Marlowe's 12th novel (The Lighthouse at the End of the World, 1995, etc.) follows the pattern of his fictional portraits of Christopher Columbus and Edgar Allan Poe, as he surveys the life and times of the Renaissance soldier-writer who was Shakespeare's exact contemporary and who earned immortality as the author of Don Quixote. The story is told by Cervantes, long after his death, and concentrates less on his literary vocation than on his colorful life as a man of action during the days of his native Spain's war with the Turks and its ill-fated attack on Great Britain. The narrative races through Miguel's undistinguished origins as the son of a barber, his defense of his (less than virginal) sister's honor in a duel in which he kills his opponent, his consequent enlistment in the Navy and service at the battle of Lepanto (where he loses his left hand), his imprisonment at Algiers, and his later struggles as an impotent husband and frustrated lover, government spy (during which employment he encounters the similarly occupied Christopher Marlowe), and finally, as a reviled and embattled author. Oddly, the most convincing portions of the story are those in which Marlowe allows us, too briefly, to observe Cervantes the writer—meeting and debating literary art with such worthies as the amusingly Waspish Italian poet Torquato Tasso and with the celebrated playwright Lope de Vega; attempting to memorialize his exploits in abortive plays; and meeting the popular playwright William Shakespeare (who's blandly indifferent to the fate of the stage works he keeps dependably churning out). The story is consistently entertaining, but one longs for some greater sense of the intellectual presence of the genius whose work must surely have been the product of an extraordinary inner life. Here, that life is pretty much subordinated to a recounting of exterior experiences. It would be inappropriate to call this imperfectly satisfying performance Cervantes Lite. Still, one glimpses, and misses, the novel it might have been.
Read full book review >