Now you may be aghast, in shock, in tears or denial about the outcome of the referendum on our membership of the European Union. And I’m not sure whether the brilliance of this book will delight and soothe you or feed the flames of anger at the absurdity of the UK distancing itself from Europe, when Shakespeare in England and Cervantes in Spain were writing at the same time in their different corners of Europe. For ‘Lunatics, Lovers and Poets’ is a celebration of the work of Shakespeare and Cervantes, in twelves stories based on their work. The stories are either modern interpretations of their plays and prose, tales of people intimately bound up with the writers, or simply stories using an idea or theme as a starting point. The writers, 6 from the Spanish speaking world and 6 from the English, were asked to base their story on the work of the writer from the other language, so Juan Gabriel Vásquez for example writes on Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and Nell Leyshon on Cervantes’ ‘The Glass Graduate’- and I was intrigued and delighted to find some favourite stories emerging in new and unexpected contexts.
Simply scanning the contents page to choose where to begin reminded me of Christmas, holding up your stocking to see the small gifts tumbling out, not knowing which to unwrap first. So I went for the familiar much admired Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose novel ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ I’ve reviewed here. His story ‘The Dogs of War’, translated by Anne McLean, centres on an academic in his native Colombia teaching courses on Shakespearean rhetoric to law students. He focuses on Julius Caesar and Mark Antony’s powerful speeches after the assassination of Caesar predicting the years of chaos ahead. A contemporary story runs parallel: the story of the killing of Colombia’s Justice Minister by Pablo Escobar and the years of fighting between Escobar’s men and the state which followed. I loved here the picking apart of Shakespeare’s rhetoric, the account of those long years of struggle for the Colombian people and the masterly storytelling, just giving us that sad little twist at the end.
Another favourite was Vicente Molina Fox’s ‘Egyptian Puppet’ a story set in Shakespearean London where Margaret, a seamstress, is searching for her husband who has disappeared. Her search leads the reader through a cast of characters and situations from Elizabethan/ Jacobean London: apothecaries and actors, a beauty parlour and a public hanging. She falls for one Nick who is playing several female characters in Cleopatra at The Globe; after the performance he gives her the asp made of rags and tatters. I was completely caught up here by the depiction of London, its voyeurism, its menace- we have to thank the translator Frank Wynne for his rendering of this and for the smooth consistency of the narrative voice, evoking so convincingly a period now past.
My favourite story from Cervantes was ‘Mir Aslam of Kolachi’ by Kamila Shamsie, whose novel ‘A God in every stone’ is reviewed here. Mir Aslam is the last of the Qissa-Khwans or Storytellers in Kolachi and his character is an amalgam of Cervantes’ character Don Quixote and the narrator Cide Hamete Benengeli. He dreams of a golden age of Islam where ‘faith and art and a generosity of spirit could entwine so beautifully’ which he sees embodied in the ancient city of Qurtaba in the far off state of al- Andalus, the capital of Muslim Spain. But when Mir Aslam tries to get a passport to visit, his idealism is brought down to earth amidst the realities of bureaucracy and sectarian strife in Kolachi. The charm of this story for me lay in the gap between the naivety and innocence of Mir Aslam’s voice and the reality of today’s world- yet the ending left me clinging on to the richness and beauty of his imagination and ideals.
And there is plenty more to treasure: Ben Okri gives us a rewrite of Don Quixote’s visit to the printing workshop, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s story sets the themes of adultery and jealousy in a contemporary context, Rhidian Brook makes his narrator the writer of ‘Rocinante’, casting a satirical eye on the London literary scene while Soledad Puértolas tells of the enduring bonds created by a love of Shakespeare in ‘The Secret Life of Shakespeareans’. The collection is a fantastic homage to Shakespeare and Cervantes attesting to their lasting appeal as storytellers. But more than that- the rich range of characters, stories and ideas, reflected and refracted through time and the imaginations of other writers represent the infinite wealth of cross cultural exchange. And it is this opening out to each other, communicating across cultures and time which we must hold on to now. Read this book, immerse yourself in its stories and pass it on to your friends.