The Carpenters Pencil [Manuel Rivas]

As she made her way towards the house she felt the trees in blossom were scrutinising her as well, next to the path of white pebbles.  As if the camellias were giving each other a nudge and the Chinese magnolias were whispering gently

Completing my Spanish themed quartet, The Carpenters Pencil took me back to where I started with Jason’Webster’s Guerra, the Spanish civil war.

Herbal recounts the early months of the war, when his life seemed inextricably linked to that of Dr Daniel da Barca, an inmate at a prison in Santiago de Compostela.  While fiddling with a carpenters pencil he kept after shooting it’s owner, Herbal tells a tale of two men, of the war, and through both of them, a beautiful love story that saves one of the men, while dragging the other in it’s slipstream.

Although a relatively short novel, there is so much that is conveyed by what Rivas doesn’t write.  Somehow he fully evokes the brutality of the civil war, in the background, while the spotlight of his poetic prose shines on Herbal and da Barca, yet illuminating the stubborn, unconquerable love of the doctor and Marisa Mallo.

While imprisoned the doctor survives the firing squads while Marisa asks her powerful grand father, on the opposite side to her lover, for help.  And all the while Herbal is in the background, sometimes watching, sometimes intervening, without always understanding why.  Indeed, it is the conflict within him, as well as the fierce devotion of Mother Izarne and the thoughtfulness of Sergeant Garcia, that show how people and their actions make wars more complex than the simple division between one side and another.

For all the majesty of the love story, it is just as much Herbal’s story, the ex Franco soldier, who recounts the tale to try and understand his relationship with the doctor, and perhaps his own life, and as he gives the carpenters pencil to Maria de Visitacao, he draws the final line under his past.

The two of them fell silent, drawn by the sun setting on the stage. It slid behind Mont San Pedro on it’s way to a quay of exile.  On the other side of the bay, the first watercolours from the lighthouse intensified the sea’s ballad.


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