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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Albert Sánchez Piñol

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To purchase Victus

Title: Victus
Author: Albert Sánchez Piñol
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 532 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Victus - US
Victus - US (Spanish)
Victus - UK
Victus - Canada
Victus - India
Victus - France
Victus - Italia
Victus - España
  • The Fall of Barcelona
  • Spanish title: Victus
  • Translated by Daniel Hahn and Thomas Bunstead

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable and ultimately gripping account of the War of the Spanish Succession

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Cultural . 23/11/2013 Ricardo Senabre

  From the Reviews:
  • "El carácter histórico de la novela se respeta al recoger datos rigurosamente documentados, así como ilustraciones y planos de fortificaciones y ciudades que acreditan la fidelísima reconstrucción llevada a cabo por el autor (.....) Victus es una novela briosamente escrita, con episodios memorables en los que no se ahorran crudezas" - Ricardo Senabre, El Cultural

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:

       Victus is narrated by ninety-eight-year old Martí Zuviría, recounting, many decades after the event, his role leading up to and in, as the subtitle of the novel has it: The Fall of Barcelona. It takes a while to get there, but he already makes clear early on that 11 September 1714 was a dark, awful day; Victus is an historical novel, and given how history unfolded readers can hardly expect anything different.
       Interestingly, Catalan author Sánchez Piñol, whose previous work was written in Catalan, presents here his first novel written in Spanish. He even finds an explanation for that in the first-person account, as his narrator Zuviría (also Catalan) can't offer his account in his native tongue, as the amanuensis he dictates it to, an Austrian "clot" name Waltraud, only understands French and Spanish (as well as German). Perhaps Sánchez Piñol wants to be sure the Spanish get the message, rubbing it in even more by writing in the language of the conquerors: to him, the War of the Spanish Succession was "the greatest imbroglio of the age", and the outcome a disaster.
       Zuviría denies the very idea of 'Spain' itself -- "There was no such thing as Spain", he insists (and, Sánchez Piñol is surely implying, there still isn't), and the Spanish conquest of Catalonia just joined together two very different nations and people. He points out the differences between the two nations whenever he can, remarking for example, when he spends some time in Madrid, on the "blackness of its patricians" (in dress), as opposed to the colorful variety found in Barcelona, and of course much preferring the: "tolerant, opulent, libertine kind of chaos" on offer in Barcelona to dry and dreary Madrid. And even as he complains about the local clergy, the Spanish are worse: "the Spanish priests, they are the very worst of all Catholics".
       Zuviría, like many of the characters in the novel, is an historical figure -- albeit one about whom so little is known that Sánchez Piñol is relatively free in what he can do with him. Zuviría's youthful excesses while at boarding school in France leave him with a stark choice -- returning to the paternal household in Barcelona (where the wrath of his father would await him) or being sent to Bazoches castle, to study engineering under the Marquis de Vauban. He opts for the latter, and is lucky enough to be taken on as a pupil. It's a great situation: he is well-trained by Vauban's twin-assistants, hooks up with one of Vauban's daughters, Jeanne, and begins to master the complex art of laying siege to a city, and protecting it (neatly explained here and throughout by Sánchez Piñol, who did his homework regarding eighteenth-century warfare).
       Vauban's early death finds the young man -- still only in his teens -- adrift again, but using his talents and his wits he makes his way on and off the battlefields. Along the way he repeatedly encounters various nemeses -- and others who become part of his substitute-family (the waif Anfán and his dwarf-companion, Nan) and mentors (the sides-switching Antonio de Villarroel, who is chosen to lead the defense of Barcelona when the final showdown approaches).
       Victus is divided into three parts: 'Veni', 'Vidi', and 'Victus', describing, more or less, in turn, Zuviría's youth and apprenticeship (first mainly theoretical, in school, and then more practical real-life experience), his return to Barcelona and more serious war-games, and finally the preparations for and then actual siege and fall of Barcelona. While Zuviría recounts his story chronologically, the crabby old man who is narrating it does offer some present-day commentary eighty years after the events he's describing too -- occasionally to complain about Waltraud, as well as to offer hints (or more) about what will happen to and become of some of the characters before he actually gets to that in his story. He also offers a variety of clues and hints about what he has done in the many decades between the events in his account and the present-day -- and it's a bit of a shame that Sánchez Piñol doesn't give him a chance or the space to relate more of that, since Zuviría certainly kept busy and got around in eighteenth-century Europe (but, yes, that would be another whole book ...).
       Given these dropped clues about much of what lies ahead, and the central event -- the fall of Barcelona -- there wouldn't seem to be much room for too many surprises -- about who lives and who doesn't, for example. So Sánchez Piñol puts even more pressure on himself to make this very much a book that has to succeed in the telling -- though especially in the final section he manages to offer a few unexpected twists and turns too. And even before the Barcelona-siege section, much of the telling is already sufficiently engaging: hothead Zuviría's adventures are, for the most part, quite well-related and often good fun. Parts are a just bit lazily drawn (or rather not, as Sánchez Piñol hops ahead at times without paying too much attention to the transitional occurrences) but there's enough here that makes Victus good, atmospheric adventure-story reading. Sánchez Piñol's use of historic detail -- especially about the warfare, at all levels, of that time -- is generally very good (though occasionally the book-learning is a bit too apparent in how he tries to force it into the story), and early-eighteenth-century life in Spain and Catalonia is vividly drawn. Given the historical complexity of events leading up the fall of Barcelona, Sánchez Piñol does quite a good job of explaining to readers just what happened (though historians -- and the Spanish -- can and will certainly quibble about some of what he writes).
       The long siege of Barcelona -- drawn out at considerable length here -- might seem the part least likely to succeed, but turns out to be particularly riveting, Sánchez Piñol's protagonist conveniently with his fingers in much of the action (including in some unexpected ways and places). There are some horrible missed opportunities and foolish decisions -- and the: "Red Pelts' mad legalism, the false emptiness of their patriotism" understandably frustrates Zuviría enormously -- but also allows Sánchez Piñol to suggest that but for a bit wiser counsel things could have turned out much better. Of course, the way all of the foreign powers dropped Catalonia like a hot potato played a major role in the failure to at least prevent the worst of the destruction in Barcelona.
       Zuviría trains to become an engineer under Vauban, with a point tattooed on his arm for each level of mastery: he has five such marks by the time he leaves Vauban -- but feels guilt about the last, which he hasn't fully earned. By the time he tells his story he is a 'Bearer of Nine Points' (near the almost unattainable maximum of ten), and given what respect the youngster already gets for his five, it's clear that he became one of the continent's leading engineers. Trench warfare, in laying siege to a city, plays a central role in the novel, and Sánchez Piñol does a very good job of presenting this and the engineering-details surrounding it (and, with the trenches built to attack Barcelona, it also makes for one of the novel's better twists). If many of the personal relationships feel a bit roughly presented -- an intensity of feeling, both regarding enemies and loved ones, that Sánchez Piñol can't convey quite convincingly (beyond making young Zuviría such a hothead -- which also gets a bit tired) -- the scenes and descriptions of warfare, and also of the larger politics (though here again, not so much when he gets right up close with them) are impressive.
       Victus is good historical fiction that builds to a superior last third in the siege and fall of Barcelona. There's a fair amount one can quibble about, but Sánchez Piñol offers a consistently entertaining ride, and, for the last third of his book, a very good one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2014

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Victus: Reviews: Other books by Albert Sánchez Piñol under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Catalan author Albert Sánchez Piñol was born in 1965.

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© 2014 the complete review

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