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Peter Elmore: Las pruebas del Fuego [The Trials of Fire]
Peter Elmore’s second novel is about art and obsession, both not unusual subjects in the modern novel. Adrián Alcántara is a Peruvian academic specialising in art history. Much of the novel tells us about his private life. He is perpetually broke – in his early days he tells us how, one month, his salary was exactly the same as his rent. He marries Amalia and they have two children but, by the time the novel starts, they are divorced and she has remarried. They make only a marginal appearance in this novel. He now lives alone in a flat, seemingly without a steady relationship. He has one close friend, José Luis, though other acquaintances do appear. One is Isabel who, when her father, Dr Arancibia, dies, decides to pass on the doctor’s manuscripts to Adrián. However, when the sixteen large boxes arrive, they take up a lot of space in his flat and his cleaning lady complains bitterly, saying that they are too heavy for her to move. He agrees with the university where he is employed that they will be stored in the university, provided that he agrees not to make a claim against the university if they are damaged, which he readily agrees to. However, when the university staff come to take the boxes, he decides to keep one so that he can examine the contents. A good part of the novel is about what he finds in the box.
As he is perpetually broke, when José Luis gives him a cheque for an amount equivalent to three months of his salary, provided only that he authenticates a painting as being by a specific artist, rather than by the artist’s son, the more likely but less valuable solution, he reluctantly agrees, particularly as a loan from José Luis has been stolen from him by a rogue policeman. This will come back to haunt him, as he is blackmailed by a semi-illiterate man who has found out the fraud and, for much of the second half of the book, this will be an issue for him. However, the key plot line is what he finds in the box.
The box contains a series of faded and fairly fragile manuscripts. Much of them are of little interest to him. However, he comes across a series of letters (in Latin) between two monks – Anselmo de Montesinos, the older of the two, and Brother Jerónimo. They talk about various things but, as he gradually deciphers the manuscripts, often difficult to read, he realises that Anselmo has sent to Jerónimo a painting which he wants Jerónimo to keep in a safe place as he, Anselmo, cannot keep it, as it is controversial. However, he does not wish to destroy it, as he recognises it as a great painting. Adrián spends considerable time investigating this. He enlists the help of an archivist, Mirna, to help him sort out the other boxes and they seem to be starting a relationship. He works out, with help of the remarks by Anselmo, what the subject might be (and has a couple of fortuitous insights). References are made to various individuals in the letter, without naming them, and he tries to track them down. He learns that Jerónimo had been a monk at Puno and goes to the monastery there. He finds it deserted and manages to fall through a floor and nearly kills himself when investigating and is rescued by the taxi driver and Brother Armancio, who looks after the monastery but is not, in fact a monk, but just a layman. In short, it is a fairly conventional but nevertheless interesting story about how he tries to track down the painting. It is only at the very end that we learn the name of the (very famous) painter.
While it is certainly an enjoyable book, it is not a great work. Indeed, it is, on the whole, a fairly conventional story. We do see his obsession with tracking down this painting, not for the financial reward but for the sake of art. We do also see an academic struggling with his life and the compromises he has to make to survive. The book has not been translated into English or, indeed, any other language and probably will not be.
First published in 1999 by Promoción
No English translation