I admit to having a fondness for works in translation, but Belén Gopegui's The Scale of Maps is one of the best works, translated or not, that I've read in a long time. How can a book go wrong when it begins "If a small man were to kiss your hand then immediately launch into a description of the hand crank used to open a window, what would you do?" What, indeed, except keep reading. Read is exactly what I did. Slowly.
Most chapters are very short, usually a few pages, but each is packed with much information. The first chapter ends "Sergio Prim was not lying because I am Sergio Prim." Does it get much better than that? Absolutely. Because the work has been translated, some of the credit must go to Mark Schafer, the translator, for considering the language and the rhythm of the prose, both so important to the overall story of Sergio and the love he has for Brezo, who makes the first move.
Gopegui moves silently and easily from first to second to third person as the tale unfolds. In some chapters, indeed some paragraphs, all three viewpoints may be found. There are times when Sergio addresses the reader, yet I was never pulled out of the story. In this passage, after speaking of Brezo as "her," he says, "your profile turned to look at me." Although it might seem a bit confusing, the prose is so elegantly written, that I never find need to question either Gopegui or Schafer. I do, however, find myself questioning Sergio, who, a couple of pages earlier, said, "Know this, dear readers, I sought the ultimate camouflage:" Although Sergio does not address the readers often, he does it enough that I become part of the story, part of his entanglement. Indeed, at the end of that chapter, he once again draws me into his life. "You barge in and, along with you, my hope that you will read everything that happens to me, everything my voice was incapable of spelling out . . ." Sergio has accused me, us, of barging in. What have we barged into? His daydream. His life. Perhaps he's asking for our complicity.
The language draws me in and moves me along one page to another, and beckons to me to return to passages like this:
"Sheaths of sunlight came through the window and my laziness vanished. The town called to me with those shining bodies that are not yet ours but which call to us: the houses with their stone walls crowding together, the delight of walking once more to the ends of streets and finding the horizon. After breakfast I ventured onto the perpetual terrace, the circular boundary of Alnedo. And I caught a cold."
In these three sentences, the language is rhythmic, the word choice exact, and the varying length of each sentence carries me forward. The use of alliteration and repetition, often found in poetry, is one part of the rhythm. The first two sentences seem almost surreal, even the third is still not fully grounded, but the fourth is blunt and consists of only five words. The use of hard "c" in "caught" and "cold" add to the force of this final sentence. Each word consists of a single syllable, and the meter is accent, no accent, accent, no accent, and accent. This is no accident, and this type of writing, this use of sound and language appears repeatedly throughout the book.
The final chapter is no less compelling and no less beautiful to read, and one of my favorite sentences (although I confess to having many favorite sentences) is "Two hundred and twenty-one rectangular pages with printed inscriptions, and between each word, at the edge of each letter, an interval, a hollow."
The Scale of Maps was originally published in 1993. The English translation was made available in 2010, for which I am most grateful. This is a book to read and then read again, to share with others and make sure that it is returned. Read it for the story. Read it for the language. Read it for the poetry. The reason is unimportant.