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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Valley of the Fallen

Carlos Rojas

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To purchase The Valley of the Fallen

Title: The Valley of the Fallen
Author: Carlos Rojas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 291 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Valley of the Fallen - US
El Valle de los Caídos - US
The Valley of the Fallen - UK
The Valley of the Fallen - Canada
The Valley of the Fallen - India
El Valle de los Caídos - España
  • Spanish title: El Valle de los Caídos
  • Translated by Edith Grossman

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Our Assessment:

A : neatly spun historical/biographical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 23/5/2019 Adrian Nathan West
TLS . 23/5/2018 Ben Eastham

  From the Reviews:
  • "To Rojas's credit, he eschews the argumentum ad temperantiam that predominates many contemporary accounts of the civil war in Spain, making clear that enlightened ideals lay to one side and reaction to the other. At the same time, he emphasizes a violent current in the country's history that transcends ideology or creed. (...) The Valley of the Fallen lays many pitfalls before the translator, from the vast vocabulary of tauromachy to the shifts into eighteenth-century Spanish to Rojas's own ornate idiom. In Edith Grossman's translation, the results are inconsistent. Passages of great beauty alternate with other that are clunky or simply wrong." - Adrian Nathan West, The New York Review of Books

  • "(T)he strategy as a whole does advance the point about an artist’s presence in his or her own work, whether in the literal sense of "Charles IV", or more broadly in the way that Goya’s personality shaped his representation of an era in Spanish history that will forever be tied in the public imagination to his work. (...) We are reminded that the intrusion of the author into the text (or of the painter into the painting) long predates the current vogue for autofiction." - Ben Eastham, 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:

       Each of the five sections of The Valley of the Fallen has two chapters, one -- a series of 'The Dream of Reason'-chapters -- focused on and largely narrated in the voice of Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, towards the end of his life, the others -- 'The Monsters' -- mainly set in 1975, around the time of the death of Franco, centered around the academic Sandro Vasari (who brags of being a descendant of famed artist-biographer Giorgio Vasari), who is working on a biography of Goya.
       Sandro Vasari also figures in Rojas' later novel, The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell -- indeed, that novel is dedicated to him and the woman in his life, Marina, as is the translation of this one ... -- while a shadowy 'C.R.' in that novel, pulling the strings, is here simply 'R.' (with Vasari compelled to share everything with the man whom he senses to be taking notes about everything, preparing to write them down himself ...).
       A significant part of The Valley of the Fallen is devoted to the question of how to capture, in writing, the life of another (and, more generally, history). Rojas emphasizes how Goya captures history in his paintings and sketches, making the connections in extensive passages that arguably resemble academic studies (and often rely on these as well, citing and quoting numerous scholars of the subject(s)); he also suggests that reaching truth through art is not only a gift but a curse:

This is your own punishment, old man: to paint the truth.
       Vasari's (and Rojas') own difficulties in and questions about re-presenting life and history are even more fundamental, Vasari questioning not only who Goya was but even his own identity. Rojas connects the characters proper through time and space, Vasari foreshadowed for Goya, who sometimes senses that future other, his double -- strongly enough to wonder, for example:
Was he perhaps pursuing himself while he believed he would gradually discover me in my paintings ?
       The connection is important, Vasari's fundamental question of his own identity a stumbling block in his biography. He comes to realize:
In reality who was Francisco Goya Lucientes, and above all who would he, Sandro Vasari, be in the eyes of Francisco Goya Lucientes ? Until he learned how to establish his purpose as biographer in those terms, he would not know with any certainty what kind of book he intended to write about the owner of the Quinta del Sordo.
       Certainty is elusive -- or impossible -- but through the mutually reïnforcing interplay between the two figures in their stories that run both in parallel and overlap Rojas intensifies their processes of mutual and self-discovery (which is, of course, all Vasari's: this Goya is his invention). Vasari's efforts seem to focus on the documentary -- Goya's art, which he seeks out and describes in close detail, and the historical record -- but of course the essence lies elsewhere, beyond. And Rojas insists it is not merely a one-way street, biographer and subject -- most obviously in the lovely scene where, some twenty pages after Vasari notes: "Silently, with restrained astonishment, I wonder who I might be and who Don Francisco Goya Lucientes might have been", Vasari's Goya can imagine that:
Perhaps at this very moment in another very distant time, that double of mine whose words I would swear I hear sometimes, sits down at a table and writes: "Silently, with restrained astonishment, I wonder who I am and who Don Francisco Goya Lucientes was."
       The gig is up eventually, the curtain fully pulled away near the end, when Sandro and Marina come to understand that they are mere characters in another's -- R.'s -- fiction. Just as Goya senses his future other/double Vasari, Vasari long feels R.'s underlying power and influence -- though only near the conclusion is it explicitly spelled out (interestingly, more determinedly by Marina, as if Vasari doesn't really want to face the truth of it), R. not only as the (god-like) man: "who had shaped their common destiny to a design unknown to her and to Sandro" but acknowledged as the one literally: "writing our lives".
       Rojas' novel -- even as it often turns to the first person, giving both Goya and Vasari voice -- reveals itself as evermore indirect: Goya's voice turns out to be Vasari's invention, Vasari is R.'s toy and invention, and of course R. himself is merely a stand-in for the actual author behind the book ..... The fundamental issue, of capturing a life, remains, regardless of how many layers or veils are used (or lifted); unsurprisingly, Marina repeatedly insists: "you'll never finish the life of Goya", understanding the Sisyphean nature of the task. (In a novel of history, where with hindsight everything seems fated to have turned out as it did, Marina is the most fate-full of the characters, abandoning her husband for her old love Vasari, and knowing she can never leave him; suffering her own personal tragedy, knowing she will never be able to bear a child, a fundamental creation of her own (as she understands that she and Sandro: "were both equally sterile", mere vessels for R., but not even full-fledged vessels, just characters on the page).)
       But The Valley of the Fallen is a character- and artist-study, and a fascinating one of Goya and his times (as well as, secondarily, Vasari). The royals Goya dealt with, as well as Manuel Godoy -- the Prince of Peace, prime minister of Spain -- figure prominently, and the horrific times, including the Napoleonic conquest and its aftermath, are vividly presented. So also Goya's bullfighting-sequence, and the stories of leading bullfighters of the times, especially matador Pepe-Hillo.
       Deaf from syphilis, Goya's world is limited and yet that intensifies the visual -- the horrors he sees, of a royal house at its lowest, widespread misery and poverty, and the carnage of war is all the more concentrated. He captures the Spain of his time -- but part of Rojas' point is that this is the Spain of all time, fully exposed, and that all the horror that Goya saw and recorded would come again, no lessons ever learned from previous horrors. So, inevitably:
If Goya had not existed, the country would have had to invent him in order to recognize itself, uselessly, in his work.
       The contemporary scenes, of Vasari struggling to write his biography, and of his life with Marina, are mostly set during the days of Franco's death-throes, a rotting near-corpse kept alive by any and all possible means in efforts to stave off the inevitable collapse. It is one more chapter of Spanish history -- which Vasari argues will quickly be forgotten, as so much else has been forgotten, the country glossing over the horrors of Franco's life and regime. (Rojas wrote the novel in 1978, just three years after Franco's death; the title is taken from the controversial Civil War memorial site, El Valle de los Caídos where the dictator's body is also interred.) Rojas' visceral, raw descriptions -- often hard to stomach, they're so true to the rot of life and death -- effectively convey the abyss he wants to relate, of both Franco and the Spain of Goya's times; the presentation as compelling as that of much of Goya's own art.
       Even beyond the metafictional games Rojas plays, The Valley of the Fallen is artfully constructed. Each of the five parts of the novel is titled after and focuses on one of Goya's series and art works, and in his back and forth across time the book is dense with history and scholarship. Arguably, at times it reads too academically -- an art historical, and scholarly historical, text -- but even this Rojas handles expertly, weaving it into his larger narrative exceptionally well.
       There's a great deal to The Valley of the Fallen, and it's easy to lose oneself in focusing on and admiring the intricacy and beauty of its construction -- in what Rojas presents and how he does it. But it's what's beyond that, beyond simply how it all fits together and works, that the novel's power lies: this is an exceptional artist-portrait, a very fine and thorough picture of Goya and his art, -- and an even more exceptional novel of and commentary on Spain. Rojas' fury about what the nation has just been through -- again -- in the long years of the Franco regime is not tempered, but it is completely controlled, and the text holds up exceptionally well; it took four decades for the English translation to appear, but Rojas' novel proves timeless.
       The Valley of the Fallen is a creative variation on the historical novel, and, simply, a great novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 June 2018

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The Valley of the Fallen: Reviews: Other books by Carlos Rojas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Carlos Rojas was born in 1928. He taught at Emory University for many years.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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