It is the summer of 1936, the early months of the agonising civil war that engulfs Spain and shakes the rest of the world. In a prison in the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela, an artist sketches the famous porch of the cathedral, the Portico da Gloria. He uses a carpenter's pencil. But instead of reproducing the sculptured faces of the prophets and elders, he draws the faces of his fellow Republican prisoners.
Many years later in post-Franco Spain, a survivor of that period, Doctor Daniel da Barca, returns from exile to his native Galicia, and the threads of past memories begin to be woven together. This poetic and moving novel conveys the horror and savagery of the tragedy that divided Spain, and the experiences of the men and women who lived through it. Yet in the process, it also relates one of the most beautiful love stories imaginable.
I have a fellow member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook group to thank for introducing me to Manuel Rivas and this book in particular. So thank you, Ekaterina Volkova, you have introduced me to a writer whose work I will now search out. On the basis of this book alone Manuel Rivas has become one of my favourite authors. As I read The Carpenter's Pencil I was reminded of Andrei Makine, whose work , although not magic realism, has the same poetry and humanity.
This is a sublimely beautiful book about a very ugly period in European history. In the hands of a lesser writer that might have meant that the brutal ugliness of the Spanish Civil War and Franco's suppression of the left-wing opposition would have been veneered over, but on the contrary the beauty and poetry acts as a ray of light illuminating the dark corners.
Nor is the book simplistic in its portrayal of those involved on both sides of the conflict. There are two main characters - Doctor Daniel da Barca and the prison guard, Herbal, through whose eyes we mostly see the doctor. Herbal is shown as a complex and conflicted character, at once fascinated by the doctor and at the same time hating him, at times his persecutor and betrayer and at others his protector. The use of Herbal as the main means for transmitting da Barca's story at once distances and mythologizes it. The doctor is portrayed almost as a religious prophet with divine protection like the biblical character he is named after. Da Barca's comments to his fellow prisoners on illness and life, which Herbal reports to his superiors as indications of the threat the doctor offers, can be read as more simply an educated man's thoughts being misinterpreted by an uneducated one. Or are they?
The narrative structure, especially at the beginning, moves backwards and forwards through time and from one viewpoint to another. This further disorientates the reader. In addition the magic comes not from da Barca's activities but from Herbal. Early in the book in a short and shocking chapter Herbal blows the top off the head of an artist. The pencil in the title is one used by the artist to draw a church porch in which the heads of the prophets are replaced by the heads of his fellow political prisoners (another biblical reference). Herbal takes the pencil as a keepsake, but finds when he puts it behind his ear that the artist has conversations with him about art and Da Barca.
Even when Herbal is recounting the doctor's story directly to a young prostitute in a brothel his words are full of poetry - not overblown poetry but simple and powerful poetical phrases that evoke atmosphere and emotions perfectly:
Pepe Sanchez was shot one rainy dawn in the autumn of '38. The day before, all the words disappeared from the prison. Nothing was left of them but scraps in the seagulls' scream. The lament of a bolt being drawn. The gasps of the drains. And then Pepe burst into song.
The poetry is also reflected in the way certain images and phrases are woven through the story, evolving and taking on meaning as they go. At the end of the book I just wanted to go back to the beginning and start again.