Carlos Fuentes and Vampires #TranslationThurs

I read this book in time for Halloween but didn’t have time to post a review on that day, so I am attaching it to Translation Thursday instead.

Carlos Fuentes: Vlad, transl. by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes was a versatile and politically engaged writer. During his long career he published ambitious historical sagas such as Terra Nostra, experimental curiosities such as Christopher Unborn, psychological drama The Death of Artemio Cruz and so much more. He is difficult to pin down, except to say that he started off the boom in Latin American literature which happened in the 1960s/70s (coinciding with a boom in its musical popularity – think of bossa nova, conga, salsa etc.) and culminated in the Nobel Prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982.

Sadly, the novella Vlad, the last book that Fuentes published before his death in 2012, is not one of his masterpieces. I picked it up at random from the shelves because it relates to the myth of vampires and the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş, a ruler of Wallachia in the 15th century.

It is the first person narration (largely) of Yves Navarro, a partner at a Mexico City law firm who seems to have it all: the career, the house, the adoring wife, the cute daughter, and a politically influential employer, Don Zurinaga. The latter asks Navarro to help an old friend from the Sorbonne purchase a home so he can settle into their country. It seems like a simple enough request, and it just so happens that Yves’ wife, Asunción, is a real estate agent. True, the client Count Vladimir Radu (‘call me Vlad’) has a few eccentric requests: the house has to back onto a ravine, a tunnel has to lead from the house to said ravine, and all the windows are to be blacked out. After weeks of dealing his client remotely, Navarro finally gets to meet him in person – and soon discovers he is a vampire. And that it might not be a coincidence that he was picked to handle Vlad’s affairs.

So the set-up seems promising, but it would be fair to say that it’s not quite what I expected: a satire of Mexico City and life within it. There are brief elements of social critique scattered throughout the book – traffic coming to a gridlock, the difference between richer and poorer neighbourhoods, estate agents used to the most eccentric demands from wealthy clients, the fact that Vlad has found an almost endless supply of fresh blood without too many questions being asked by the police in such a populous city. Yet all these strands do not combine successfully to form a coherent and rich satirical vein (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). It’s neither funny enough, nor quite frightening enough.

Of course, what annoyed me most was the cod history of Vlad Ţepeş, taken from historical sources of dubious and biased origin. Many of the accounts of him at the time were written by Wallachia’s enemies, therefore he was portrayed as a monster, while in Romanian folk tales and history he is remembered as a positive, just, progressive figure. All of the regurgitation of Vlad’s supposed past was unnecessary for what Fuentes was trying to achieve – if I can even understand what he was trying to achieve.

Otherwise, the story offers a strange, surreal experience, with a knowing nod to horror films or literature: Dracula, obviously;  the little girls turning vicious – Stephen King’s twins; the idealised wife/woman/muse being used then abandoned – Master & Margarita; dead child – many classic ghost stories and folk ballads. I also found it quite off-putting for the graphic descriptions not so much of physical attacks, but of the accoutrements of vampirism: eating offal in Vlad’s house, the drainage system for blood flow etc.

So not a huge success from my point of view. But what about you? Have you read it? What did you think of it? Or perhaps you have read other books by Fuentes and enjoyed them?

Review of ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova

Poenari Castle, Romania
Poenari Castle, Romania

This was always going to be a hard sell for me.  Not only do I not like vampire fiction or film series, all of which tend to take themselves far too seriously (with the exception of the tongue-in-cheek British series ‘Being Human’), but I also am tired of being associated with vampires simply because I originally come from the Carpathian mountains.  To be precise, my father comes from the place where the so-called Dracula’s castle stands in ruins, Cetatea Poenari.

I’ve become somewhat tired of explaining that the vampire myth has always been far stronger in Bulgaria and Serbia, even in Greece, rather than in Romania.  That Vlad Ţepeş the Impaler was indeed a historical figure but has nothing to do with the pale Count imagined by Bram Stoker, and indeed, very little to do with Transylvania.  That the bad press Vlad received during his life and especially after his death was deliberately promoted by political rivals. Yes, he was a bit of a tyrant, creative in his cruelty and ruthless in meting out punishment – your everyday despot of the Middle Ages, then!

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (...
Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (1456-1462) (died 1477) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, I tried to set all of that aside and read Elizabeth Kostova’s book about the search for Vlad the Impaler’s real grave with an open mind.  It is a novel where the real hero is historical research itself.  It owes much to the original ‘Dracula’  novel by Bram Stoker, and it is all about a story within a story within a story, with letters and stories by different characters in different periods (some historical, some more recent) creating a sense of time-travel.

The unnamed main narrator was a sixteen year old girl when she discovered an ancient volume and a secret stash of letters addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Gradually, despite her father’s reluctance and fear, she uncovers the innermost secrets and horrors of her family’s past, including how her mother and father first met.  Narrators past and present travel all over Europe, finding emblematic documents in obscure libraries and taking in many eerie sights on and off the beaten tourist track.  Along the way, they encounter strange characters, dangerous librarians and the living dead.  They also find corpses, missing friends and each other in the process.  All in all, it makes a change from the vampire type novels aimed at the Young Adult market, but some may find the insistence on documentary detail and the lengthy descriptions slow down the action.

I quite enjoyed the first few chapters, the gradual quickening of horror, the Victorian style and atmosphere (although it is set in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s). But it just felt too long and repetitive after a while and yes, there were inaccuracies. The characters all seem to have the same voice, regardless of their period, culture or sex.  If you want examples of thrilling research and discovery combined with love story or complicated action, A.S. Byatt’s ‘Posession’ or Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ are much better.  I have to admit that from about page 300 onwards (only half-way through), I skimmed through the chapters, simply because I did not want to admit defeat and abandon the novel.

book cover 3 the historianI read this book as part of my Global Reading Challenge, aided and abetted by Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise.  It is my contribution to the wildcard category – the Seventh Continent – an alternative setting you might not normally consider for crime fiction.