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Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: La saga/fuga de J.B [The Saga/Flight of J. B.]

This novel has been hailed as one of the best Spanish twentieth century novels, if not the best. It almost goes without saying that it has not been translated in English, though it is available in French and Portuguese. My translation of the title is a literal one, though fuga, as well as meaning flight, can also mean fugue.

The book starts with a prologue where we learn that the holy body, a sacred relic kept in the small town of Castroforte del Baralla, has been stolen. This is followed by a poem on the relic, before we get into the main part of the book, the manuscript or (perhaps) the monologue of J(osé) B(astida). Bastida is a very ordinary teacher of low income and of little importance. Yet he becomes part of a club of gentlemen, whose apparent purpose is to protest the destruction of a statue of an admiral. And so begins a complicated novel that has been compared to Joyce but also invokes Umberto Eco and Gabriel García Márquez. Bastida tells us first of a previous club, called The Knights of the Round Table and uses this as a basis for a fascinating account of the club and the town, mixing in legend, history and, as in all good books of this kind, a convoluted conspiracy. He cites all kinds of sources, plays around with language à la Joyce and gives us the kind of dense but incredibly fascinating detail found in Joyce.

The second chapter, which also starts with a poem, is called Beware the Ides of March. The Knights of the Round Table are back together in this present-day club, with José Bastida as a member. The setting is the contemporary period and it carries on from the first with the past intruding into the present. More particular the story of J. B. is brought forward. It seems that those with the initials J. B. have had a peculiar influence on the town, hence the role of Bastida, and the saga of the title is about these J. B.’s and their role. The final chapter is called, in Spanish, Scherzo y Fuga. Scherzo is, of course, an Italian term used in music for a piece that should be performed playfully but it comes from the Italian word meaning joke, while fuga, as already noted, means both flight and also fugue and it is clear that Torrente Ballester is playing linguistic games here and using both meanings. In this chapter, we are back in the past, with, of course, an introductory poem, called Invitation to the Waltz. The role of the church as well as myths and legends such as the King Arthur legend play a part here as the magic realism element, already apparent, plays a larger role and has led some critics, erroneously, to say that this book is merely a homage to Gabriel García Márquez‘s Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). What it is, is a superbly unique book that, yes, uses elements from authors such as Joyce and Gabriel García Márquez but is particularly original. It is sad that it is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published in 1972 by Destino
No English translation
Published in French as La Saga/Fuga de J.B. in 1991 by Actes Sud
Published in Portuguese as A saga/fuga de J.B. in 1992 by Dom Quixote