Flaming Bodies

Impressions after a slow read: itemised wealth and pageantry of 18th century empire; the foregrounded fortunes of a maimed soldier and his seer beloved, book-ended by flaming bodies of the Inquisition. The human cost of building the palace of Mafra. Parades, processions, convoys – the royal entourage, bleeding barefoot novices, press-ganged artisans marched to Mafra, marble slabs of unthinkable dimensions and the hundreds of yoked oxen to cart them inch by painful inch, and stone saint statuary sized by holiness.

An extraordinary evocation of a sweep of history – Portuguese and Catholic in particular, imperial in general. And from below.

Did I think about this as I was reading? Somewhat. But paragraph by paragraph what held me to the page was, for instance, Blimunda hiding in the dark of a ruined convent from a friar intent on raping her. The anecdotes – like Canterbury Tales – that the workers tell each other on the journey. A walk on from history by Domenico Scarlatti. The flying machine, the Passarola, that resembles a giant bird. And the authorial voice, conversational, ironic, irreverent.

What’s the non-gendered, non-abusive term for “masterful”?

Also of course there’s flight – part magical realism, part from historical record, part allegorical – the view from cloud level over a country and epoch.

As a reading experience, this was far from the short sharp frisk of the modern literary fiction I’ve been reading lately. After Kevin Barry, for instance, I had to shift gears for the extensive paragraphs. Lengthy ropes of unattributed dialogue. Lists. The vista is a Bayeux tapestry, a Brueghel canvas, flattened and panoramic, but the camera follows the lives of the “lowliest” characters and the narrator makes confidential asides in your ear.

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