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Review of Félix J. Palma's The Map of Time

n a sulway

According to his biography, Palma is a veteran short story writer. In some ways, his familiarity with the short story appears to have informed the writing of The Map of Time, with its trilogy of intersecting narratives. The book takes the form of a suite of interconnected, if overly long, short stories. The first story concerns the bored aristocrat Andrew Harrington, who falls in love with a prostitute who is subsequently murdered by Jack the Ripper. His best friend, Charles, convinces him to try travelling backwards through time to save his beloved. The second story is that of Claire Haggerty, a nascent suffragette who falls in love with a hero from the future when she travels to the year 2000 in Gilliam Murray’s time machine, the Cronotilus. The final story is that of H G Wells, who becomes one of the targets of a serial murderer apparently intent on stealing the works of a suite of well-known Victorian authors, murdering their scribes and publishing them under his own name. This final story neatly ties up the connections between the three stories.

The book is an exuberant exploration of time travel as it was imagined during the Victorian era, with plenty of cute references to historical people and places for the avid historian (Jack the Ripper, James Merrick aka The Elephant Man, the Aerated Bread Company, etc). Spotting them is fun in the way that finding Wally’s lesser known familiars is fun and sometimes a pleasant enough distraction in a Where’s Wally book. You feel kind of nerdy and observant, but it’s also a bit of an anti-climax since spotting the Aerated Bread Company and knowing that it was both a real place, and that it appears in Stoker’s Dracula, (as well as a sprinkling of non-Victorian novels like Woolf’s Night and Day) doesn’t really require deep intellectual insight, nor does it meant the book is deep, merely wide. While the book affords many pleasures, it is the breadth of story, character, incident and detail at the expense of depth of characterisation, history or ideas that is most disappointing.

For the right reader, the intertextuality will seem clever – an indication of the author’s wit and wisdom – while for others it will seem self-conscious and shallow. A bit of a party trick designed to awe rather than delight the reader. Reading it, I was reminded of an anecdote about a woman who went on two dates, one with William Gladstone and another with Benjamin Disraeli. By the end of her evening with Gladstone she announced that she felt as if she had spent the night with the most sophisticated and intelligent person in the world; by the end of her evening with Disraeli, she felt as if she were the most sophisticated and intelligent person in the world.

For me, reading Palma’s book was like spending several hours with someone who wanted me to end up feeling like I’d been on a date with Gladstone. I was exhausted, a little bored, sometimes entertained but, overall, unimpressed. Largely because he seemed so determined to impress, rather than entertain, his reader.

As a novel, the book is less than the sum of its parts, but the individual parts are engaging, sometimes inventive, and playful. The work is closer in spirit to steampunk than historical fiction, with its emphasis on Victorian technology and aesthetics juxtaposed with elements of speculative fiction, in this case, time travel.  At the same time, none of the supposed time travel that occurs is ever even remotely convincing for a twenty-first century reader, and while the story is ‘about’ time travel, it is more concerned with the fiction, aesthetics, and moral ‘what ifs’ of time travel than with exploring the types of moral quandaries and paradoxes presented by more traditional time travel stories, such as Wells’s The Time Machine, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book A Wrinkle In Time, or Vonnegut’s classic  Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

The writing is, on a page by page level, often tiresome. After the initial thrill of anticipation at seeing the cover and reading the blurb and first couple of pages, I found myself anxiously flipping forward to find out when this scene, paragraph or letter would end. Or reveal something important or interesting. There are awkward metafictional moments, such as when the narrator informs the reader that he is going to change point of view, or that since the characters are otherwise occupied, he’s going to explain something to me. In great detail. And at mind-numbing length.

El Mappa del TiempoThe writing is often excessively detailed and over-written, with dull, repetitive detail clogging up otherwise perfectly decent sentences. It is hard to know, of course, whether the style is Mr Palma’s or his translators, or – as is more probably the case – something of an amalgam of the two. Caistor is an experienced translator, working on translations from both Spanish and Portugese. He has translated works by Juan Marse, Eduardo Mendoza, Juan Carlos Onetti, Sergio Ramirez, Jose Saramago, and Osvaldo Soriano. I was unable to source the original Spanish copy of El Mapa Del Tiempo (although I did find images of the wonderful Italian translation's cover), or extracts from it to compare with the English translation. The translation of The Map of Time seems almost determinedly invisible to the casual reader.  Perhaps this is partly because the way things are said – the lilt and tip of the sentences – is not the primary concern of the writer of the original, and so the translation focuses, instead, on getting the story across. The broad gestures of the tale and its players, rather than the texture of the writing. It is impossible to judge, without reading some of the original, or comparing the style of the original to the translation, what damage or improvements the translator has effected. Instead, I am reduced to that most banal of observations: that the translation has rendered the original into an English so ‘seamlessly’ that, if I were to have read it without knowing the original were written in another language, I would not have suspected it was not written originally in English. There are none of the oddities of phrasing that can subtly but determinedly suggest the linguistic foreignness of the original work, as in a translation like Michael Hoffman’s translation of Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums, with its spare, almost stilted English.  Or, more problematically, when a work is poorly translated, and the English version stutters and stumbles over the simplest phrases, rendering the work into a language that is neither English nor something else, but an uncomfortable child of both.

Although fine sentences – an easy, eloquent style, appear not to be the focus of the book, there are times when it is about writing and being a writer. Mr Gilliam Murray – the discoverer of the Cronotilus, is a frustrated writer whose failure as a novelist inspires his founding of Murray’s Time Travel. And, of course, one of the key characters is the historical author H G Wells. Mr Wells reflects on his work as a writer – its pleasures and frustrations – as well as on his contemporaries, such as Henry James, Jules Verne and Bram Stoker. He also takes time out from his narration to reflect on book reviews and critics:

Wells was only too aware that unfavourable reviews, while tiresome and bad for morale, were like storms in a teacup that would scarcely affect the book’s fortunes. The one before him now, glibly referring to his novel as a depraved fantasy, might even boost sales, smoothing the way for his subsequent books. However, the wounds inflicted on an author’s self-esteem could have fatal consequences in the long-term: a writer’s most powerful weapon, his true strength, was his intuition and, regardless of whether he had any talent, if the critics combined to discredit it, he would be reduced to a fearful creature who took a mistakenly guarded approach to his work that would eventually stifle his latent genius. Before cruelly vilifying all artistic endeavours, mud slingers at newspapers and journals should bear in mind that they were a mixture of effort and imagination, the embodiment of a solitary endeavour, of a sometimes long-nurtured dream, when they were not a desperate bid to give life meaning (110).

Some of this feels less like the musings of the historical Mr Wells than the protestations of The Map of Time’s author. The kind of thing a writer might find themselves whining about over wine in the bar at a writers festival, long after the readers have gone home. Of course, the problem with such a view of reviewing is that it presumes that the primary audience of reviews is the author of the books under review (rather than prospective readers), and that effort, rather than achievement, should be acknowledged and rewarded. Methinks the author, or perhaps the author's author, doth protest too much. Still, it is cruel and undignified to argue with Mr Wells, who is long-dead and cannot defend his position.

Nevertheless, a defence against reviewers who criticise a work that is – of course – the product of much blood, sweat and tears is an uncomfortable inclusion in a book that is, despite the pleasures of its romping, rollicking story, often poorly written. There are long letters explaining, for the reader, things they have – if they are at all observant – already worked out for themselves. There are ta-da! Revelations, which any attentive reader has worked for themselves twenty, or more, pages ago. Towards the end of the novel, there is a very, very long letter from H G Wells to H G Wells: 21 pages of italicised script in which ‘Bertie’ ties up all the loose ends, explaining himself, and everyone else, to himself. By then, however, I had worked out a perfectly suitable solution to my quandary as a reader. Like watching soap opera, I knew that a judicious fast-forwarding would not impede my understanding of the story, and so I indulged in some literary time travel myself, leaping ahead to the interesting bits. Let us hope that, in the sequel (the book is the first in a planned trilogy), Mr Palma learns to leave the dull bits out. If he does, it will be a thrilling, charming book with much to delight both the lover of historical fiction, and of Victorian literary gossip, of romps and riddles and romance.

The Map of Time
by Félix J. Palma
Translation by Nick Caistos
Scribe Publishing
ISBN 9781921844119

About Félix J. Palma

Félix J. Palma was born in Spain in 1968. His devotion to the short-story genre has earned him more than one hundred awards. The Map of Time won the prestigious University of Seville prize for literature in 2008 and is being published in more than thirty countries.

About the Reviewer

N A Sulway is a Queensland writer and reviewer. She is the co-director of Olvar Wood Writers Retreat, and one of the editors of Perilous Adventures. She blogs, irregularly, at Lost for Words.


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