Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Marquis of Bolibar by Leo Perutz

This novel relates an unlikely series of events surrounding the annihilation of a garrison of occupying troops in a Spanish town during the peninsular war. The eponymous figure of the Marquis appears only briefly in these pages, yet he sets in motion the mechanism by which the German units of Napoleon’s army occupying the town of La Bisbal will be destroyed almost to a man, with one significant exception who survives not only to relate the incidences, but who also comes to strongly identify with the now-legendary Spanish nobleman.

Perutz’s tale is told with a certain lightness, as a group of German officers plot the sexual conquest of their Colonel’s new Spanish concubine who, in a book where the double and issues of identity play important roles, has an uncanny resemblance to the Colonel’s dead wife, whom the officers had managed to seduce in the past.

The story is told from the perspective of the 18 year old officer von Jochberg, and begins by relating how a wounded German officer eavesdrops on a conversation between one of Wellington’s officers, a guerrilla leader, and the Marquis in which the Marquis outlines a plot by which the garrison at La Bisbol may be destroyed. The plot relies on the ability of the Marquis to infiltrate the town incognito and give three signals intended to set the stage for its liberation. Unfortunately, in the guise of a poor mule-driver, the Marquis overhears the German officers planning their seduction, and he is taken out and summarily shot so that the secrecy of the planned seduction may be maintained. Before he dies, the muleteer asks that they fulfill a promise that he has made. When the officers ask for specifics, he replies cryptically “God will tell you.” The remainder of the novel details how the officers, both deliberately (driven by jealousy and lust) and unknowingly fulfill the doomed man’s plans.

The characters in this historical novel are finely and satirically drawn, and Perutz’s themes of the motivations of evil and the fluid nature of identity do not get in the way of the unlikely yarn at the core of the story. Originally published in Perutz’s Vienna, an English translation was first published in 1926. . It appears that an Austrian film based on this novel was made in 1922, with a UK production following in 1928. Perutz’s idiosyncratic novels were admired by Borges, Greene, and Calvino. It ought to be pointed out that Perutz makes sly reference to the legend of the Wandering Jew while at the same time lightly satirizing both Spanish piety and the contemptuous rationality of the Germans. The Marquis of Bolibar is a nice page-tuner - a worthy entertainment which concludes with a neat twist.