review – The Map of Time

 

It is not a mere audacity to say that the publication of THE MAP OF TIME marked a before and after in Spanish fantastic letters. Steampunk, time travel, victoriana pastiche… The novel was a well-deserved success, not only in Spain or in Spanish. I wrote the following review for the Times Literary Supplement on the occasion of its UK publication. I was asked to do three things, no mere feast for a whole (but only one!) page in the TLS!
· to write a review of novel+translated English version
· to write an overview of the author’s career
· to write an overview of the current state of “Fantasy” writing in Spanish
Hence the length. Apologies.
Meet the venco
The Map of Time. Félix J. Palma. Translated by Nick Caistor. 514 pp. HarperCollins. 12.99. 978 0 00 7344123
There is an unbroken tradition of literary fantasy in Spain – seen in particular in the short story – that dates back at least to the dawn of Romanticism. Far from being a cult interest, fantasy has remained popular throughout the twentieth century, as revelatory anthologies by David Roas and Juan Molina Porras have recently shown, and many contemporary authors have allied themselves with the fantastic tradition and are helping it to flourish anew.
The range of what is being produced, from Juan Carlos Márquez’s playful and surreal accounts of a subtly altered everyday to the elegant and disturbing worlds of Patricia Esteban Erlés, or the irony of Julia Otxoa, shows that these writers have started to combine the tropes of the classical short story with experimentation and innovation, bringing in elements from, for example, pulp literature, Japanese writing and American film noir. This much is apparent from Perturbaciones (Disturbances, 2009), an anthology edited by Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, in which well-established names, such as Pilar Pedraza and Ángel Olgoso, rub shoulders with younger writers such as Óscar Sipán and Óscar Esquivias. There are also a number of writers, such as Jon Bilbao or Pilar Adón, whose work on the borderlands of the fantastic and the terrifying also makes use of the supernatural.
One of the most important figures writing in this mode is the Andalusian Félix J. Palma. Before the publication of his major novel, El mapa del tiempo (2008, now translated into English by Nick Caistor as The Map of Time), Palma was seen as one of the most significant Spanish short-story writers: some of his early stories – “Venco a la molinera” and “Reflejos”, for instance, from El vigilante de la Salamandra (The Salamander Watcher, 1998), his first collection – are seen as modern classics in Spain. A mixture of the fantastic and the everyday, reflected in his clear yet playful prose style, has been the hallmark of Palma’s work. In “Venco a la molinera”, a patch of turbulence on a routine business flight transports a man into a paralel world which is identical with our own, apart from the fact that chickens do not exist, and their place in the food chain is occupied by the venco, a made-uo bluish-orange bird, The protagonist’s introduction to the venco is typical of Palma’s prose, lavish yet subtle and classically satisfying:
“Extendí la mano libre hacia el más cercano, conmovido, pensando que así debió de sentirse Adán ante las primeras bestias, y repasé el plumaje celeste del ave que hacía que mi presencia allí fuera una errata, acaricié la cresta del animal que con toda seguridad a partir de mañana poblaría mis pesadillas, seguí con dedos cada vez más crispadas la larga pluma naranja que remataba aquella alucinación que en lo más profundo de mí mismo me negaba a aceptar como real.
(Moved, I stretched out my free hand to the the closest one, thinking that this was how Adam must have felt before the first animals, and I stroked the blue plumage of the bird which transformed my presence there into an error, I caressed the crest of the animal which would certainly as of tomorrow inhabit my nightmares, with hands that grew ever more tense I followed the large orange feather that surmounted this hallucination which my deepest self refused to accept as real.)”
In Las interioridades (Private Matters, 2002), his best-known collection, sea monsters invade the routines of a middle-class family; a couple buy a house which comes with everything included, even a bizarre home invader, a man concealed behind a curtain; in another story, men keep on meeting each other while hiding in various women’s wardrobes. The more realistic stories are less inventive. Palma has won many prizes for his short stories, and it sometimes feels as though particular tales were cut to measure for competitions. It is only when given complete freedom that he can write to his own high standards.
The advantages of freedom are visible in Palma’s latest short story collection, El menor espectáculo del mundo (The Smallest Show on Earth, 2010), which gives free rein to his imagination. In “Margabarismos”, a man communicates with the ghost of his wicked uncle via the unusual medium of the lavatory graffiti in a bar. And throughout, Palma returns to his favoured themes: the fatalism of the little man as he makes his way through his grey life; loneliness even within stable relationships; the impossibility of making choices in life as everything is decided for us by forces outside our control; and the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the everyday. His characters try to adopt new identities, but their attempts are ruined by unexpected misfortunes that crush their hopes and rob them of a happy ending. The main idea of Palma’s work is that it is permitted, and sometimes even advisable, to provoke these cataclysms.
One story here, “Bibelot”, deliberately withholds the possibility of narrative conclusion; the reader is constantly being moved around in relation to the events and characters described, and closure is carefully and deliberately denied. This is a conventional gambit in the short story, but also one Palma uses throughout The Map of time, a complex novel that makes great play of confounding readers’ expectations. Nothing in his previous writing has anticipated the ambition and scope of this work. Of his two previous novels, Las corrientes oceánicas (Ocean currents, 2006) does not attain the level of his best short stories, whereas La hormiga que quiso ser astronauta (The Ant who wanted to be an Astronaut, 2006) is mainly of interest as a sort of concealed autobiography.
The Map of Time has been praised in the Spanish literary magazines as a miracle of inventiveness and structure, and certainly one of its most striking qualities is the complexity and cleverness of its plotting. It begins in 1896, with a young man called Andrew Harrington preparing to kill himself with one of his father’s pistols. He also has to look the part: “The tedious moment is now approaching when the young man must decide which hat and overcoat to pick… one has to look presentable even for death”. It turns out that Harrington was the lover of Marie Kelly, one of the victims of Jack the Ripper. Yet there may be a way to save her from her murderer, and the despairing Harrington from self-muerder – a way of turning back the clock.
Palma presents the novel as a kind of folletín, or nineteenth-century adventure novel, using some of the narrative structures and archetypal characters familiar from accounts of late Victorian London (Jack the Ripper, the Elephant Man). Palma’s cast of real and invented characters is supported by various fantastic inventions or unclassifiable pseudo-science: the Rider Haggardesque “hole into the future” which provides the backstory for the novel’s time-travelling plot, and which is stoles from a tribe of amusing Victorian “savages” by the unscrupulous entrepeneur Gilliam Murray; or else H. G. Well’s time machine itself, which plays an important part in the novel and, it is suggested in one of the paradoxes on which the novels about time travel thrive, ends up being the actual mechanism we remember from George Pal’s film version of Well’s novel, of 1960.
The plot teases us with the plausibility of its descriptions of the marvellous, and the fantastic events which it presents and seems to explain away before revealing ever more complicated levels of reality and fantasy, science and magic, underpinning the text. Its main invention is a travel company that offers trip into the future from Victorian England, to see the finale of the grand battle between the humans and the robots in the year 2000, yet the novel’s characters move between scepticism and belief, bringing the reader along with them: the irruption of the fantastic into the everyday is never a question of a straightforward suspension of disbelief. Instead, the reader is a bemused as the various members of Palma’s dramatis personae by the events that unfold. Every character – from Gilliam Murray, the mountebanck who wants to use people’s faith in time-travel to make money out of its illusion, to Tom Blunt, the essentially pure-hearted young man who takes advantage of an innocent woman’s confusion – ends up with his certainties pulled out from under him. We are led to and fro between the stage and the backstage, the line between stage magic and real magic growing ever more blurred.
The plot of The Map of Time is complex, and it is immensely to the credit of  Nick Caistor’s intelligent and lucid translation that no element of Palma’s subtlety and occasional wry humour is lost. The author’s skill lies in leaving various possibilities during the novel, proposing the marvellous without ever losing sight of the limits of the real. The traditional elements of the story – the love story between Claire, a Victorian ingénue, and Captain Shackleton, the hero of the robot war, say – are plausible and romantic without interfering with the extravagances of the plot, the ravenous scaly timebeasts and the steampunk body-armour. The Map of Time is at the furthest possible stylistic distance from the egregious Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Android Karenina type of fictional mash-up, but its end is the same: to incorporate the satisfactions of classic literature into a pop-culture framework. Palma’s greatest achievement is to reveal the magic elements of our own life at the same time as he insists that the fantastic is waiting for us, just around the next corner; the fantastic, in other words, already exists in our world, in the relationships we established with each other.
Palma’s second book, Métodos de supervivencia (Ways of Surviving, 1999), contains a charming story about a writer who sells his soul to the devil in order to write “la novela del siglo”. The Map of Time is perhaps not that novel – the century is still young – but it is a strong benchmark for the twenty-first-century Spanish novel, and a promising indication of how Spanish fiction might yet continue to thrive beyond the limits of realism.”
published 16th September 2001, The Times Literary Supplement
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