Joan Perucho - this fantastical vampire story set around Barcelona during the Carlist civil wars of the 1830s is, in its bookish fictiveness, reminiscent of Borges and Calvino; yet its strong infusion of Catalan culture lends it an accent all its own
Joan Perucho, Natural History, Ballantine Books, 1990.
Antoni Mantpalau, a young Spanish aristocrat of the early 1800s, agrees to aid a village beset by an evil force and is stalked by a thirteenth-century vampire until their final, bloody confrontation
The first of Catalan author Perucho's works to be published outside Spain, this fantastical vampire story set around Barcelona during the Carlist civil wars of the 1830s is, in its bookish fictiveness, reminiscent of Borges and Calvino; yet its strong infusion of Catalan culture lends it an accent all its own. Young aristocrat Antoni de Montpalau, a passionate scientist, progressive and liberal, having deduced scientifically that a vampire has committed a mysterious series of murders, is drawn into pursuit of the creature, which has assumed the aspect of a Carlist guerrilla leader known as the Owl. Montpalau is soon captured, however, by the Carlist General Cabrera who turns out to be one of the Owl's victims; despite their political differences, the two become fast friends. Fully aware that only if the vampire is destroyed before his victim, can he himself avoid becoming a vampire, Cabrera's involvement in the hunt becomes increasingly urgent, while the vampire metamorphoses always in startling guises. Unfortunately, Perucho's novel, for all its invention and playful mock erudition, disappoints in its failure to draw the reader into its conceits with an impelling narrative flow or to point outside itself to larger meaning. - Publishers Weekly
In this tale, gentle reader, our writer pits good against evil, tranquility against turmoil, and destruction against love. A desperate vampire is wreaking havoc in the countryside of 19th-century, war-torn Spain, a noble scientist has come forth to challenge him, and a true love story has emerged. Does it sound too sweet? It could have been, but the proof is in the reading. Skillful Catalan novelist Perucho relates this tale with poetic rhythm, punctuated with scientific reflections and logic and set within the backdrop of the Carlist war. The publication of this work is welcome, not only for the novel itself, but also for the specialness of its native language. Catalan voices from Spain were suppressed for years; in Franco's Spain the language in any form was forbidden, causing its world of letters to collapse. But in today's Spain, Catalan writing is flourishing; our world is enchanced by its reemergence.
- Michelle Lodge
Vampires have come a long way since 1897 when Bram Stoker published "Dracula." There have been rock 'n' roll vampires, stand-up comic vampires, romantic vampires and now in Joan Perucho's "Natural History," a Catalan vampire with political convictions.
Set in the Spain of the 1830s when liberal forces in support of Queen Isabel II and her mother, Maria Cristina, were fighting off a challenge from the pretender, Don Carlos, the novel describes a vampire hunt in war-torn Catalonia. The protagonist is the young liberal aristocrat and naturalist, Antoni de Montpalau, who has passion for collecting and classifying odd species and for whom even the common goat goes by the name of Capra Hispanica.
Although he has no belief in the supernatural and dismisses his cousin Isidre Novau's claim to have sighted the famous pesce cola as "nothing more than a hallucination caused by excessive ingestion of canned food," Montpalau's calm positivism is frequently disrupted--by the auguries of bats in flight, crazy bulls, a mysterious assassination attempt and puffs of smoke that take on unusual shapes.
And as inevitably as Sherlock Holmes is lured by the Hound of the Baskervilles, Montpalau is drawn to the village of Pratdip where every morning somebody is found dead with blood drained from the body and two small holes in the neck. Braving bandits and war and laden with garlic, Montpalau and his cousin Isidre make their way to Pratdip, which is dominated by a ruined castle, surrounded by a "veritable orgy of wild mushrooms, goats, partridges, lettuce and emeralds." Here they are met by the baroness d'Urpi and her daughter, Agnes, with whose help Montpalau identifies the vampire as 700-year-old Onofre de Dip who had been seduced by a Romanian vampire duchess but had returned to Catalonia out of nostalgia for his native land.
Although Montpalau saves Pratdip from further devastation, Onofre escapes destruction and resurfaces as a Carlist guerrilla known as the Owl. He is naturally drawn to the cause of authoritarian monarchism but paradoxically feeds on the Carlist Gen. Cabrera and tries to turn him into a vampire. Captured by Cabrera's forces, Montpalau providentially saves the general by feeding him garlic water and, when the Carlist forces are defeated, gallantly helps him escape to France. With the defeat, the Dip also gives himself up, weary of his 700 years of wandering and Montpalau marries Agnes to the music of Chopin.
"Natural History" is, as this summary is intended to suggest, not so much a vampire novel as a diverting spoof of historical novels and travel literature. The cameo appearance of historical characters like Gen. Prat, Frederic Chopin and George Sand reminds us of the way historical novels often pass off improbable fictions by giving them underpinnings of historical fact. In "Natural History," these historical encounters coexist with bizarre fantasies like the discoveries of a large phallus impudicus , of giant fleas and of human beings turned to stone.
The pursuit of the Dip into the mountains of Catalonia allows the author to parody travel literature, the writings of geologists and naturalists, 18th-Century treatises on the improvement of agriculture, the legends that surround all shrines to the Virgin, and the populist reverence for folklore.
The novel is thus a diverting collection of pastiches--of royal proclamations, popular songs, proverbs and most amusingly those travel books whose authors take delight in impassively consuming whatever exotic dish the peasantry prepares for them. Thus Montpalau and Novau eat a dish "invented by lower Aragon's transhuman shepherd" and which consists of "lamb tripe wound around oak branches and roasted over an open fire. Part of its excellence derived from the way it crunched between one's teeth, but its most exquisite and refined peculiarity was that it still contained the beast's excrement." The index of the novel is a comic masterpiece. - Jean Franco
Antoni de Montpalau, the aristocratic hero of this eccentric new novel from Spain, is an heir of the Enlightenment, a 19th-century man of reason who believes in the efficacious rules of science and progress. A naturalist obsessed with classification, he presides over a ravishing botanical garden whose every plant and bush is neatly labeled: ''Sometimes,'' writes Joan Perucho in this translation from the Catalan, ''when a breeze arose, you could hear a vegetative rustle, gentle and suggestive, mixed with the sound of pieces of cardboard flapping against each other.''
There's something reminiscent here of Hawthorne's famous tale ''Rappaccini's Daughter'' - which featured another gardener who was said to care ''infintely more for science than for mankind'' - and the young Montpalau does, in fact, suffer being overly cerebral. He believes that science can explain all that exists in heaven and earth, that science and science alone can exorcise ''shadows and ignorance, reducing them to light and progress.'' As a man of reason, he sides, incontrovertibly, with the liberals in the struggle against the constitutionalists that is known as the First Carlist War.
In the course of the novel, Montpalau will undergo a kind of sentimental education. He will discover ''poetry through three things: love, mystery, and adventure.'' He will leave his cloistered aristocratic world, he will witness war and death, and he will make friendships that transcend politics and class. The catalyst for all these developments is an unlikely one: a vampire, with the peculiar name of Onofre de Dip.
Our hero is the dashing, aristocratic but arrogant Antoni de Montpalau. The novel opens in the First Carlist War (1830s). The war was fought over the succession to the Spanish throne. The supporters of Carlos V wanted a return to an absolutist monarchy. They were opposed by supporters of the regent, Maria Christina, acting for Isabella II of Spain, and were known as liberals. Antoni de Montpalau was in the latter camp.
However, we first meet him as naturalist. We see him interested in exotic (and fictitious) species such as Avutarda geminis. He is interested in the bat, which he calls Vampiris diminutus and says can suck human blood. There is no bat in the real world called Vampiris anything and the vampire bats, which have completely different names, are only found in South America. He even has a vampire tree, which eats live rats and spits out their skeletons!
We follow him and his cousin, Novau, to Gràcia, a bastion of liberalism, where the Montpalaus have a farm. While visiting the local Liberty Café, a man tries to assassinate him and he only just escapes with his life. The man escapes – his shadow is seen fleeing – but he leaves behind a sulphurous smell. The shadow and the smell will haunt Montpalau throughout the book.
Back in Barcelona, Montpalau meets the great and good, including Ferdinand de Lesseps, Chopin and George Sand. Barcelona society has to pretend that the couple are married, in order to accept them, which, of course, they do. When Sand swears, they have to ignore that, too.
Montpalau has a group of intellectual friends, who discuss scientific issues. One of them mentions the Dip, which Montpalau claims does not exist. It is, he says, a supposed being who changes into a spider, a bumblebee, a vulture, a horse and then an elephant. He rejects its existence entirely. He is editing a book on Catalonian natural history which, in fact, exists. You can read an OCR of the Catalan version here. - The Modern Novel
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