- Hardcover: 560 pages
- Publisher: Harper (September 9, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0062323962
- ISBN-13: 978-0062323965
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,154,811 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Victus: The Fall of Barcelona, a Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 9, 2014
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“With extraordinarily gut-wrenching descriptions of bayonets, bloodshed and battle, and the terrors and tribulations inflicted upon besieged Barcelonians, Piñol makes real a tragedy that shaped Spain and Europe.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“It is not often that you encounter a book that you feel will be read with the same fervor 100 years on but Albert Sanchez Piñol’s fourth novel, an ambitious historical epic…is magnificent in scope and details.” (Upcoming4me.com)
From the Back Cover
In this sweeping tale of heroism, treason, war, love, and regret, Albert Sánchez Piñol breathes new life into the infamous siege of a legendary city.
At the turn of the eighteenth century a dark cloud looms over Spain. Her "bewitched" ruler dies without a clear successor, pitting two of Europe's most powerful kings against each other for control of the crown. Caught in the crosshairs of war, the Catalonian state finds herself in a bloody contest for independence. Abandoned by their allies and outnumbered tenfold, the defiant and ill-equipped citizens of Barcelona defend their homeland with vicious determination.
Martí Zuviría, an accomplished military engineer and tactician with the power to change history, leads the defense against the Bourbons, but he is torn between his loyalties and his purse. Politically ambitious yet morally weak, Martí fights on both sides of the long War of the Spanish Succession, carefully navigating a sea of Machiavellian intrigue and betraying the city he was commended to keep.
Rich in color and characters, abundant in epic battles, and illustrated with stunning portraits of war, Victus is a magnificent literary achievement that is destined to become classic.
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Top Customer Reviews
It’s a dense and somewhat slow moving story. It’s the tale of Marti Zuviria, a young lad taught the arcane art of military engineering – the setting of sieges and the preparing of defenses against them such as city walls and bastions and battlements and all that. Zuviria gets caught up on the war – on both sides, at different times, with lots of twists and turns along the way. It’s a historical novel, well researched, with most characters having actually existed – even Zuviria, although the story attributed to him is nearly all fictional and he wasn’t known to have been an engineer.
The Spanish throne is left vacant when the previous king dies without heirs. This creates a split in Spain, which, I had not previously understood, was an uneasy union between two independent kingdoms – Castile with its Spanish-speaking dynasty, based in Madrid, occupying the mostly landlocked center of the country, and Catalonia, based in Barcelona, and holding Iberia’s northeast. They had joined voluntarily while maintaining their separate identities, like Austria-Hungary or England and Scotland in later years.
The two nations are very different. The Castilian world is aristocratic and agricultural. Its nobles are unproductive but obsessed with honor in an increasingly archaic way – the sort of people lampooned in “Don Quixote”.
The Catalans speak a different languge, Catalan rather than Spanish, and are mercantile rather than aristocratic. They are more ethnically mixed with Barcelona attracting people from all over. Barcelona governs itself democratically, with the people, the elite and the clergy all represented in its council chambers. They are more advanced, having already had a republic by 1640 or so, but less numerous and powerful.
The two nations have existed in uneasy union for some time, but the succession dispute splits them. The Castilians, backed by Louix XIV and France, want a Bourbon on the throne in Madrid. The Catalans, backed by the English, Dutch and Austrians, want a Hapsburg instead. At stake is control of Spain’s enormous and lucrative New World empire. If the Hapsburgs win, France will have the Hapsburgs on two sides of them. If the Bourbons win, they’ll be an unstoppable power in Europe.
Zuviria is an unlikely hero, not really a hero at all. He’s a flagrant coward. He betrays and abandons friends. He’s a hothead.
He has, though, a rare skill, as military engineers in that era dictate much of what happens in warfare. How many cannon do you bring to a siege? Where do you put them? How do you build the trenches allowing the final assault on the city walls? What’s their size and position?
On the other side, how do you defend against all this? How do you build those walls? Answer these questions better than the other side’s engineers, and it will turn the battle. Zuviria’s education has stopped just short of being a certified elite engineer – it’s like a secret society, and the engineers are more loyal to each other and to their craft than to any nation – but most believe he’s one anyway, and he knows enough to be dangerous.
The book traces his wandering path, finally leading to the terrible siege of Barcelona by the surging Bourbons in 1713 and 1714.
I had some problems with this book. I am always on the lookout for trendy postmodernism in literature, and there’s plenty of it here, from Zuviria’s gay liaison with a bastard heir to the British throne, to the unconventional family he forms with a Whore With a Heart of Gold, a dwarf and a street urchin (lots of echoes of “Les Miz” in that trio), to his bashing of nearly every institution which holds society together.
Zuviria’s characterization owes a debt for George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series. Like Flashman, Zuviria is an unashamed coward and opportunist whom fate keeps inserting close enough to major historical actions to be able to relay a narrative about them.
But Zuviria doesn’t entertain like Flashman, a comic anti-hero in a dozen books, does as he wenches and schemes his way across the mid-century British Empire. Zuviria isn’t as enjoyable a companion during hours of reading. And Pinol meanwhile works harder to make statements about life that transcend the satirical or the comic, but what he finds instead often just comes across as cynical. Fraser doesn’t work that hard on that, and his books hold better together as a result. This is one of those cases where the Literature with a capital L isn’t as good a book as the more straight-ahead historical novel.
And here’s the rub: Pinol spends most of the book in his postmodern anti-heroic mode, but takes a major turn in the end towards a sense of heroism and glory that he’s spent most of the book disparaging.
With Pinol a Catalan writer interested in dramatizing a major event in Catalan history, this is totally understandable, like an American writing a stirring tale about Bunker Hill, the Bulge or the Alamo. Catalonia deserves a telling of this moment in their history.
But I don’t understand how he squares this and the nationalism that flows from it, with a postmodernism that spits on those sentiments, as well as those of the valor of military heroes. This is a contradiction. So which is it, at the end? Postmodern cynicism, or heroism and valor?
Maybe . . . he thinks the left will excuse this because Barcelona's residents were a democratic city of mostly civilians fighting for their own and their families’ survival? Maybe . . . the 400 pages of cynicism are just a set-up for 130 pages representing an 180-degree turn? I don’t know.
And there’s a lot that I didn’t quite get, or wish he’d put in the book. We never hear how Zuviria, relating these events decades later he’s 98 years old, escapes or gets through his life. Some other characters’ fates aren’t tied up.
There’s much that’s laudable. I learned a lot about siege warfare, and the unique role engineers held in that era, including the down-and-dirty as a battle is underway, as tunnels are being dug and mines laid, as the sappers work under fire. I have a much clearer picture of the War of the Spanish Succession. You also see the distant roots of the French revolution: Louis XIV wins this war, but it was a long foreign war bankrupting France.
And I learned a lot about Catalonia, enough to help me understand why the Catalonians are so set on seceding from Spain. That’s good to know while reading a newspaper nowadays. Catalonia and the rest of Spain have never really been a single land.
Perhaps it's best that this is set in the first years of the 18th Century, an obscure period well away from the more-trodden Regency or Victorian novels. The author has done enough research and background to give us a world as complex, vast, exotic and dangerous as that, say, of Tolkien's Middle Earth, its inhabitants memorable and its social dynamics stark. Its vistas, its smells, its squalor, its violence will immerse the reader, particularly in the final devastating third of the book, in the 1713-1714 siege of the city of Barcelona.
Zuviria himself is 98 years old when he narrates this story. We know this in the opening pages as he dictates his story to (and insults now and again) his scribe, Waltrud. We know he'll survive, but once into the novel it seems like he won't, not after the dangers and treachery he passes through. And it is through his expertise we can see the course of events, spelled out in the engineering that dictates the siege's course. We come to see the siege as a devastating and central event in Catalonia's history.
The English-language translation seems flawless, with no false notes; it has succinct prose and a clear voice. Given the length and scope of the book, it's no small accomplishment: the book doesn't drag.
This is truly epic in scope and literary quality. Highest recommendation to those interested in historical fiction, in Catalonia, in Spanish history.