A Destroyer of Compasses


175 pages
ISBN 1-55071-168-7
DDC C813'.54






Reviewed by Norman Cheadle

Norman Cheadle is a professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern
Languages and Literatures, Laurentian University.


The title refers to a passage from Julio Cortбzar’s novel Hopscotch,
which serves as an epigraph to Bell’s uneven collection of stories and
journalistic fragments. More appropriate would have been a reference to
Hemmingway, whose well-trodden literary trails the author follows.

Two stories in particular stand out. “The House of the Americans”
is a novella of the expatriates-adrift-in-Spain genre, with characters
who recur in subsequent stories. With more development of the Andalusian
Juan, this might have become an interesting novel. Juan’s pathos is
set in implicit parallel with the passion of a man who was condemned to
death by the Inquisition centuries earlier and who evokes his carnal
beloved in mystical language. However, the connection between the two
seems arbitrary, especially since we are never privy to Juan’s own
writings. On the other hand, “Green,” perhaps a homage to
Cortбzar’s “The Pursuer,” is a finely crafted and classically
constructed short story about a talented saxophonist’s struggle, not
with drug addiction, but rather with the demons of sex and jealousy.

As a whole, the collection forms a clearly discernable narrative, a
quasi-novel set in Catalonia in the years preceding and following
Franco’s death in 1976. The introductory “Flowers and Flamenco”
presents the Hemmingwayesque writer and his quest to project his
subjectivity against an exotic backdrop—the Spain of flamenco,
gypsies, and telluric clichés. “From Immigration On” closes the
narrative when the conquering Ego returns home to Alberta with a
sophisticated Spanish wife in tow, a cultural trophy crowning his
odyssey. In between, the Subject has conversed with wise anarchist
shepherds, written about the expat fauna he encounters in Barcelona and
environs, taught English to the natives, and of course fallen in love
with a “passionate” female revolutionary. We learn little about the
context and issues motivating the political and cultural resistance to
Franco’s regime, except in the brief journalistic piece “Small
Wars,” an account of the affair surrounding the trial of the mime
group Els Joglars, charged in court for insulting the army. Otherwise,
dictatorship and heroic resistance are reduced to literary tropes.

In sum, plenty of epigonic Hemmingway, but not much Cortбzar.


Bell, Wade., “A Destroyer of Compasses,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/17731.