USURPERS by Francisco Ayala


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This collection, the first published in English by this well-known Spanish author, was written in exile after the Spanish Civil War and suppressed in Spain until the 1960's. Set in medieval Spain and cast with real figures from Spanish history--reminiscent of the South American realists in their emotional impact and hallucinatory images--each of these six stories is a different facet of Ayala's central theme: ""that power exercised by man over his fellow man is always a usurpation."" The gem of the uneven collection is ""The Bewitched,"" an eerie tale in which a South American ""indio"" makes a desperate effort to penetrate the inner sanctum of Spanish power, only to be ushered before the slobbering imbecile Carlos II. In ""The Bells of Huesca,"" a prince-monk is forced to assume his deceased brother's crown but resists its power until, in a grotesque gesture, he beheads all lords of the realm. ""The Inquisitor"" clearly takes its inspiration from Dostoyevsky's ""The Grand Inquisitor"": a Grand Rabbi who becomes a Catholic bishop ends up condemning his only child in his zeal. In contrast, ""The Embrace,"" about the enmity between a king and his bastard brothers, is murky reading--all choking rage and spilled blood. ""The Invalid,"" too, is a bit pale; a sickly king's ambition is thwarted by his broken body. Occasionally, Ayala allows a glint of redemption: In ""San Juan de Dios,"" the charity of a saint saves a man maimed by vengefulness and murderous greed. Some of the stories bog down in obscure historical references and murky archaic elocutions. Each, however, is redeemed by a darkly brilliant central image, as Ayala gives us a picture of a country by turns severely beautiful and harsh--a strange, turbulent El Greco landscape where what is holy turns sinister, and what is noble turns cruel.

Pub Date: June 15th, 1987
Publisher: Schocken