torn Barcelona (which is fighting on in his name) once the Austrian crown is conferred on his head, and turns up late to his own (short-lived, ignominious) coronation in Madrid.
The Dutch military engineer, Prosper Verboom, Zuviría's arch-enemy, is presented in the most comically unflattering light possible. Think any of Robbie Coltrane's self-regardingly facetious characters in Blackadder. In fact, there's more than a touch of the Blackadder about much of this book in its gleeful re-rendering of our image of historical heroes and villains. Throughout Zuviría plays a balancing act between a self-preserving attitude in the midst of madness, which recalls that of Yossarian in Catch 22, and a sense of loyalty to the Catalan underdog cause, which has had the book's fiercest critics accusing Piñol of Catalan nationalism.
But, regardless of Piñol's views on Catalan independence, there are 600 pages in Victus and that’s more than enough to let fly in scattergun fashion at pretty much everything that moves. Spanish Priests don’t escape the roast; ‘their interests are always allied with those of human stupidity, they feed both with each sermon and not even the sense of ridicule or the force of reason can detain them.’
Of the notion of Spanish identity he says memorably, ‘‘for the Catalans, Spain was only the name applied to a free confederation of nations; the Castillians, however, viewed in the word a prolongation of the imperial arm of Castille...Spain doesn’t exist; it’s not a place, it’s a misunderstanding.’
And it’s not all one-sided. ‘Put two Catalans together and you’ll have three opinions.’
That one’s my favourite.