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Joan Perucho: Les històries naturals (Natural History)

Our hero is the dashing, aristocratic but arrogant Antoni de Montpalau. The novel opens in the First Carlist War (1830s). The war was fought over the succession to the Spanish throne. The supporters of Carlos V wanted a return to an absolutist monarchy. They were opposed by supporters of the regent, Maria Christina, acting for Isabella II of Spain, and were known as liberals. Antoni de Montpalau was in the latter camp.

However, we first meet him as naturalist. We see him interested in exotic (and fictitious) species such as Avutarda geminis. He is interested in the bat, which he calls Vampiris diminutus and says can suck human blood. There is no bat in the real world called Vampiris anything and the vampire bats, which have completely different names, are only found in South America. He even has a vampire tree, which eats live rats and spits out their skeletons!

We follow him and his cousin, Novau, to Gràcia, a bastion of liberalism, where the Montpalaus have a farm. While visiting the local Liberty Café, a man tries to assassinate him and he only just escapes with his life. The man escapes – his shadow is seen fleeing – but he leaves behind a sulphurous smell. The shadow and the smell will haunt Montpalau throughout the book.

Back in Barcelona, Montpalau meets the great and good, including Ferdinand de Lesseps, Chopin and George Sand. Barcelona society has to pretend that the couple are married, in order to accept them, which, of course, they do. When Sand swears, they have to ignore that, too.

Montpalau has a group of intellectual friends, who discuss scientific issues. One of them mentions the Dip, which Montpalau claims does not exist. It is, he says, a supposed being who changes into a spider, a bumblebee, a vulture, a horse and then an elephant. He rejects its existence entirely. He is editing a book on Catalonian natural history which, in fact, exists. You can read an OCR of the Catalan version here.

Meanwhile, the shadow, the Dip, whatever we want to call it, is threatening Montpalau. For example, he goes to the bull-fighting arena to see an Italian flying an airship but, at the insistence of his friend, stays for the bullfight. One bull suddenly rears up and stares straight at Montpalau before disappearing without trace.

One of his intellectual friends suddenly summons all his friends and we learn that the friend’s sister, who lives in a place called Pratdip (Dip Meadow), has asked for his help, as the village is being menaced by a vampire who is killing various people. Another friend explains that Dip is an Arabic word used to describe a jackal who is eager for blood.

It is, of course, Montpalau and his cousin who set out for Pratdip and, inevitably, have lots of adventures en route, including being attacked by bandits. They come prepared with garlic, mirrors and the like (Perucho has clearly read his Bram Stoker). The Dip/vampire does, of course exist – he has been alive for some seven hundred years – and is now masquerading as a Carlist guerrilla called The Owl.

Interestingly, Montpalau meets a Carlist general, Ramón Cabrera, a historical figure who, in real life, was not a nice person, as you can see from the Wikipedia article linked. Cabrera is nominally on the same side as The Owl but Cabrera and Montpalau, clearly of different political views, make common cause against the Owl, though not too successfully. They get on very well and, indeed, Montpalau helps him, the enemy, in his eagerness to overcome the Owl.

The whole story is, of course, a spoof. Perucho follows the standard Hollywood/Hammer approach and Onofre de Dip, the man who turns out to be the Dip/the Owl/the vampire had me thinking of Max Shreck (from Nosferatu), Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee whenever he appeared and Perucho was no doubt inspired by those three.

As well as being a spoof on the vampire story, it is also something of a spoof on the learned man of the past trope. We have seen him in many novels, such as those by Daniel Kehlmann, César Aira and John Fowles, to name only a few. Montpalau is a learned scientist, though some of the species he identifies are clearly entirely false. He denies the existence of vampires and then spends much of the book chasing one.

It is great fun as Perucho keeps the plot moving and there always seem to be various catastrophes imminent or occurring. I am not sure that you will gain any accurate picture of the First Carlist War from this book as, like most wars, it is messy and guerrilla warfare seems to be account for a fair amount of it. However, it is nice to see that the Catalan novel can be humorous.

First published by Destino in 1960
First published in English by Knopf in 1988