Monday, 29 June 2009

Andorra: A Great Novel set in a Small Nation

There's something not quite right about Peter Cameron's “Andorra” - the place, not the novel, that is. It is a Mediterranean coastal town, for one thing, unlike the actual landlocked principality in the Pyrenees. It's also full of preposterously named residents (Sophonsobia Quay, Vladimir Afgroni, etc.) who take an unsettling interest in the newcomer in their midst: an American fleeing a failed life shrouded in mystery. Reading like a collision between Noël Coward and Franz Kafka, this recently reissued 1997 novel may be Cameron's masterpiece.

After a devastating personal tragedy, a man leaves the United States to begin his life abroad. The country in which he finds himself is inordinately influenced by his imagination, and the events there are eerily reminiscent of his past, especially when he begins to fall in love with two women simultaneously.

Andorra - in this novel - is a small country, populated (almost exclusively) by the ancient Mrs. Reinhardt, who outlives her lifetime lease on the penthouse of the Hotel Exelsior; the Dents, an Australian couple who share a first name, a huge dog, and a secret. There is also Sophonsobia Quay, the kayaking matriarch of the powerful Quay family; her two beautiful but troubled daughters; Esmeralda St. Pitt, who runs a boarding-house for those with impeccable moral credentials; Ali, the fatalistic purveyor of coffee; and Alexander Fox, who finds himself not only in a foreign country but also in a crisis of faith, conscience, and identity.

Of course, this is no travelogue for the actual country of Andorra, but - having decided on this book in the absence of any native literature (and to be fair, this is a state with a population of only 84,000) – I am pleased with my choice. As well as being a wonderful read, “Andorra” demonstrates the fact that minor countries (in terms of size or literary/educational resources) - without known indigenous writers – are open to the danger of having their cultural reality purloined by foreign authors...sometimes for socio-political reasons. This is not necessarily the case in this instance, but will be something to consider when travelling to developing countries in Asia and Africa.

And so, from an ambiguous country, I take an ambiguous journey to end up in Madrid, in the neighbouring country of Spain: with “My Brother’s Gun” set in Madrid, by popular native author Ray Loriga.

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