Inspired by my girlfriend, to whom all my monosyllabic utterances in the stupor of post-work misery have yet to really capture the plot, characterisation, dramatic twist or atmosphere of any of the books I read, I have decided to start reviewing books.
So far, complex titles ranging from the heart wrenching narratives of Baldwin to the mind-expanding prose of LeGuin have been met with such turns of phrase as ‘it was alright’ or ‘it was good’. Now, given that the English language is prone to the kind of linguistic flare afforded to it by an unequalled vocabulary and system of expressions, I feel I could do more justice to these totemic works of literature than my long-suffering missus has hitherto been privy. Clear? Then on with the show.
I’d like to cut the bullshit of a synopsis, as I feel that if the scant lines of a back cover can aptly describe contents in a way to encourage the reader, then I can do it here.
Fiesta: The sun also rises, is the tale of a bunch of really rich Americans getting drunk and being obnoxious in Paris and then Spain. Period.
That said it remains a tribute to Hemingway’s down to earth genius and eye for nuance that can make a book that is fundamentally the lives of a bunch of waspish trust-fund kids interesting and eminently readable. Effectively, the narrative follows this bunch of difficult wankers from hedonistic Paris to equally hedonistic Spain, with a sub-plot focussing in on the narrator’s unrequited love of the unattainable Brett Ashley. Ashley’s character is worthy of note, as she leads people on, tries to marry a bunch of folk, spends the whole book in a state of semi-inebriation and never says anything that isn’t trite and contrary. Yes, Ashley is a fucking boot, but she’s got big tits and loads of money, so the rest of the characters don’t really care about her obvious personality flaws. Ashley is a caricature of privilege and generations of Anglo-Saxon breeding. Having spent four long years at the University of St. Andrew’s I could immediately relate to the kind of pedestal-put, patrician that Ashley represents.
The American in Europe presents a phenomenon that I suppose some will never fully understand. Long lost cousins of a by-gone age, they present somewhat of a quandary to the natives of the continent. Quandaries range from genuine curiosity regarding the local culture to the more Dadaist observations noted by my tour guide girlfriend such as:
‘Is Catalonia an island?’ and ‘Who were the natives before the Spanish conquered Spain?’
Without going into the nuances of Greek colonisation of the Iberian Peninsula or the ethnic origins of Tartessos, it seems fair that some folk are slightly confused by our New-world cousins. I don’t mean to generalise, indeed I have many American friends who have seamlessly transitioned into European culture, going so far as to have accompanied me to watch Scottish third-division football. But I digress, for the Americans featured in the book are a bunch of fucking idiots.
However, idiocy is not restricted merely to the American protagonists, undeniably Mike (a Scot) and the various Canadians and English that dip in and out of the text are equally inept at leading anything that resembles a normal existence, comfortable and constantly drunk in the safe bubble of Anglophonic apartheid in which they live. Set in the 1920s, the book holds up to the tests of time as, nearly a century later, the Anglophone community of Barcelona lives an almost identical existence, just with less Pernod and more Jägermeister.
Any reliable piss-artist will tell you of the financial woe of going on a night out in Paris. Pints of beer-flavoured foam command mortgages to worry a Swiss banker and the general exclusiveness of almost everything only invokes the financially impossible on the dedicated drinker. The fact that all the characters are continually out ‘on the smash’ a la Parisienne should be a good indicator of exactly how much money all these guys have. They spend about two months living entirely in hotels and eating out, they even get a taxi from Bayonne to Pamplona. A quick Google search shows this to be a distance of over 120km. It has been said that conceptions of distance across the Atlantic are more modest than our own, but the financial damage on that is hard to quantify.
Anyway, bored by the burning of the Franc, the crew shift to Pamplona and the festival of San Fermín. The novel is palpably autobiographical, with main character Jake, playing Hemingway in all but name, and the first-hand knowledge makes it a descriptive joy. The dive bars of Paris, the language of the prostitutes, the plethora of different liquors consumed and the stifling air and heavy heat of a Spanish city in fiesta, could only be written by someone who had drank and fucked his way around all the aforementioned places. In this respect it’s a masterwork. The author’s penchant for bullfighting is pandered to in a way as to spare the reader a blood-soaked trip to La Maestranza or Las Ventas, it’s not for the squeamish, but then I doubt many folk go to a bullfight unaware of what is going to happen. For the geeks and nerds, the book also contains frequent references to both the train system of 1920s Europe and the efficacy of the telegram, so if you tire of the endless pleasure-seeking, you can dive into the to-and-fros of last centuries communication infrastructure. Juicy.
As with the lives of any delinquent expats, nothing is really achieved, other than the pissing-off of locals and the introspective dread of a hangover after months on the piss, but this directionless existence of character has always been one of Hemingway’s fortes. It’s a great read, more so for anyone who lives or has lived in continental Europe for any period of time. 8/10. LR.
Cover image courtesy of Liam Ross via Flickr