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Carpenter's Pencil

Carpenter's Pencil

by Manuel Rivas

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Manuel Rivas has been heralded as one of the brightest in a new wave of Spanish writers influenced by Spanish and European traditions, as well as by the history of Spain over the past seventy years. A bestseller in Spain, The Carpenter's Pencil has been published in nine countries.

Set in the dark days of the Spanish Civil War, The Carpenter's Pencil


Manuel Rivas has been heralded as one of the brightest in a new wave of Spanish writers influenced by Spanish and European traditions, as well as by the history of Spain over the past seventy years. A bestseller in Spain, The Carpenter's Pencil has been published in nine countries.

Set in the dark days of the Spanish Civil War, The Carpenter's Pencil charts the linked destinies of a remarkable cast of unique characters. All are bound by the events of the Civil War-the artists and the peasants alike-and all are brought to life, in Rivas's skillful hand, with the power of the carpenter's pencil, a pencil that draws both the measured line and the artist's dazzling vision.

Author Biography: Manuel Rivas was born in Galicia, in Spain, in 1957, and has worked for many years as a journalist as well as a prize-winning novelist. One his short stories formed the basis for José Luis Cuerda's award-winning film Butterfly, which Gabriel Garciá Márquez said was "a perfect marriage of film and literature."

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
A prize-winning Spanish journalist and novelist makes his U.S. debut with this graceful, dream-like tale of life, love, and art.

The story takes place during the Spanish Civil War, when political prisoners from all walks of life converge in Franco's brutal jails. Among the incarcerated is Daniel Da Barca, a well-known doctor, who adores -- and is adored by -- the beautiful debutante Marisa. Their devotion to one another, despite Da Barca's imprisonment, is witnessed by Herbal, a crude and murderous prison guard. Herbal's voyeurism is supplemented by the ghost of an unnamed painter, who sits tucked behind Herbal's ear, much as the carpenter's pencil was kept behind the painter's own ear when he was alive. The irony in this intricate conceit is that the dead painter -- the spirit who accuses Herbal -- had also been a political prisoner -- executed by none other than Herbal under duress.

Already a bestseller in Spain, The Carpenter's Pencil is as devastating as it is beautiful. In the words of one of our readers, Brad, "this book cries out to be read more than once. I've read it three times now and feel I'm just wrapping my mind around all he has to say." But don't be intimidated by Brad's comments. Rivas weaves together the horrors of war with the magic of art, and the frailty of life with the endurance of love. The resulting tapestry is a gentle story that feels both fresh and intimately tied to the finest in Spanish and European literary traditions. (Summer 2001 Selection)

Miami Herald
A profound tale of love,art,politics and the lingering effects of a gentleness and cruelty on the soul.
Rivas is a master...You never know,at the beginning of a paragraph,where he will take you. His pages bloom like flowers,swerving in unpredictable arcs toward a light-source that is constantly moving.
John Berger
He is an important storyteller because he is sensitive and has an incredible ear,which,in his fiction,is allied to great ingenuity.
Arturo Perez-Reverte
Manuel Rivas has written a beautiful novel,filled with tenderness and humanity.
Library Journal
Set in Galicia during the Spanish Civil War, this novel tells the story of Dr. Daniel Da Barca, who twice miraculously escapes death in front of the firing squad only to be given life imprisonment, a sentence that is later commuted. The principal narrator, though, is Herbal, the guard who escorts Da Barca during his various incarcerations. The third major character is Marisa Mallo, whose marriage by proxy to the doctor is ultimately consummated with Herbal's assistance. Ironically, the ubiquitous role of the painter ("He's the one who paints the ideas") is mostly symbolic. Rivas leaps across time zones and switches narrative voice. Yet with minimal description he masterfully sketches, for example, the hopeless atmosphere of the dank prison with a few brushstrokes, as if he held the titular pencil. And for a novel set during wartime to convince us of the doom and despair of conflict without a single battle scene is admirable indeed. This British-slanted translation marks the first American appearance of this up-and-coming Spanish author. Recommended. Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This internationally acclaimed 1998 novel—the first of its Galician author's to appear in English—is an elegantly composed mosaic portrayal of the human cost of the Spanish Civil War. The story begins many years afterward with a journalist's visit to interview Dr. Daniel Da Barca, a "revolutionary grandfather" hero of the Republican resistance to (fascist) Falangist tyranny, who has returned to Spain after a long exile in Mexico following his escape from prison. The journalist's story is joined by other voices remembering—the primary one being that of Falangist stooge and former prison guard Herbal (who's sharing his memories with a sympathetic prostitute at the whorehouse where he's now employed as a handyman). Herbal is tormented by accusatory images from his past: specifically, his reluctant murder (under orders) of a (nameless) painter whose drawings had boldly exalted the figures of his fellow prisoners; more generally, the stoical Da Barca's love for beautiful Marisa Mallo, the granddaughter of a Falangist collaborator—a relationship that endures as a rebuke to the captors who tried to break Da Barca's spirit. Furthermore, the aforementioned painter's "carpenter's pencil," which Herbal has appropriated, evokes the spirit of the painter, which now "visits" and speaks with the chastened Herbal. Rivas creates a dramatic and fascinating nexus in which these and other vividly realized characters (notably Mother Inane, a fervent nun who angrily debates religion with the freethinking Da Barca) are shown in an increasingly complex interrelationship, also captured in a series of stunningly evocative "pictures" (the dark shape of a wolf against a background of snow,a train full of tubercular prisoners, an "orchestra" of musicians who have no instruments). The result is a deeply moving depiction of heroism and survival, this despite an uneven translation whose frequent awkward phrasing (e.g., "in the jovial manner some of them had been doing") suggests an overly literal blurring of the differences between Galician and English idiom. Exciting and accomplished fiction. One looks forward to further translation of Rivas's work.

Product Details

Vintage/Ebury (a Division of Random
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"He's upstairs, on the balcony, listening to the blackbirds."

    Carlos Sousa, the journalist, said thank you when she invited him in with the gesture of a smile. "Yes, thank you," he thought as he went up the stairs, "there should be two eyes like those at every front door."

    Doctor Da Barca was sitting in a wicker chair, a small brazier under the table next to him, his hand resting on an open book, as if pressing and pondering on a brilliant page. He was looking out over the garden, which was shrouded in winter light. The scene would have been a peaceful one had it not been for the oxygen mask he was using to breathe. The tube linking him to the cylinder was draped over the white azalea flowers. Sousa found the image disturbingly and comically sad.

    Doctor Da Barca, realizing he had a visit on account of the creaking floorboards, stood up and put the mask to one side with surprising agility, like the control of a child's console. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and held up his arms in a gesture of greeting. He seemed made for the act of embracing.

    Sousa felt confused. He was expecting someone on their death-bed and was ill at ease with the task of drawing the last words from an old man whose life had been eventful. He thought the voice would be thin and incoherent, locked in a pathetic struggle against Alzheimer's disease. He never could have imagined such a luminous demise, as if in reality the patient were connected up to a generator. This was not his disease, but Doctor Da Barca had the consumptive beautyof those suffering from tuberculosis. His eyes wide like lamps veiled in blue. Pale as pottery, a pink varnish on his cheeks.

    "Your reporter's here," she said, still smiling. "Isn't he young?"

    "Not that young," Sousa replied with a modest look in her direction. "I'm not the man I used to be."

    "Sit down, sit down," said Doctor Da Barca. "I was just trying the oxygen. Would you like some?"

    The reporter Sousa felt partially relieved. This beautiful, ageing woman who had come to the door, seemingly chosen on a whim by the chisel of Time. This very sick man, out of hospital two days previously, with the spirit of a cycling champion. It had been suggested to him at the newspaper, "Why don't you give him an interview? He's an old exile. Apparently he even had dealings with Che Guevara in Mexico."

    Who was interested in that nowadays? Only a head of local news who read Le Monde Diplomatique at night. Sousa detested politics. To tell the truth, he detested journalism. He had recently been working in Accident and Grime. It had got too much for him. The world was a dung-heap.

    Doctor Da Barca's elongated fingers flapped like keys of their own volition, as if attached to the organ out of age-old loyalty. The reporter Sousa felt those fingers were exploring him, percussing his body. He had the suspicion the doctor was observing him, analysing the meaning of the bags under his eyes, his prematurely puffed-up eyelids, as if he were sick.

    "I could well be," he thought.

     "Marisa, love, bring us something to drink. We don't want to spoil the obituary."

    "The things you come out with!" she exclaimed. "You shouldn't joke like that."

    The reporter Sousa was about to decline but realized that turning down a drink would be a mistake. His body had been asking for one for hours — drink, blasted drink — ever since he had got out of bed, and it was at that moment he knew he was dealing with one of those sorcerers who can read others' minds.

    "I don't suppose you're an H-Two-O man?"

    "No," he said, continuing with the irony, "my problem is not exactly water."

    "Wonderful. We've a Mexican tequila that brings back the dead. Two glasses, Marisa, if you please." He then winked in his direction, "My grandchildren do not forget their revolutionary grandfather."

    "How are you feeling?" Sousa asked. He had to start somehow.

    "As you can see," said the doctor, jovially spreading his arms, "I'm dying. Do you really think an interview with me holds any interest?"

    The reporter Sousa recalled what he had been told over drinks at the Café Oeste. Doctor Da Barca was an old and uncompromising Republican, who had been condemned to death in 1936 and had saved his skin by a miracle. "By a miracle," one of the informants had concurred. After his prison sentence, he had gone into exile in Mexico, from where he had returned to the ancestral home only on the death of Franco. He still had his ideas. Or the Idea, as he used to say. "A man of another time," the informant had called him.

    "I am what you would call an ectoplasm," the doctor told him. "Or an alien if you prefer. That is why I have trouble breathing."

    The head of local news had given him a cutting from the paper with a photograph and a short notice about a public homage to the doctor. People were grateful for the way he cared for the humblest among them and never charged. "His front door's not been locked since the day of his return from exile," said one woman living next door. Sousa explained he was sorry not to have visited him sooner, the interview was meant for before his admission to hospital.

    "You're not from here, are you, Sousa?" said the doctor, switching the conversation away from himself.

    He replied that he wasn't, that he came from further north. He had only been there for a couple of years and what he liked most was the clemency of the weather, which was tropical for Galicia. Occasionally he would go to Portugal and eat bacalao à la Gomes de Sáa.

    "Forgive my curiosity, but do you live alone?"

    The reporter Sousa looked around for the woman, but she had slipped away quietly, leaving the glasses and the bottle of tequila. It was a strange situation, the interviewer being interviewed. He was going to say he did, he lived very alone, far too alone, but he responded by laughing. "I've got my landlady, she worries terribly that I'm growing thin. She's a Portuguese, married to a Galician. When they argue, she calls her husband a Portuguese and he says she's just like a Galician. That's without the adjectives, of course. They're a bit strong."

    Doctor Da Barca smiled thoughtfully. Then he said, "The only good thing about borders are the secret crossings. It's incredible the effect an imaginary line can have. It gets traced one day by some doddering king in his bed or drawn on the table by powerful men as if they were playing a game of poker. I remember a terrible thing a man once said to me, 'My grandfather was the lowest of the low.' 'Why? What did he do?' I asked. 'Did he kill someone?' 'No, no. My paternal grandfather served a Portuguese.' He was drunk with historical bile. 'Well,' I said to annoy him, 'if I were to choose a passport, I'd be a Portuguese.' Fortunately, however, this border will soon be swallowed up in its own absurdity. True borders are those that keep the poor away from a share of the cake."

    Doctor Da Barca moistened his lips on the glass and then raised it in a toast. "You know? I am a revolutionary," he said suddenly, "an internationalist. Of the kind that existed before. Of the kind who belonged to the First International, I would have to confess. Now, I bet that sounds strange to you."

    "I'm not interested in politics," Sousa replied instinctively. "I'm interested in the person."

    "In the person, yes," murmured Da Barca. "Have you heard of Doctor Nóvoa Santos?"


    "He was a very interesting person. He expounded the theory of intelligent reality."

    "I'm afraid I do not know him."

    "That's nothing to be ashamed of. Hardly anyone remembers him, beginning with the majority of doctors. Intelligent reality, that was it. We all let out a thread, like silkworms. We gnaw at and fight over the white mulberry leaves, but that thread, if it crosses over with others and intertwines, can make a beautiful fabric, an unforgettable cloth."

    It was getting late. A blackbird flew in a pentagram out of the orchard as if in haste to make a forgotten rendezvous on the other side of the border. The beautiful, ageing woman approached the balcony again with the gentle flow of a water-clock.

    "Marisa," he said all of a sudden, "what was that poem about the blackbird, the one poor Faustino wrote?"

So much passion and so much melody
Was squeezed into your veins,
Add another passion, your body
Is so frail it would break.

He recited it uncoaxed and unaffected, as if in response to a natural request. What moved the reporter Sousa was his expression, a glow of stained-glass windows in the twilight. He took a swig of the tequila to see how much it burned.

    "What do you think?"

    "Very beautiful," Sousa said. "Who's it by?"

"A priest who was a poet and was very fond of women." He smiled, "A case of intelligent reality."

    "So how did you two meet?" the reporter asked, ready at last to take notes.

    "I had noticed him walking in the Alameda. But the first time I heard him speak was in a theatre," explained Marisa, her eyes on the doctor. "Some girl friends had taken me. It was a Republican event to debate whether or not women should have the right to vote. Now it seems strange, but in those days there was a lot of controversy, even among women. Isn't that so? And then Daniel stood up and told the story about the queen of the bees ... Do you remember, Daniel?"

    "What's the story about the queen of the bees?" Sousa asked, intrigued.

    "In antiquity no-one knew where bees came from. Wise men such as Aristotle invented outlandish theories. It was said, for example, that bees emerged from the stomach of dead oxen. This carried on for centuries. And do you know why it carried on for so long? Because no-one had the courage to see that the king was a queen. How can freedom be maintained on the basis of such a lie?"

    "The clapping went on for ages," Marisa added.

    "Well, it was not an indescribable ovation," remarked the doctor humorously. "But yes, there was some applause."

    Marisa continued,

    "I liked him. But after hearing him that day I began to like him a lot. Even more so when my family warned me off him, 'You should have nothing to do with that man.' They soon found out who he was."

    "I thought she was a seamstress."

    Marisa laughed,

    "Yes, I lied to him. I went to get a dress made at a tailor's opposite his mother's house. I came out of the fitting and he was on his way back from visiting patients. He looked at me, carried on walking, and suddenly turned around, 'Do you work here?' I nodded. 'Well, you're the prettiest seamstress I know. You must sew with silk.'"

    Doctor Da Barca looked at her, his old eyes tattooed with desire.

    "Somewhere amongst the archaeological ruins of Santiago, there must still be a rusty revolver, the one she brought us in prison in an attempt to save us."

Meet the Author

Manuel Rivas was born in A Coruna, Spain in 1957. He writes in the Galician language of northwest Spain and is well-known in his native country for his journalism and for teh films made of his prize-winning novles and short stories.

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