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)