Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Servants and Their Masters," by Fergus Reid Buckley

highwayscribery knows first-hand how falling in love with that magnificent state of place and mind known as Spain comes at a price.

Had he fallen in love with England, author Fergus Reid Buckley's "Servants and their Masters," might have become a text of reference in matters related to that country's mid-20th century aristocracy.

Perhaps the BBC might have picked it up and sorted out a new "Forsythe Saga" series, or an "Upstairs Downstairs."

In penning his nine-book, many-hundred-paged epic, Buckley learned that, "I don't think you can sell novels chock full of Spanish names to American readers."


But clearly, writing "Servants and Their Masters," brought joys to an author who immersed himself in all things Spanish, learned to dance flamenco, and clap the various compas that mark the form's musical time, as preparation.

There are books aplenty about the Spanish Civil War. The horrors, or relative peace, of the Franco era are documented in fiction and nonfiction alike. The vaunted democratic transition is still being written about by those who forged it.

But "Servants and Their Masters," stands practically alone in its English-language rendering of 1960s Spain. A period when the country slouched toward prosperity and into the community of Western democracies in spite of the dictator's longevity.

The tale begins with the unflattering portrait of a softened aristocracy eating, drinking and whoring away its dwindling influence in a Madrid exploding with recent wealth and a newfound rich to exploit it.

Supporting this decadent class are a cast of brigands, victims, guttersnipes, schemers, sex predators, and bordello types rendered ever-so-faithfully, by a gentleman who has seen much in his days.

Says Buckley, "I have never been able to comprehend a character unless I had some fix on that person's parents and kin and the society that person descended from. I view almost everything from a perspective of three generations, when, and only then, the person begins to make sense to me."

As such, "Servants," bounds from the death-rattle of the noble clan under its microscope, to the centuries-old warfare they engaged in their northern homeland of Sacedon, while weaving in the progress of a recent Basque peasant for fine measure.

Almost every character gets (at least) one chapter about themselves, their background, urges and vices, without the exposition ever getting in the way because, given its obvious size, the reader is aware of their commitment to something large and worthwhile. And also because Buckley's scenario grabs from the start while establishing a fever for illumination.

The author is a rambunctious prosodic force, in command of English and possessing a vocabulary both extensive and colorful. Moods change throughout the yarn's meticulous unspooling, sometimes macabre, others satirical, alternately noir-like, journalistic, philosophic, or comical.

In a favorite moment, Buckley resorts to thick and somber strokes in conjuring a poem of the coastal Basque country:

"On clear days, especially in the autumn, when the air seems to have been distilled in crystal goblets, their highest crags are sculpted against the horizon. More often, the crags are shut out; and clouds rolling, rumbling herds press down and nearly snag themselves on the belltower of the church, and often blot out entirely the ruins of the castle. The whole northwestern flank of Spain heaves down to the Cantabrian in a front scalloped by coves and tidal lagoons, great bluffs, studding the coast and forming amphitheatres connected to each and within vast sand beaches stretch like ligaments."

Highlighting that passage exalts the writer, but misrepresents the larger work wherein Buckley's rapier pen renders mordant portraiture of rotten people both high and low on the social ladder.

There are good people, too, but they're for contrast and respite from the psychic and physical slaughter the ugly ones unleash.

"Servants" links the lower class with the highest until a reader begins to forget who hails from which side.

Which is somewhat the point Buckley is trying to make through the glib and insightful narrative recounted by the American businessman C.O. Jones in an ambience that effectively blurs which way is up and which way down.

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