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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Voltaire's Calligrapher

Pablo De Santis

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To purchase Voltaire's Calligrapher

Title: Voltaire's Calligrapher
Author: Pablo De Santis
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 150 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Voltaire's Calligrapher - US
El calígrafo de Voltaire - US
Voltaire's Calligrapher - UK
Voltaire's Calligrapher - Canada
Le calligraphe de Voltaire - France
Voltaires Kalligraph - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: El calígrafo de Voltaire

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Our Assessment:

B : decent bookish historical thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hudson Review . Spring/2011 Alan Davis
Die Zeit . 15/4/2004 Tobias Gohlis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Philosophie, Fantastik, Wortspielerei -– bei de Santis ist der Kriminalroman pures Vergnügen auf höchstem Niveau." - Tobias Gohlis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       El calígrafo de Voltaire is narrated by Dalessius, who, when he is twenty years old, comes to work for Voltaire as calligrapher and archivist. Mechanical printing has already taken the place of much of the need for hand-writing, but many things still require the human touch (especially what's needed immediately, or only in a single copy) -- and this conflict between the human and the mechanical is also at the heart of much of the novel.
       Dalessius begins the story decades after the fact -- but with an arresting image, as he travels with little more than a few shirts, the tools of his (writing) trade, and Voltaire's preserved heart in a glass. But his account focusses on what took place at a time when the heart was still beating (and, unfortunately, the story of how it gets from Voltaire's chest into Dalessius' possession isn't quite as exciting a part of the story as one might have hoped).
       An orphan, Dalessius was raised by his uncle, who oversees a thriving business as a transporter of corpses (so that they could be buried at home -- a business that did particularly well during wartime, when many young men died far from their hometowns). Trained as a calligrapher, Dalessius manages to get a job with Voltaire after he blows his job as a local court clerk -- and Voltaire soon enlists him as a sort of spy to look into the (historic) case of the suspiciously condemned Jean Calas. Voltaire thinks there's something behind the case, and De Santis' novel spins a far broader conspiracy out of it than Voltaire actually managed to uncover.
       El calígrafo de Voltaire is an enjoyable cat and mouse game, filled with conspiracies. The Church muddles in a good deal of it, but a significant element is also the existence of very life-like automata -- robots that can be (and are) mistaken for real people.
       De Santis enjoys playing with lots of colourful detail, from the automata to various inks the calligraphers use to good effect beyond merely writing (including invisible and poisonous varieties) to the corpse-transport business. The atmosphere is dark -- back alleys, huge houses in which it is easy to get lost, graveyards and the like -- as well as bookish, with libraries, booksellers, and manuscripts all about (and, of course, playing significant roles). Executioners (and thugs at the service of powerful people) also play a role, and there's quite a bit of blood lost (though not everyone (or thing) that is beheaded bleeds ...).
       Dalessius is also inspired by the unworldly Clarissa, the daughter of the way over-protective mechanical genius von Knepper, who does his best to prevent any sort of romance developing.
       El calígrafo de Voltaire is a short book, almost breathless in its rush (and with lots of travelling to and fro (including the obligatory trip-in-a-coffin) -- though, amusingly, also with lengthy waits in a variety of places). De Santis perhaps tries to do a bit much -- and there are quite a few places when a bit more elaboration would be welcome. Still there's something to be said for an historical novel that doesn't try too hard to fill in every last piece of period detail
       A decent historical thriller with some nice touches.

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Voltaire's Calligrapher: Reviews: Other books by Pablo De Santis under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinian author Pablo De Santis was born in 1963.

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