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Sunday 20 September 2009

Bulls and Bells

Further to my last blog, I have been thinking more about the use of language and the perceived exoticism of foreign settings.

I suppose the most famous novel in English involving the Spanish is For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway’s take on the Spanish civil war. ‘Bells, bulls and balls’ was Nabokov’s brisk summary of Hemingway’s interest in Spain. And I have some sympathy for that.

A little less dismissive was the complaint of an absurdly archaic tone given by Hemingway’s use of ‘thou’ for the Spanish ‘tĂș’, that Edmund Wilson described as a ‘a strange atmosphere of literary medievalism.’ See
(Scroll down the following page to ‘Language’) for more on this.

False exoticism is not new. Look at Byron’s introduction to Don Juan where he lampoons the romantic fantasy of Spain, or the whole storks drunk on sherry fumes from the bodegas approach, including barefoot children with voices like angels and of course a gypsy dancing girl or two (no, I’m not just talking about Laurie Lee).

I was anxious to avoid that. This has nothing to do with ‘expat pedantry’. It is about doing justice to people.

The Peter Cotton series is really about the end of imperialism and I want it to include respect both for the people of the countries I am writing about, and also respect for the reader.

Sunday 13 September 2009

The Language of Character

I don’t as a general rule respond to other people’s comments about my books, but Fiction Desk’s review of The Maze of Cadiz, and the subsequent thread of comments which I came across recently, raised some interesting questions that confront any author who writes a story with a foreign setting, where many of the conversations are actually taking place in another language that will not be understood by the majority of readers. Should you simply put everything in English - thereby making no distinction between the English and non-English speaking characters? If not, how much foreign language are you going to use?

When I embarked on the Peter Cotton series, I was clear that each of the books should aim to reflect, as faithfully as possible, the flavour of the particular time and place in which the story was set. Context is like a pre-biotic soup from which the characters and actions emerge. And language is an essential part of this - as much as climate, or landscape, or food, or political regimes.

I have spoken to a lot of bilingual or multilingual people who, independently, have made the same point: that their manner and even their personality takes on changes according to the language they are speaking - an interesting phenomenon, which I have observed with some amusement myself as my bilingual children were growing up. Spanish can have a raw, energetic directness in comparison with the rather polished, polite cadences of English. We are what we eat? Yes, in part. But even more, we are what we speak, and our speech reflects what we are.

The inclusion of some Spanish language was, for me, not a question of adding exoticism but of reflecting reality. I lived in Spain for over twenty five years and as I was writing The Maze of Cadiz, just as an English writer might hear a character speaking with a Glasgow accent, I was hearing the words of the Spanish characters not just in Spanish, but in gaditano, that is, the Spanish of Cadiz, with its curious, rich and sometimes quirky turns of phrase. To deprive characters entirely of their mother tongue is to deprive them of an important part of who they are.

Peter Cotton was brought up in Mexico and does speak Spanish - but not gaditano, and he sometimes has to think and work out what people are saying. That’s what happens when you are dropped in a foreign environment, and the inclusion of Spanish gives the reader some flavour of what it was like for him to find out what was going on.

The comments left on the Fiction Desk review soon turned to Javier Marias - a writer I greatly admire. He is perhaps the best Spanish writer writing today. He speaks excellent English and in fact taught at Oxford during the eighties (his experiences of this are reflected in All Souls). The book that made him internationally famous was A Heart so White, for which he was awarded the IMPAC prize in 1997. The protagonist of the book is a translator. Javier Marias himself translated a lot of English works into Spanish when he was younger, most notably Tristram Shandy - a great labour of love.

Would-be Spanish purists say that his writing sounds like English. Absurd. He is a fine and inventive writer. Fortunately for non-Spanish speakers, he has an excellent translator in Margaret Jull Costa.

In this weekend’s FT (12/13 Sept 2009) there is an interesting interview with the Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov (about to conduct Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House) who emigrated to the US in 1975 and now lives in France. He speaks five languages and says:

“You can only truly get to know a people through the subtleties of their language. Language is the mirror of national character.”

I don’t know about national character, but it is certainly true of characters in novels.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

The Maze of Cadiz, Paperback Now Available

The paperback of The Maze of Cadiz , official publication date 17th September, is now available on

You can read an extract from the book, and a Q&A on my website -

Thursday 3 September 2009

Broad from Badsville

If you haven't come across Donna Moore's blog, dedicated to Scottish crime fiction, take a look. It's much more than that - entertaining and well written. Good fun. I like her tales of the 62 bus!
Here is the link:

Apart from her blog, Donna is the author of Go To Helena Handbasket and Old Dogs, due out in June 2010.