Book Review: Books Burn Badly

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Books Burn Badly by Manuel Rivas Harvill Secker, 545pp, £18.99

IT IS time for reviewers and sundry pundits to quit the flattering comparisons with Lorca, Joyce and Garcia Marquez. Manuel Rivas reads like no-one else on the planet. He spirals off in a Rivas-honed groove, to spin majestically into poetry, tragedy, farce, through time and space performing word-twists, simile-remakes, syntax-rap.

In keeping with the "burning" theme, there are metaphorical sparks on every page: a dazzling quip, a tragic picture, a walk-on cameo from someone you won't meet again for a hundred pages, a concentration of mood and fate in a single paragraph. To borrow from something he propagates in this novel: Rivas's words get behind your eyes, like the smoke from the pyre. They smart, they cure. They are formidably alive.

Books Burn Badly (the title is maybe the worst thing about it) is one of those novels to lavish on friends. Books are central to its enterprise. They are coveted, stolen, hidden, read-from and quoted-from, stroked like babies, treated like trash, yet they somehow survive.

The skein of stories woven around them begins in 1881, unwinding a thread that spans more than a century and concentrates on Galicia, with sorties to France and England, concluding movingly, calmly, briefly – and with self-conscious ambiguous irony – with a question. A question that emanates from the wanton burning of books in the port of Coruna: what are books worth?

The year is 1936. Franco's fascists are on the rampage. A stench of smoke and burning leather wafts over the docks. A group of young men observe the scene.

"The books were burning badly. One of them stirred in the nearest bonfire and Hercules thought he saw it suddenly fan out its fresh pollack's red gills. An incandescent piece came off another and rolled like a neon sea urchin down the steps of the fire staircase."

Unlike Rivas, who perceives the lyrical core of this sinister happening, Hercules Curtis, sometime boxer, sometime travelling photographer, sees the menace and shares the disquiet of witnesses at the scene of this "industrial scale" burning. Like the famed Arturo da Silva, Galicia's "flamboyant lightweight champion" – the model of macho bravura and integrity, who later loses his life – they are resolved to resist Franco's coup.

The resistance proves futile. The population of Coruna endures a riven civil war, like the rest of Spain, battling onward through the Second World War, then moving painfully into an aftermath of censorship, fear, oppression and strict conformity to the diktats of those in power. Rivas concentrates his attention on the characters who encapsulate the essence of that existence: Dez the censor and poet manqu, Ren the cop, Olinda the washerwoman who works for Chelo the painter, wife of the judge. And then there is Sada, a marked man, the painter of monsters, Balbao the journalist who protractedly works on a novel, Silvia the seamstress and Leica the picture-taker whose portraits aspire to love.

It is Leica who ponders the pointed advice that "The important thing in life, and in art, is not to bore people". Neither Leica, nor his author, falls for the trap. While bringing to light the greater life of a whole community of artisans and artists, real and aspiring, Rivas transforms the daily-prosaic into a dance – sometimes macabre (blood is spilled and men are tortured), sometimes ethereal (as with the magical voice of Luis Terranova, who sings "like the sea rocked to sleep by the lighthouse").

Through it all runs a handful of stories, criss-crossed, yet moving at different speeds, in different directions (Terranova becoming the protg of Dez; Olinda recalling a time spent in Sussex), among them, the tale of aptly named Gabriel (sometimes arch, sometimes angelic), the son of the judge, who brings the novel to a conclusion just when it seems to be going nowhere.

He closes the sprawling narrative loop by linking its 19th-century genesis to the present, composing a knot that is neat, yet loose, permitting the reader space to speculate. How will they fare and where will they go, this restless crew of Coruna's citizens, freed yet fixed by the words they breathe? They are trapped in a classic. Happy fate.

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