The delicate art of historical fiction breathes life into history and shows its relevance to the present. In his newest novel Victus: The Fall of Barcelona, Catalan author Albert Sanchez Pinol keeps the fires of the past burning by narrating the end of the nation of Catalonia.
His engrossing story is a unique backdrop for the present-day independence movement in Catalonia and its crux: the War of Spanish Secession. Pinol’s novel is posited as the autobiography of a 98-year-old Catalan military engineer, Marti Zuviria. “Zuvi” is a picaresque character (much like Voltaire’s Candide or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones) at the mercy of the changing winds of fortune. Zuvi dictates his hijinks in a free-flowing narrative voice that allows the reader to easily digest early 18th-century Spanish history. His life-story whirls through the great events of his age, a "tortured and tortuous century, full of sagas epic and inane," and contains enough bawdy humor to keep readers entertained. He experiences drastic changes in fortune, fights for the Spanish Bourbons (fans of Louis XIV) and later stands on the side of the Grand Alliance, before finally holding the fate of Barcelona in his hands and becoming its greatest traitor. “I am the greatest fraud of the century,” Zuviria openly declares, "let my treachery drain onto the pages."
However comical and over-dramatic, Pinol’s main character ably provides historical depictions of Barcelona, Catalonia and greater Europe. His Barcelona is an all-important crossroads of immigrants of all nations, a "modern Babylon," that he explores from its “poorly lit” neighborhoods crawling with pickpockets to the city’s halls of power. It’s a great European meeting-place where the forces of tyrant kings cross paths with miserable peasants and banditos disguised as freedom fighters.
Pinol, an anthropologist as well as a novelist, published his book on the 300th anniversary of Barcelona’s fall, and it remains both an entertaining read and a sympathetic comment on the Catalonian struggle. Though it’s lengthy and, in places, sluggish with military detail, the novel’s freewheeling style makes for an easy read. By channeling the voice of Barcelona’s great traitor, Pinol shows that, though old Catalonia was swept into the ash heap of history, the embers are still smoldering.