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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Adventures and Misadventures
of the Extraordinary and Admirable
Joan Orpí, Conquistador and
Founder of New Catalonia

Max Besora

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To purchase The Adventures and Misadventures of [...] Joan Orpí

Title: The Adventures and Misadventures of [...] Joan Orpí
Author: Max Besora
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 375 pages
Original in: Catalan
Availability: The Adventures and Misadventures of [...] Joan Orpí - US
The Adventures and Misadventures of [...] Joan Orpí - UK
The Adventures and Misadventures of [...] Joan Orpí - Canada
Aventures i desventures de [...] Joan Orpí - España (Catalán)
directly from: Open Letter
  • Catalan title: Aventures i desventures de l'insòlit i admirable Joan Orpí, conquistador i fundador de la Nova Catalunya
  • Translated by Mara Faye Lethem

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Our Assessment:

B : satisfyingly creative in presentation and language; a solid romp

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/4/2021 Alida Becker
El País . 30/3/2017 Ponç Puigdevall
Publishers Weekly . 29/10/2020 .
TLS . 20/8/2021 Matthew Tree

  From the Reviews:
  • "A decidedly unheroic woman drives a key plot twist in Max Besora's inventive pastiche of fact, fiction and frolic. (...) (I)A decidedly unheroic woman drives a key plot twist in Max Besora's inventive pastiche of fact, fiction and frolic." - Alida Becker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Aleshores només queda acceptar les seves lleis particulars, l’escatològica plenitud d’alguns passatges, meravellar-se amb les aparicions i desaparicions i reaparicions i entrecreuaments dels personatges en els moments més inesperats, riure molt davant de tantes estratègies narratives descarades, i la celebració de tenir a les mans una novel·la que no es llegeix perquè, de fet, es devora." - Ponç Puigdevall, El País

  • "This raunchy, foulmouthed, and hilarious story brilliantly inhabits the space between novel and biography." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The result is, quite simply, a blast of highly recommendable, unadulterated fun." - Matthew Tree, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia is, very loosely, based on the actual Joan Orpí (1593-1645), the fiction corresponding closely to the actual stations of his life, but author Max Besora certainly embellishing the details; if not quite a picaresque, he's fashioned a far-flung adventure story featuring an often hapless hero buffeted by the fates and the powers that be in the grand novel tradition of Orpí's times, homage to and imitation and satire of grand tomes from Tirant lo Blanc to Don Quixote (a book Cervantes himself gives to Orpí early on in a brief cameo-appearance).
       The Adventures and Misadventures [...] is presented as a 'found manuscript', with a Preface by a professor of "Neo-Catalan Postcolonial Studies" who describes it as a: "book written by an anonymous soldier who, during the 1714 Siege of Barcelona, had transcribed his captain's oral narration of the life and adventures of a man named Joan Orpí".
       The professor notes:

The Adventures and Misadventures of Joan Orpí blurs the distinction between poiesis and mimesis (or what boils down to the same thing: invention versus history, because they are but two faces of a single coin), and employs an extraordinary variety of narrative strategies
       The manuscript begins with its loose framing device, of the captain who then recounts Orpí's tale to his soldiers during the siege of Barcelona. Divided into three books, brief scenes from the telling of it in 1714 between the main, Orpí-focused narrative break up the Orpí-story just a bit, without distracting too much. Besora has some fun with these as well -- beginning with the captain launching his tale not with the first chapter of the Orpí-story, but rather: "Chapter XVI, of whych I am inordinately fond". (Somewhat regrettably, he quickly gives in to his audience's protests and begins at the true beginning.)
       The professor notes in his Preamble that the manuscript has been revised slightly, "transporting the narrator's voice to modern Neo-Catalan and leaving only the dialogue in the original language". That original language is the more ornate and baroque of Orpí and the captain's times, and Mara Faye Lethem faithfully recreates the feel of this in her English rendering; here, too, the story proper is presented in contemporary English, while all the dialogue -- and there is a great deal of it -- resembles the expression of seventeenth-century prose, complete with irregular spelling. Noteworthy here, however, is that while the dialogue-style resembles this earlier-period one, it also puts a modern spin on it: Besora, and then Lethem, present a mix of modern-in-classical-guise, with expressions such as:
     "So, all's fair in love and craps ? Bee we even lyke Steven ?" asked our hero later.
       The soldier assigned to write down the story as the captain relates it does, at one point midway through the tale, complain about all this:
While we're at it, we could also critique the fact that the narrative voice is constantly interfering in the story, notte to mention the cacophonic pirouettes though oblige me record, the dialectical expressions, the poetic amphigory, the constant linguistic ups and downs, and the impossible mishmash of archaic and modern language, etc. Thou art a rhetorical rebbel !
       In fact, all this is a significant part of the fun of the novel. The language may look and the expression seem archaic but it's easy enough to follow and much is wildly inventive -- so also in Lethem's translation, obviously free in some of these dialogue-parts, but good fun and creative; one gets the sense that it must have been a blast for her to play with the language here.
       The Orpí tale itself is then a birth-to-death story, much of it of the over-the-top kind readers are led from the first to expect -- beginning with the protagonist's birth: naturally, not only was it: "a bit strange, it was highly spectacular regardless". Young Orpí is your typical picaresque-tale not-quite-hero, with his father soon worried about the boy's future as it is soon evident that this eldest born: "was useless both as a priest and as a peasant farmer" -- and a brief turn, at age fifteen, in the military also goes poorly. Eventually, he's sent off to Barcelona, to study law. But first he has to get there.
       This first of his travels goes about as well as most that follow then will. The Adventures and Misadventures [...] is full of journeys, and barely one goes well, as Orpí inevitably encounters (on land) highwaymen with their demands for: "your money or your life" or (on sea) pirates, among countless other dangers. He repeatedly loses more or less everything -- sometimes down to every last stitch of clothes --, though if not his dignity, so at least his life is preserved. (And the first time he is robbed it is by the dwarf Triboulet, who then repeatedly crosses Orpí's path and is actually able to help him out.)
       Orpí eventually makes it to Barcelona and university, and naturally has a few of the typical student adventure experiences along the way, including fighting a duel with an Ernst of the Cirrhotic Liver, who then becomes a close friend. But Besora doesn't indulge overly in this easy material, soon noting instead that:
     Truth be told (because here we tell no lies), we would need a few hundred more pages top explain in full how our hero managed to finish his law studies, being as he was so feather-brained.
       Surprisingly, Orpí then turns out to be quite good at his chosen profession -- even if he barely gets to practice it. Finding all doors closed in Barcelona, he follows a promising lead to Seville -- meaning also: more travelling, and more mishaps along the way -- though there too things don't work out. And, while: "only edesperate men travel to America" at that time, that's eventually what he finds is his only option, essentially blackmailed into traveling there by a local woman who wants him to retrieve a treasure her husband had left there.
       This explains Orpí's crossing the Atlantic, and doing so under a different name, Gregorio Izquierdo -- as the real Orpí actually did. Unsurprisingly, the assumed identity proves problematic further on down the road -- but then Orpí has so much to deal with, it's just another problem among many.
       The Americas of the time are, of course, just being colonized -- Caracas is already one of the leading cities, for example, but Orpí can't help but be disappointed to find it's: "just a bunch of ugly adobe houses, home to around three hundred souls". He soon has a position of some authority, and eventually founds a: "New Barcelona (and, for conceptual continuity, New Catalonia)", which becomes the big project he dedicates himself to. He has to contend with various rivals who try to undermine him and his mission in a variety of ways -- notably other Spaniards in powerful positions, who are jealous of the success he makes of his new city.
       If not exactly a utopia, Orpí's New Barcelona is certainly a forward-looking place. He wants his undertaking to be: "a business of progress and objective reason" -- and so, for example, has little patience with religion being part of what guides the running of the place (unlike elsewhere in the colonies, where the hand of the Church is strong): "The vulgar precedeeth the divine", he insists, as material comfort must be seen to before any worries about the spiritual kind.
       Of course, Orpí runs into problems, necessitating even a trip back to Spain to make his case before the Royal Council. Naturally, also, the return trip to the Americas then involves more than just hardships -- while the detour he finds himself flung on at least leads him to a neat haul of gold (and some ... true aliens ...), and even if his original New Barcelona and his hopes of: "prosperating the entire territory of New Catalonia" ultimately can't compete with the various powers that be, he does carve out a nice little piece of the new world for himself and those that settle there.
       Told in short, quick, action-packed chapters, these adventures -- and especially the misadventures -- Orpí has are good fun and make for a fast, enjoyable read. If the constantly repeated cycle of things going wrong can get a bit predictable -- there's practically no journey without facing the threat of the loss of life, limb, or dignity -- it's mostly quite fun --and Besora does well in not harping too much on the terrible things that happen: they're described quickly and efficiently, enough to make an impression, but not wallowed in.
       More problematic is that Besora's isn't just one kind of tale, but two, and the fit doesn't quite work. What begins as a story of a hapless protagonist straight out of fiction, who will inevitably face the worst possible outcome, time and again (while still bouncing back onto his feet, somehow), becomes one of the real-life Orpí, a skillful lawyer and idealist who leads wisely. The Orpí who was supposedly so 'feather-brained' that it's a wonder he completed his legal studies proves to be a sensible and thoughtful man -- a dichotomy that is never really satisfactorily dealt with.
       This is also reflected some in Orpí's literary interests, as he's presented as a bookworm. As one bookseller notes when Orpí applies for a job in his store: "thou art no good for selling books, only for buying them !" (managing then also to foist an enormous pile on him, "at an exorbitant price"), and among the few things Orpí lugs with him to the new world is his collection of reading material. Besora does repeatedly bring in literature from around that time -- along with that cameo by Cervantes himself -- but the connection between this and those writings mostly feels very underdeveloped: a tantalizing suggestion, here and there, but not enough more.
       For better and worse, Orpí isn't a true picaresque (anti-)hero; in fact, he eventually comes across as having been quite ... noble (and not in the deluded Don Quixote way). But Besora chooses to have his path involve a whole lot of picaresque-style (and character) misadventures -- good fun, but then ultimately a bit confounding. The semi-utopia of New Barcelona proves almost too serious for the book, and Besora never quite satisfactorily balances all the novel's elements.
       The Adventures and Misadventures [...] is an enjoyable fast read, and often amusing as satire on everything from the storytelling of the time to some of the politics of new world and old. Still, surprisingly, for such a substantial work, it actually winds up feeling a bit thin. One thing that does work very well throughout is the dialogue-language: Besora wisely doesn't write the whole novel in this olde-style language, allowing the narrative proper to unfold smoothly, but then has a lot of fun with the playful dialogue (a game translator Lethem is obviously fully on board with, to good effect); indeed, there's enough payoff here alone to satisfy any reader.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 February 2021

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The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Catalan author Max Besora was born in 1980.

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© 2021 the complete review

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