The Fall of Barcelona
547 pages. Occasional black-and-white illustrations. Historical note, chronology of the War of the Spanish Succession, characters list. Translated from Spanish.
If you want to learn about a period, read a history book. If you want to know about major historical figures, read a biography. But if you really want to immerse yourself in a period, read an historical novel.
This novel is framed as the memoir of 98-year-old expatriate, disfigured Marti Zuviria, as told to his Austrian caregiver/nurse Waltraud (whom he frequently insults for her poor looks and weight).
As the tale begins, 'Zuvi' at age 14 has been kicked out of the Catholic school in France which his father has sent him to due to instability in Spain. He has been directed to make his way to Bazoches castle in hopes of being taken as a student. To his good fortune, Zuvi becomes the final engineering student of the master of siegecraft, Vauban. (He also becomes the lover of Vauban's daughter Jeanne, whose husband is absent and insane.)
Zuvi is forever shaped by the eccentric education offered at Bazoches, combining studies in siegecraft with physical exercise (digging trenches while under fire by the castle staff!) and zen-like tests of observation. As he progresses, he is awarded 'stars' – the tattoos by which other engineers can recognize his rank in their discipline. Engineers are an international order, communicating in their own secret codes, more dedicated to their craft than to any individual state.
Unfortunately, this idyllic period comes to an abrupt end: Vauban dies (and Jeanne's husband recovers his senses). Though Zuvi has received his fifth star tattoo in advance, Vauban on his deathbed cannot award the star because his student is missing a vital piece of knowledge. Therefore, Zuvi wears a star which he does not deserve.
Meanwhile, the aged Zuvi is dropping hints foreshadowing what is to come: Treason. Disfigurement. Barcelona (his home city).
Zuvi finds himself working as a minor engineer for the French army in Spain (with their Spanish allies) during the War of the Spanish Succession. Compelled by his Bazoches education to help those in need, he becomes the lover of the Duke of Berwick ("Jimmy"). He encounters an orphan and a dwarf in the siege trenches, tries to help them, and is betrayed and nearly executed by Spanish commander Antoni de Villarroel. He saves the life of partisan Ballester, a Miquelet, and meets a mysterious beauty named Amelis. Throughout it all, Zuvi is an anti-hero, a sort of principled rogue, skeptical of conventional social classes, politics, and religion.
Over the course of the war, Zuvi changes sides multiple times, passes through battles and sieges, and meets major historical figures, until all the threads of the story converge on the tragic siege of Barcelona.
Note that the story is told from a Catalan viewpoint. In light of current Spanish politics, the novel has alternately been praised and suppressed. In my opinion, the book merely expresses views consistent with historical characters.
Also note that the story includes mention of sex, prostitutes, and sexual fetishes – not suitable for young readers. There is also military violence. Be aware that this tale is grindingly depressive, ending in tragedy – read this book only when you can handle a 'downer'.Can you wargame it? As a novel, this book seldom presents sufficient information to base a scenario on, but it does provide plenty of scenario inspiration, both fictional and historical. There is also a lot of basic information about engineering and siegework. (However, the translation throughout uses 'rifle' when 'musket' is correct.)
This book is called a 'literary achievement', but I had mixed thoughts. Some of the story is just 'trashy', while other parts are truly touching (Zuvi's love for his 'family', for instance). The gay subplot seemed contrived to drive the main plot. The characters did not seem fully fleshed out. However, the book does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the Spanish theater of the War of the Spanish Succession. Recommended.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .