29 June 2006

Blood on the Saddle by Rafael Reig

Seeking a change of pace, I read Rafael Reig's Blood on the Saddle, a novel that could be described as Italo Calvino rewritten by Elmore Leonard. Sort of. It's kind of like postmodern-lite -- call it pomopop. (Or don't.)

For the most part, Blood on the Saddle is a hardboiled detective story, but there are dashes of science fiction and western and general surrealism in there, too, with an evil corporation performing genetic experiments in the background and writers hiring private investigators to find characters that have gone astray and gun-toting cowboys (the best gods we get from our machines these days) climbing out of the pages of fictional popular fictions just in time to save not the day, but a couple hours, at least, before finding a metafictional sunset to ride to. The structure of the book is loose and even haphazard, allowing all sorts of allusions to play together. In the end, the novel is pleasantly superficial, appealing but not exactly memorable, a fine book for a plane ride or a beach read, because it doesn't require a lot of concentration, it's basically entertaining, and yet it won't make you feel stupid for reading it.

I found myself liking paragraphs of Blood on the Saddle more than pages. Here's one that particularly appealed to me:
What I called "home" was two rooms in one of the six garrets of a building on the Calle San Marcos. It was an attic-studio of the kind the Urban Plan had earmarked for unpublished artist-writers. Various generations of luckless hacks had dreamed of glory within those walls. It was noticeable. The indelible stains of so much useless effort were everywhere. The parquet creaked, worn out from supporting the weight of all the vanity. As soon as you turned off the light, obstinate insects began crawling out of the U-bend of the sink: brilliant metaphors that crawled along the tiles, hemistitches with compound eyes, fragments of prose having opaque integuments, hendecasyllables with eleven feet counted on your fingers...
Every few chapters, a paragraph as vivid and clever as that one pops out. Then, somewhat rarer, are paragraphs such as this, where imagery that seems (at least to me, at least right now) fresh and effective communicates a lot about the characters and situations:
Yes, at times I felt very lonely, like an equestrian statue in the rain. A man and his horse, motionless, in the middle of an empty square. The drizzle's coming down on them all afternoon, unhurriedly and unmercifully. Alone, man and horse, out in the open, when even the pigeons are sheltering under the eaves.
The novel tries too hard to be too much, and so ends up being much less than it could have been, but it nonetheless manages to be somehow charming, and I hope more of Reig's work is translated in the future, because on the evidence of Blood on the Saddle he has the potential to be a substantial and important writer, one capable of writing quirkily philosophical novels that are also well crafted and entertaining. (I should note, too -- or perhaps go out on a limb by saying -- that Paul Hammond's translation seems to be very good work, because the prose maintains a colloquial tone that never actually feels translated.)

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