Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Book Review - El Arbol de la Ciencia, Pío Baroja

A year or so ago I walked into a Spanish bookshop with no idea what to buy or even who was a well known author in Spain, aside from Cervantes of course. I asked for some advice and told the lady behind the counter I was looking to read something by well known Spanish authors. I ended up walking out with a science fiction book by an author who claims not to like science fiction, a period novel written in 2005 using the Spanish of the 1600s, and this - 'The Tree of Knowledge'.

The book tells the story of the life of a young doctor - Andres Hurtado - from the start of his university studies through a few years of his medical career. It was published in 1911, but set about fifteen years before that. The story takes place partly in Madrid and partly in a small village in the Spanish countryside. I have to say that unlike the last book I reviewed (El Principe de la Niebla) this one is definitely not for beginners to the Spanish language. It is definitely literature, in that is is hard to read and a bit pretentious. Large chunks of the book are devoted to philosophical discussions between the protagonist and his uncle.

I found the book interesting in a historical sense, in that the political divisions that led to the Spanish Civil War are visible (in retrospect) in a book written several decades before it. I also learnt about aspects of Spanish history I was quite ignorant about, like the Spanish American War of 1898.

The story itself though is really hard work due to an almost complete absence of plot (apparently one of Baroja's trademarks). Page after page passes without anything happening in story terms. There are endless detailed descriptions of minor characters who contribute nothing to the story and never reappear later in the book. The aim I think is to give the reader a feeling for what life is like in a relatively poor neighbourhood in nineteenth century Madrid. The author succeeds in this, and produces a work that is unrelentingly bleak and pessimistic in tone.

There are some very favourable reviews of this book on Amazon but for me the lack of plot, and the string of irrelevant characters and the philosophical breaks make for a tedious read. If you want literary writing in Spanish with a heavy dash of philosophy, then Borges, for example,  does it much better to my mind.

Although not for beginners, and not particularly to my taste, this is a well regarded novel and gives a good picture of late 19th century Spain. If you want to read it you can find it on Amazon UK or Amazon US.

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