“I was almost born Happy.” So begins The Spanish Bow and the remarkable history of Feliu Delargo, who just misses being “Feliz” by a misunderstanding at his birth, which he barely survives.
The accidental bequest of a cello bow from his dead father sets Feliu on the course of becoming a musician, unlikely given his beginnings in a dusty village in Catalonia. When he is compelled to flee to anarchist Barcelona, his education in music, life, and politics begins. But it isn’t until he arrives at the court of the embattled monarchy in Madrid that passion enters the composition with Aviva, a virtuoso violinist with a haunted past. As Feliu embarks on affairs, friendships, and rivalries, forces propelling the world toward a catastrophic crescendo sweep Feliu along in their wake.The Spanish Bow is a haunting fugue of music, politics, and passion set against half a century of Spanish history, from the tail end of the nineteenth century up through the Spanish Civil War and World War II.
When a book is labelled ‘ambitious’, it mean two things – either a new author has blown away the competition, or someone has over-reached and written a lemon. The Spanish Bow is definitely the former. This book may be a work of fiction, but the real life characters, sometimes obvious, sometimes less so, show Spain’s history in a brave way. Knowing this, I felt certain to enjoy this book.
The book starts off with the birth of the main character, Feliu Delargo, mistakenly labelled stillborn and with a misspelled surname. From his start in poor country Catalonia, he grows up, through time in Barcelona and Madrid, to become a European star as a cellist. It is easy to see real-life cellist, Pablo Casals, in the main character, along with Issac Albeniz, who is fictionalised as piano player Justo Al-Cerraz. Some characters are real-real, such as King Alfonso and his Queen Ena. There is also a young man named Paquito, a lowly ranked young military man from Galicia, subject to bullies. We all know where that is going. There is no mistaking it; the author has researched the 20th century in Spain in much detail, in order to show a fictional life within the real fate of Spain (where have I seen that before? Oh wait – me lol).
Spain is a great mess through its first half of the 20th century (and the rest!). Delargo become famous, and finds that is art can make changes, can have a political voice. Delargo and Al-Cerrez meet Aviva, a Jewish violinist, who is in need of rescue as fascism folds over Europe. The life of Spaniards swallowed by fascism and dictators, as well as the over-reaching pain of fascism through Europe is examined, all through the eyes of fictional characters. Both music and art history are explored, as well as those rich patrons to whom Delargo plays. How Madrid and Barcelona are considered ‘backward’, how politics stifles so much, and how, in the end, silence is the winner when fascism takes hold, is the focus.
The Spanish Bow is not some happy ending book – how could it be? Delargo only receives praise posthumously. At least, in the epilogue, you can see how Spain managed to pull itself out of fascism. All this in a book that far easier to read than it sounds. Bravo.