Books Burn Badly

Lorna Scott Fox writes:

Books Burn Badly, published in Spain in 2006, is his first full-length novel and, as if to make up for lost time, it’s a doorstop. It’s also a glittering edifice of tableaux and fragments; flashbacks, premonitions and non-sequiturs; short stories and tall tales, mostly set between 1936 and the late 1960s. The book’s core scene is the one that gives it its title. It is 19 August 1936, and Falangist officials, helped by locals with an eye on the future, are staging a bonfire at the docks in A Coruña. The fire is fed with volumes and pamphlets from workers’ associations, radical bookshops and rationalist schools, and with books from the vast library of Santiago Casares Quiroga, the Galician-born last Republican prime minister, who resigned a month before Franco declared war; he had opposed, Allende-like, the distribution of arms to the people. Calling out the titles in lewd or gloating fashion, young soldiers supervised by Ricardo Samos, an ambitious local lawyer, cast books into the flames as if in preparation for Spain’s shutters being closed. ‘Does God Exist? Aurora Library. No more questions, Aurora, darling! Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Hell’s not miserable. Madame Bovary. One less ovary!’ The books resist being consumed, releasing a viscous, sickening smoke. They are like creatures – ‘he saw it suddenly fan out its fresh pollack’s red gills’; ‘a cluster of birds reduced to ashen silhouettes and glowing yellow or orange beaks’ – but the prevailing metaphor is of human flesh. Polka, the anarchist grave-digger who is forced to bury what is left of the books, recalls ‘the folds and tips of toasted skin, the nervous resistance of gut-string, the bony splinters of shrivelled paper. The books’ remains.’

(LRB 19 May 2011)

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