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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Athos to Aberystwyth

My recent stay in Dubai gave me a chance to enjoy one book that had been on my 'to read' list for months and another that was a chance discovery at the excellent bookshop in Dubai Mall. The former is Malcolm Pryce's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth', the third in his series of surreal novels set in the Cardiganshire town that I know very well of old. I've also read the first two, and must admit that my internal jury is still out. The concept is simply brilliant - this is an Aberystwyth that exists in a slightly unsettling parallel universe, more noir than any Sidney Greenstreet movie, and set in a Wales scarred by a 1960s Vietnam-like war in Patagonia. Some of Pryce's comic touches and plot devices are sheer genius, perhaps especially so if one knows his setting: his description of the difficulties of gaining access to the National Library of Wales will strike a particularly rib-tickling chord with any reader at that august institution. I also loved his play on Rambo / Rimbaud, although I'd advise Stallone to stick to the former and avoid the latter. But I often find Pryce's vision a little too bleak, and the paperback edition of 'Unbearable Lightness' is undermined by his own publisher's provision of one of the most outrageous plot spoilers I've seen in recent times. Number four in the series, 'Don't Cry For Me Aberystwyth', is also on my shelves and rising slowly to the top of the 'to read' list, so perhaps the internal jury will finally return a verdict then.

The chance discovery was Arturo Perez-Reverte's 'The Dumas Club'. I'm a fan of Perez-Reverte's 'Captain Alatriste' series (indeed, it's been a big influence on my own series of 'Quinton Journals') and recently enjoyed the excellent film version, 'Alatriste' starring Viggo Mortensen - a classic case of a seemingly improbable casting that actually works brilliantly. As with Pryce, the plot of 'The Dumas Club' provides a kind of parallel universe, in this case one where the characters of 'The Three Musketeers' seem to take over a group of disparate individuals in a plot that intricately interweaves Richelieu's France with diabolism and the theft of rare books. The loving descriptions of sixteenth and seventeenth century texts that pervade 'The Dumas Club' make the book a bibliophile's delight, although the ending seemed a little flat. Overall, though, it's whetted my appetite for the next Alatriste novel, 'The Man in the Yellow Doublet'; and yes, that's on the 'to read' list too.  

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