Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Sadness of the Samurai by Victor Del Arbol, translated by Mara Lethem


* * * * *

The book's synopsis from the publisher's website:

A betrayal and a murder in pro-Nazi Spain spark a struggle for power that grips a family for generations in this sweeping historical thriller
Fierce, edgy, brisk, and enthralling, this brilliant novel by Victor del Árbol pushes the boundaries of the traditional historical novel and in doing so creates a work of incredible power that resonates long after the last page has been turned.
When Isabel, a Spanish aristocrat living in the pro-Nazi Spain of 1941, becomes involved in a plot to kill her Fascist husband, she finds herself betrayed by her mysterious lover. The effects of her betrayal play out in a violent struggle for power in both family and government over three generations, intertwining her story with that of a young lawyer named Maria forty years later. During the attempted Fascist coup of 1981, Maria is accused of plotting the prison escape of a man she successfully prosecuted for murder. As Maria's and Isabel's narratives unfold they encircle each other, creating a page-turning literary thriller firmly rooted in history.
After I finished The Sadness of the Samurai, I had been seriously worried that there might not have been much reason to try and read anything else for a while. The intensity of this novel seemed unparalleled by anything that might come after it. Even though I am now lucky enough to be reading another astonishing novel, I can say with all honesty that within the past ten years, I haven't read anything like The Sadness of the Samurai.

This novel is raw and brutal. It seemed that all my nerve endings were working beyond their capacity, just to help me process the story enough to concentrate on my next day routines until I could read some more (I primarily read at night when my two toddlers are sleeping). What makes The Sadness of the Samurai so special however, is that all the cruelty is juxtaposed with Victor Del Arbol's beautiful, at times tragic, writing. It's verging on poetic sometimes, other times it's straightforward, yet so powerful, it made me catch my breath.And it always crept up on me unexpectedly. That element of surprise, not in the events, but in the writing, added yet another layer of depth.

Now, you'll probably see The Sadness of the Samurai categorized as one genre or another. But don't let it discourage you, if you don't read one specific genre this book is listed under. A thriller? Yes, it is that. A spy novel? I suppose one could call it that, as well. A historical fiction? Most definitely. One that will at the very least make you want to look up Spain's 20th century history, especially the years of WWII and after. But most importantly, it's a complex literary work of fiction. And that means,  having read it, you won't end up dumber. The characters are frighteningly their capacity for cruelty and in their fragility. Some of the people there are truly evil. There's no redemption for them, nor would they seek any. Not one remorseful thought enters their minds. Some are innocent victims, who pay a dear price for the sins of their parents. And of course, those in between: not wholly good but not wholly evil either. You'll have plenty of people to pick from to hate and to admire. I particularly liked Maria, who in the end is, when it really matters, a very brave woman. She's a person with integrity, one who fought, one who knowing full well the consequences, didn't turn her back on her moral responsibility. Really, I could go on for hours about how well Del Arbol builds up his characters, but that's one of the reasons why you may want to read the book and judge for yourself.

I need to stress that The Sadness of the Samurai is not for people whose sensibilities are easily offended. It is not for those who can't stand graphic violence, rape and the bestial side of human nature. I'm saying this not because the brutality takes anything away from the story, but because it is a very important, crucial even, element that makes Del Arbol's book so raw and so astounding, and if a wrong person reads it, they will give a low rating and low opinion on a book they shouldn't be reading in the first place.


The Sadness of the Samurai has been translated from Spanish by Mara Lethem. While I couldn't find much information on the web about this translator, I did notice that she has a fairly established record and has been a translator for at at least three different Spanish authors. Just like Del Arbol is a splendid writer, so is Ms. Lethem a talented translator. As a native European, for lack of a better word, I know that there are noticeable differences in a story's overall atmosphere between a novel written by a European author and that by an American one. European novels generally take on a slightly darker tone, explore existential questions and the nature of humans with gloomy outcomes, as opposed to the lighter tones of American novels, where the outlook on life is almost always positive in the end, offering hope and at least some little bit of optimism. Mara Lethem captured the character and atmosphere of that Spanish novel really well, for which I am very grateful.

FTC: I received a copy of The Sadness of the Samurai by Victor Del Arbol from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co.