Sunday, 17 November 2013

Book Review: The Escape Artist: A Gibraltarian Novel, by M. G. Sanchez

M. G. Sanchez’s writing harks back to an era when writers (I am reminded of Thomas Hardy) wrote stories about real people who could have existed, for people who had the time, patience and leisure to read lengthy tales and the good taste to not expect a thrilling end. If you have read Sanchez before, you would know that he attaches no small measure of importance to his (and his characters) Gibraltarian identity, the “Britishness” of Gibraltarians and how a Gibraltarian is not, by any stretch of imagination, a Spaniard.

However, The Escape Artist: A Gibraltarian Novel, is not really about Gibraltar even though approximately half of it is set on the Rock. Rather, it is the story of a unique relationship between two young men from disparate backgrounds. Brian Manrique is a home-sick, working class Gibraltarian, plodding his way through Cambridge on a scholarship when he espies a fellow Gibraltarian, Henry Portas, amongst those hallowed portals. Henry Portas is very rich and very savvy, as different from Brian as chalk is from cheese. The resulting friendship between the two young men is one that’s meant for analysis by behavioural scientists. Even though The Escape Artist is a “realistic” novel, Sanchez does stretch his writer’s licence to the outer limits as he spins a yarn about the growing friendship between Henry and Brian and their various escapades.

Amongst the tussle between two diverse personalities of the same age, Sanchez’s angst about Gibraltar, its place in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its relations with Spain, constantly shines through. The border between Spain and Gibraltar, a little longer than a kilometre, is open for crossings these days, but it wasn’t so in the 1970s, the period in which The Escape Artist is set. When, towards the end of the novel, Brian needs to make a trip to Spain, he is forced to take a ferry to Tangiers in Morocco to get to Algeciras in Spain, a journey of many hours, which could have been accomplished in minutes if the border weren’t closed. Incidentally, the Spanish-Gibraltarian border crossing is in the news these days.

One of the best things about The Escape Artist is Sanchez’s portrayal of life in the 1970s in the UK in general and Gibraltar in particular. Brian Manrique might have acquired a Cambridge degree (in Modern Languages), but has very few career options at the end of it all, largely on account of his working class, Gibraltarian background. He returns to Gibraltar, to live with his mother and sister in their council flat, and embarks on a job-hunt which appears to be hopeless until he is interviewed for an assistant’s position in a library and the chief interviewer turns out to be a distant relative. Brian’s teenage sister does something which I assume was not very uncommon in Gibraltar in those days – to the consternation of her mother and brother, she dates a British soldier posted on the Rock and gets pregnant. Since we are in the 1970s, she does eventually marry her man and follow him around the world on his postings. On the other hand, the rich folks, even in Gibraltar, seem to lead very comfortable lives.

Sanchez’s writing is more functional and simple than flowery or ornate. At times I did wish that it was a little bit more of the latter – a literary work of this magnitude would not be badly served with a few dollops of literary flourishes, but on the whole, The Escape Artist reads well and gets you to the meat of the story in a direct fashion. The ending, when you get there, is unexpected, but realistic to the core. Sanchez does not pander to the galleys when he drops the curtains on yet another excellent book from his writing desk.

The Escape Artist: A Gibraltarian Novel is available on Kindle.

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