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Luis Felipe Fabre: Declaración de las canciones oscuras (Recital of the Dark Verses)

Saint John of the Cross/San Juan de la Cruz was a sixteenth century mystic. He was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez into a family that was originally Jewish but had converted to Catholicism. He met the Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila. She was seeking to reform the Carmelite order, particularly aiming to restore the purity of the Carmelite Order. Juan decided to follow her, adopting a more pious and ascetic life. Not surprisingly their ideas did not find universal approval and Juan was imprisoned and tortured. On release he became involved with a group known as the Discalced Carmelites(discalced means barefoot) and helped set up monasteries but again got into trouble and he was sent to a remote monastery in Ubeda. It was planned to send him to the Americas but, while in Ubeda, he contracted erysipelas and died. After his death he was venerated and later beatified and then canonised. Though this book refers frequently to his earlier life, most of it is set after his death.

As well as his piety, ascetism and activities in promoting a more pious and ascetic life style, Juan was also a poet. His poetry was, of course primarily religious and he is still considered as one of the greatest Spanish poets, particularly for his Dark Night of the Soul. This poem, which equates sexual love with religious love, is key to this book, as the title tells us.

The story of the book is about how the remains of Juan are taken from Ubeda to Segovia and if you are expecting a reverent, pious book, you will be in for a surprise. It has been described as a road book, which it certainly is but also as a slapstick comedy, which it also is, but Fabre’s skill is to marry the road book/slapstick comedy element with the serious side of Juan’s life and work.

Dark Night of the Soul starts with the words On a dark night, and darkness, both spiritual darkness but also physical darkness will dominate this book. We meet three men on the dark night. They are don Luis de Mercado, known as the bailiff, accompanied by two assistants, Diego and Ferran. The latter two are your standard comedy duo – think Vladimir and Estragon, Laurel and Hardy and many others. They are not very bright, easily frightened by the many strange things that they will hear and see and that happen to them, and mainly concerned, with getting paid,eating and drinking and the opposite sex. Their boss, the bailiff, is more intelligent and better educated than they are but not by a huge amount.

One of the key aspects of religious life way back then was relics. People felt that body parts or items that had touched the holy person would help them in life so the eagerly collected them and this book is mainly about that issue. The three men have come to Ubeda in the dead of night to collect the body of Juan and take it to the bailiff’s sister, Ana. She had plans to build a monastery to contain the remains of Juan. However when the trio get to Ubeda it is not all plain sailing. They had expected some problems but the prior is initially happy to be rid of the problem. He had not taken to Juan, seeing him as a troublemaker and put him in the worst, smallest cell. Ah, Fray Juan, Fray Juan, Fray Juan. Even dead did he cause trouble, thought the prior. Accursed the hour he came to die at Ubeda.

The prior’s views were not shared by many of the monks or, indeed, the locals, many of whom revered him when he was alive and revered him more when he was dead. They eagerly sought relics – something he may have touched or a body part – and Fabre has great fun mocking this. However the bailiff proceeds wih his task and finds that the fingers still bleed so it will be difficult to take the body to Segovia in that state. Moreover, the prior has now realised that, despite his feelings for Juan, losing a relic may not go down well with his superiors. These issues are more or less resolved with a coffin carrying most of the remains of Juan with suitable preservatives to protect the body from decaying in the heat, even though the trio plan to travel by night to avoid trouble.

Our trio can smell nothing but various people at the the monastery say the coffin has a beautiful odour and others en route agree, though one greedy fake countess claims it smells of ham and she she is eager to get a slice.

We follow the travels of our heroes and they are replete with adventures. Strange things happen. They meet strange creatures, both human and non-human. They get lost when taking a back road to avoid the people of Ubeda, who may be trying to get the body to remain in Ubeda. It is dark, very dark and they fear for their souls. People are there and then they are not. The coffin disappears. They are attacked. The bailiff sees his face in another man. They recite the verses of Juan. Blind did I wander lost through the darkness!” cried the bailiff again and again, repenting his doubts and his flimsy faith. Ferran and Diego decide that if they get out alive, they will immediately set sail for the Indies. All of this is done with considerable humour while we also learn of Juan and his verses and the symbolism of light versus darkness.

Diego and Ferran are particularly unsure of what is going on and it is another Ana, a prioress, who explains Do you know, my child, what Fray Juan would tell you? To love and to delight in what you do not understand.

Fabre superbly mixes the sacred and the profane, laughing at the trio and their trials and tribulations, not to mention their buffoonery, while recognising John’s piety and literary skills, with selections of his work putting in several appearances, giving us an excellent and original novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Sexto Piso
First English translation in 2023 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Heather Cleary