lunes, 17 de febrero de 2014

Trafalgar - Benito Pérez Galdós

Trafalgar is the first of the 46 National Episodes, a series of historical novels set in 1805-1880 Spain, written by Benito Pérez Galdós (he was the Spanish equivalent of Émile Zola, but he is not even half as well-known, who knows why).

In Trafalgar, the fictional Gabriel de Araceli narrates his younger years living in Cádiz, on the southwest coast of Spain, and serving Alonso de Cisniega, a retired sea captain. When Gabriel turns 14, he becomes involved in the Battle of Trafalgar to impress a young girl and prove himself a man. Of course, all of this is secondary to the real focus of the novel: the Battle itself. This battle was a naval engagement fought on the 21st of October 1805, off the southwest coast of Spain. During the Napoleonic Wars, the combined Franco-Spanish fleet fought against the Royal Navy and lost. The intention of Napoleon was to try to break the naval blockade imposed by the British and ease the way for a French invasion of Britain, which never happened. This little event gave the name to one of the best-known squares in Europe: Trafalgar Square

I've always wondered why Galdós chose this battle as a starting point for the Episodes, since his motives for writing these historical fictions are usually said to have been nothing more than national propaganda to help raise the national pride. And yet, Trafalgar was a low point of Spanish history - a humiliating episode even, at least in 1873, when this was published. It seems he rather wanted to give us Spaniards a measure of our own close-mindedness instead, which is nothing to be proud of. I like to imagine Galdós as an intelligent and sarcastic writer who scorned his own milieu, but whose irony was often overlooked. I should read a biography to see whether I am right, but that would take the fun out of it.

The Episodes seem like a good way to learn about Spanish history in an entertaining way, since they are really well researched. If it was up to me, I would include this novel in the high-school History curriculum - it would be better than learning the facts and dates by heart, which was a pointless chore. Of course, some of the views of Galdós are quite dated, especially regarding the Prince of Peace, Manual de Godoy. He was a much reviled historical figure for a long time, but in the new light of historical revisionism, it seems that his apparently bad strategic decisions were the lesser of two evils, since Napoleon was exerting control over Spanish resources in order to annex Spain to his empire.

Trafalgar is well-written, although the prose itself is nothing ground-breaking. Galdós created endearing characters - the young Gabriel, his master Alonso de Cisniega, Paca, the older Malespina and Marcial (spoiler: his death almost brought me to tears). His descriptions of the battle itself were excellent - even for someone so obtuse as me when it comes to understanding maritime and military terms. He makes sure to be clear about the cruelty and the pointlessness of it all, and even if I had already read this, it was even more poignant and distressing on audio.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

This book is part of the Everything España Reading Challenge 2014 and for the Reading by Ear category of the Reading Outside the Box Challenge 2014 that I'm participating in.

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