Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Victus," by Albert Sánchez Piñol

Martí Zuviría, the protagonist of “Victus,” has allowed the fates and furies to convince him of his own wickedness.

The nonagenarian military engineer's resume includes service on behalf of His Majesty Carlos III of Austria, the Confederate States of America, Prussia, the Turkish Empire, the Comanche, The Tsar of Russia, and the Creek, Oglala, and Ashanti Nations, to name a few.

“Victus,” nonetheless, engages his early years. First as a cadet at a French institute at Bazoches where military engineering is imbued with a strong dose of mysticism. Later, putting his theories into practice during an early 18th century European conflict.

There is something of Thackery's “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” to “Victus” (Lived).

For all of Zuviría's self-loathing, his profession has landed him in rough historical currents and he does little more than take up cudgel's on behalf of whatever side the waters have deposited him. In fact, during the war before us in “Victus,” he works for both.

That war is between an alliance of French and Spanish Bourbons hoping to install a Philip on the throne in Madrid and a “Grand Alliance” of England, the Dutch, and Catalonia, among others, to prevent this coronation and establish Austrian Archduke Karl as Spain's regent.

But Spaniards were cool to Karl (Carlos) and he returned to Vienna causing the English to pull out and the coalition to unravel, while leaving Catalonia exposed to Bourbon repression and control.

Victus” is about the siege of Barcelona and the massacre of its inhabitants at the hands of Bourbon troops led by one James Fitz-James, the Duke of Berwick. 

Author Albert Sánchez Piñol is a writer who employs the Catalan tongue. Whether or not his choosing to dramatize (romanticize?) the historical moment (1714) of Catalonia's absorption by Bourbon Spain has anything to do with the current push by those desiring independence from Spain to convene a referendum on the question, we cannot say.

Zuviría was apparently a rare talent of much use when it came to the business of digging trenches, establishing bastions, razing up ramparts and other things important to either mounting, or resisting, a siege.

Through him Piñol can introduce the reader to a gallery of significant, but largely forgotten historical figures. There is the Duke of Vauban, under whom Zuviría studied military engineering. The Duke of Berwick was apparently taken with the young man and they conducted an affair before and during the war. There is the hard-shelled, noble-hearted commander in charge of the Catalonian defense, Villaroel and the romantic “miquelet” guerrilla, Ballester, who carries the banner of the peasantry.

Zuviría's first-person accounting of the tragic events is told, or translated into, a nineteenth century novelistic voice, world weary, bawdy, slathered in black humor. History provided Piñol with the twists and turns to justify the narrator's beleaguered bitterness but at least at the outset of his long career, the young engineer's heart seemed to be in the right place.

Only the magnitude of the horror Barcelona endured could have knocked him off his axis.

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