Graciela Montes and Ema Wolf, El turno del escriba

March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Historical novels, especially those that seek to “recreate” key moments in time, are very tricky for me to review.  Verisimilitude often can get in the way of telling a particular type of story, either by forcing the author/s to devote so much effort to “getting it right” that the story suffers as a result or, conversely, that prior knowledge of what happened can interfere with the narrative that otherwise would work wonderfully for those readers with little to no prior knowledge of the events being told in novel form.  A good re-creation requires a strong story rooted in solid yet vivid historical detail, yet not so much that the detail chokes the vitality out of the story being narrated.

In Graciela Montes and Ema Wolf’s 2005 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, El turno del escriba, Marco Polo’s life as a Genoese prisoner and his fateful encounter with fellow prisoner Rustichello of Pisa are narrated in exacting detail.  The authors, both of whom previously were better known for their children’s stories, meticulously describe the conditions of late 13th century Italy.  From the prison conditions to the stories that the writer Rustichello and the traveler Polo would know in common, Montes and Wolf establish a very vivid setting in which the confines of the prison serve as a contrast to the exotic lands that Polo had spent twenty years traveling through on his way to and back from the kingdom of Kublai Khan, which he narrates to Rustichello, who then proceeds to write them down in Latin on parchment provided to him.

Montes and Wolf’s descriptions of the two prisoners’ daily routines are very vivid, yet this attention to detail comes at a price.  The two main characters rarely take on an active role in their present (and past) lives:  they exist more to narrate Polo’s adventures than to describe their own selves.  This de-emphasis on the actors in favor of the actions that they witnessed weakens the narrative, making it feel at times a listing of chronicles more than a collection of fantastic stories.  However, even this occasional descent into list creation contains some fascinating elements, such as the tying together of several medieval chansons, such as those of the Matters of France and England, into the overall framework of the story that Rustichello is transcribing from his conversations with Polo.

El turno del escriba is an uneven work, as the occasional over-emphasis on the details overwhelms the flow of the story, rendering its characters curiously devoid of life while wondrous descriptions emerge from them.  However, Montes and Wolf’s limpid prose manages to overcome some of these structural weaknesses, making this 258 page novel a quick read.  Ultimately, however, the lack of character development robs this novel of the depth necessary to make this tale worth revisiting frequently.  It is a good novel but weaker than most of the other Premio Alfaguara winners.

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