Monday, 2 November 2009


Pushkin Press books never fail to impress me,
the jackets of their books always catch the eye,
the cover of Eduardo Berti's novel, Agua, is a
photograph by Italian Futurist photographer
Maggiorino Gramalia, called 'Spettraizzazione dell'Io'.
I don't know a great deal about Futurism in Japan
apart from Hirato Renkichi .The Futurists were
well known for embracing technology, and for
their desire to disregard/destroy the old, so it's
a good choice for this novel which is set at a pivotal
time, when the world was turning to electric power
as an energy source, as a character, (Resende)
in the book says ' the first part of my life living in
candle light, the second part in the world of cinema,
radio, electricity.'

Luis Agua is a travelling representative for an electrical
company, going from place to place, selling this new
power. He's thinking of settling at a village, someone
mentions to him the village Vila Natal , and he
decides to visit. In 1920 the village has only horse drawn
carriages, and on his arrival he discovers that everyone in the
village has gone to an auction at the castle, Senhora Fernanda,
the owner of the castle is selling some pieces of art.
Through Mister Roger, an Englishman, Agua learns that
Fernanda is recently widowed and that her husband,(Antunes Coelho),
had left a strange clause in his will, that she will not inherit the
family's fortune until she has remarried. The paintings she
has put up for auction are revealed as forgeries by Mister Roger,
although a bracelet Fernanda is wearing catches his eye,but
he's told that it's not for sell. Agua learns that Fernanda has
a fiance 25 years younger than herself, called Broyz. Agua
informs Mister Roger of his intention of settling in the village,
and is offered a room in the Englishman's house, Agua declines
the offer as he has to leave the village for a few months to
clear up some work matters.

Fernanda falls ill, and she summons Broyz to her bedside to
tell him that she doesn't love him, but wants to escape the
trap of her husband's will, she offers he can have one third
of the castle's wealth, but has to leave soon after they
are married. He tells her that he loves her and agrees on the
condition that she gives him the bracelet. It transpires that
he is in debt to Mister Roger, Broyz pawns the bracelet to
clear his debt. Agua returns to the village,and finds that a
local doctor (Dr Alves) has taken the room offered by Mister Roger,
so he finds lodgings elsewhere. The local clergy,
(Father Teresino), has started sermoning against the advent
of electricity, God created the night for sleeping and rest,and
sees electricity as man's interference with the ways laid out
by nature (God). Agua eyes the castle as being a great way
to demonstrate to the rest of the village the benefits of

On the day of Fernanda and Broyz's wedding a plane is
spotted in the sky, and lands on the castle's grounds, the
pilot is the enigmatic Captain Acevedo, an acquaintance
of Fernanda and the castle from a long time ago and a pioneer
of aviation. Time passes after the wedding and Broyz can't
bring himself to leave Fernanda and the castle, although
he had agreed to do so as part of the conditions to the
marriage. Fernanda's manservant Fabio has to inform him
that he is banned from visiting Fernanda in her room, who
is now bedridden due to her illness and Broyz suspects that
he is the victim of a vendetta made up by the servants,to
oust him from the castle. Fernanda gets weaker and weaker
and passes away one night, the cause believed to be Cholera,
or possibly African fever, not long after an epidemic breaks
out, the village and neighbouring area gets sectioned off by
the government, the servants flee through fear of contagion,
only one stays (Alma), who cooks Broyz his meals, alone in the
castle, the days go by, their relationship grows. Letters from a
mysterious man called Tomas arrive, claiming he is the legitimate
heir to the family fortune and castle, Broyz harbours suspicions
that maybe Alma could be behind the letters, but she leaves
the castle and a letter to Broyz saying she is going to find
out the truth behind Tomas, the sender of the letters...

The novel is punctuated with Kafka like scenarios, and
the story has more turns than a spiral staircase, the
riddle of the strange will of Antunes Coelho and the
true identity of the mysterious Tomas is well hidden
in Berti's tight prose and had me guessing right
until the end. Alberto Manguel provides an afterword
and the translation is by Alexander Cameron & Paul Buck.  

Eduardo Berti (in Spanish)

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