Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jaime Manrique - "Cervantes Street"

I learned about Jaime Manrique through an interview in BOMB magazine, and it was a great lead. He's a wonderful writer. Manrique's latest work is Cervantes Street, a historical novel built around the life of Miguel de Cervantes who authored Don Quixote. My recollections of Don Quixote are fuzzy, so it's not necessary to know the novel to understand Manrique's piece. That said, it sounds as if Manrique interpolated structure and/or actual content from Don Quixote into his novel.

While the book barely breaks 300 pages, it evokes its world nearly as well as (usually) long works of historical fiction. Like most historical fiction, the facts are merely a skeleton upon which the author invents a good yarn with imagined (though perhaps researched) detail, dialogue, and characterization. As such, I wish Manrique had done more to describe details of setting: what were people wearing, what was the ambiance of a room, what was the character of a town. Sometimes I felt myself wanting to visualize things more, but there were insufficient details in the narrative for me to do so. I almost wish Manrique had expanded the length of his work to provide more 'canvas' with which to further develop his story, setting, and characters.

The rivalry between the two men at the heart of the book never heats up in any overtly dramatic sense, and there is little actual contact between them. While this side-stepped some potential sparks, I think the point of the novel is less about the rivalry than to contrast the life of the luckless Cervantes with the privileged life of Luis, with the final fortunes of Sancho and what we know about Cervantes place in history providing the insight into what pays off in life. What was most enjoyable about Manrique's work is that the story, the rivalry of the two characters, and even the flow of the text matches what you might read by Dumas or Sienkiewicz or other masters of the form.  Manrique can't touch them for scope or depth of characterization, but he's got the goods and if he attempted something more ambitious in scope I have the feeling he might be able to pull it off.

Overall, the strength of the plot, the energy of the language, and the overall vibe of Cervantes Street ring very true and are fantastic to immerse oneself in. I'll likely pick up other works by Manrique.

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