Andorra: buried treasure

February 22, 2012

I was nervous about this book. Finding a good novel in translation from the tiny state of Andorra, nestling in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, was always going to be tricky. Nevertheless, when I got in touch with Catalan author Albert Salvadó on the recommendation of Josep Carles Lainez, who himself writes in Spanish, Catalan and Asturian and is editor of the literary journal Debats, I was more than a little  disconcerted to find that the English translation of Salvadó’s best book — the one that, as he said in one of his emails, ‘made [him] famous’ — was a self-published ebook.

It had won the 1998 Nestor Lujan prize for historical novels in Catalan, but, given that there are estimated to be fewer than 10 million Catalan speakers in the world today, I wasn’t convinced about the level of the competition. With the words of Jonathan Franzen about how ebooks are ruining society reverberating in my mind, I flicked the Kindle on and started to read.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Following the fortunes of Sedum, a slave during the Fourth Dynasty of Pharaohs in Egypt roughly 4,500 years ago, the book explores themes of ambition and self-determination, marking out the boundary line between responsible goals and overweening greed.

As Sedum rises in status through luck and his own shrewdness, eventually becoming Pharaoh Snefru’s accountant and tutor to his son Cheops, he runs up against a series of ruthless individuals intent on sacrificing everything in their paths, including Sedum, in the interests of personal gain. These battles of wills and their extreme consequences keep the pages turning, stoking a sense of drama that draws the reader through, rooting for Sedum all the way.

Salvadó has certainly done his homework: the book is painstakingly researched. By and large, the level of detail and historical knowledge is well-handled, with only the odd section feeling like an extract from an anthropological tome on the customs of Ancient Egypt. I found myself wishing now and again that the author could have made more of the poetic possibilities of some of the material, but the matter-of-fact style generally suited the pace of the book, and at times paid dividends — for example in the descriptions of the gruesome tortures meted out to those found to be crossing the Pharoah.

The text itself felt professional and slick, with fewer errors than I’ve found in many a commercially published ebook. Now and then there were linguistic oddities that I suspect may have crept in at the translation stage. The repeated insight that ‘the universe is mental’, for example, can’t have come across quite as it read in the original Catalan and Spanish versions. Similarly, the surprisingly graphic sex scenes — ‘the fire that burned in their testicles’, ‘he pulled her labia apart’, ‘she covered her pubis with her hand’ — have more than a touch of the medical dictionary about them, which may not be quite what the author intended.

Nevertheless, this is a highly readable light novel with, now and then, some powerful flashes of insight into human greed, pride and ambition (there is also, according to the Author’s Endnote, a ‘door to the universe of Absolute Knowledge’ in the form of the Ancient Egyptian Eighth Principle of the Emerald Tablet and two conditions needed to attain it, which are hidden somewhere in the text. I didn’t spot them, but readers who do identify the two conditions are invited to contact the author through his website for more information — if that’s not worth the price of an ebook, I don’t know what is).

Is this the best book I’ve read so far this year? No. Did that stop me enjoying it? Not in the slightest — it was a good read. And interestingly, this is the second ebook that has enabled me to access literature that would otherwise have been beyond my reach (the first being the Lithuanian anthology No Men, No Cry). Pardon me, Mr Franzen, sir, but, from where I’m standing, ebooks are shaping up to be a darn good thing.

The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó (translated from the Catalan/Spanish by Marc Brian Duckett). Publisher (Kindle edition): Albert Salvadó (2011)

24 Responses to “Andorra: buried treasure”

  1. Marta said

    I read the Catalan version and it was really amasing. I recomend you The Phaeton inform (well, I don’t know if it’s translated…)

  2. Remei said

    If you liked this book I would highly recommend you The Phaeton report, quite different from the other books Albert has written but very interesting. Try in Amazon for the English translation. I’ve read in Catalan but I also bought it in Spanish as a present. Hope you can find it and enjoy it as much as I did.

    • Thanks Remei. This is clearly a popular book! From what I can see, the Phaeton Report is only available in Spanish through Amazon – not sure if it’s available in English elsewhere. If not, it sounds like an English-language publisher should snap it up! Thanks for visiting.

  3. Magda said

    El Informe…creo que quién lo lea va a dejar de pensar que no está tan loco como creo y que sus fantasías de pequeño alguien más las compartía, sería bonito, pueda sentirse un poco identificado con otros hermanos del camino. Suerte Albert

  4. Mar said

    For me an amazing book!

    It has emotion, spiritual pedagogic, and interesting thoughts but easy to understand. It,s perfect!

    Mar Casas

  5. Joaquin said

    It’s really good!!! I readed the spanish version ten years ago. I am so happy to know it has been translated into english. My best wishes to Albert Salvado for his english’ ebook crusade.

  6. Under the disguise of apparent simplicity, Albert Salvadó books hide a world full of intense emotions. “The teacher of Keops” -which I read in its Spanish version- adds to this the fascination with ancient Egypt and a strong element of intrigue.

    If you liked, I recommend what is to me the best book of Salvadó: “The eyes of Hannibal”, a story full of sensuality and mystery that brigns us a different angle to look at the famous character.

    Jesús García

  7. Soledat said

    I highly reccomend all the Albert Salvadó’s books. He always get “another kind” of seeing reality. Appart from The Phaeton Inform -amazing- I just have finsihed his last book “OIbre els ulls i desperta” -should be translated as “open your eyes and wake up”- a story situated in the XVII century Europe. He is always very carefull about historicla details, and oy would be travelling from Pisa to Prague in a heartless ruanaway.

    Hi he were British or American, he vould be as konwn as Dan Brown, but such a better writer!!

  8. Miquel said

    I can say that the linguistic oddities you found, all are translation mistakes, because in catalan or spanish those sentence make much sense. At the graphic sex scene, in catalan/spanish, doesn’t sound like a medical dictionary, it sounds like a pasionate and extremely erotic words. I read some of his books, and i really enjoyed “Teacher of cheops”, “The pheaton Inform”, “Open your eyes and wake up” and the trilogy of “James I the conqueror”. The bad new is that only the first is translated to english, but all of them are full of thrilling and awesome adventures.
    I would like to read them un english too, that will be amazing!

    • Thanks Miquel – that’s really good to know. From all the comments, it’s clear that Salvado has a lot of fans and admirers. It’s time we English speakers got to read more from him I think.

  9. photojordi said

    Un gran libro. Es de los que saben transmitir la atmosfera que existia hace siglos.

  10. yago said

    great book. I follow albert after “El informe phaeton” and I think Mr. Salvadó is one of my capital authors.
    amasing books.

  11. mariona said

    Congrats for the blog! Albert’s books always have something different than the rest. Teacher of Keops is one of my favorite books, although it’s worth a while to mention his last book (as well as the Phaeton report).
    I would love to see more of his work translated in English!!!

  12. Maria said

    As a history teacher I highly enjoyed some of the earlier books from Albert Salvadó which always had the the right amount of historical facts (and the investigation that this implies) and the quality of writing to make history such an interesting topic.
    I agree with earlier posts that Albert new work is a bit different but I think this part of his evolution as writer. Nevertheless it’s a very interesting piece of work.

  13. Chus said

    Great novel
    It’s amazing the great documentation done to develop this fantastic fiction.
    Not only excites you but you wake up the mind and causes you to be more critical with historical accounts.
    It is a novel that leaves a deep impression

  14. Karo said

    I stillI haven’t read this Teacher of Cheops, but I highly recommend The Phaeton Report to those who are looking for different and amazing points of view. So, i’m really looking forward to reading this new one. I’m sure it’ll be worth it.
    Keep up doing this great work, Albert!
    Best regards!

  15. Maite Cano said

    Moltes felicitats pel llibre.!!!! Great book. I recommed Albert’s book.
    Best wishes from Anorra.
    Maite

  16. Jordi said

    I read the catalan version, and I was surprised with the history. An amazing book and an amazing ending. This book was my first closing to Salvado, and after that I read more histories signed by him and I can to say he’s one of our best writers. I’m really happy to see him here because whiht the translation of The teacher of Cheops many people can feel the same like us enjoyed many years ago.

  17. Rosa Vazquez Tesouro said

    I have read El Informe Phaeton and I think it is the most striking novel that has fallen into my hands in recent years. It has helped me to place and to understand many historical concepts from a logical point of view where the individual parts fit together and everything gets other sense. Thanks for your book. I recommend it to open-minded people.

  18. Carles said

    I really enjoyed this book. Superbly written in a grateful style.Fantastic story line keeps you guessing right to the end. I would highly recommend this book and have already passed it onto many family and friends.

  19. Martin Pie said

    Enjoyable story, very interesting and well explained. A book which is a pleasure to read.

  20. Pepita SALAZAR said

    It’s an easy read which keeps you intrigued from the first lineto the last one, and it’s full of pleasant surprises.

    I recommend it.

    Pepita

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