The secret life of books: an apology for historical fiction


Everything begins when you smell a book like the first contact that invites you to understand its essence. And after this first contact, as you venture yourself through its pages, with Ariadne’s thread in your hand, have you ever felt the urge to follow it and find your way out of the labyrinth? Works of art are cluttered with secret intertextualities. What’s more, each point of inflection of the thread in the maze represents intertextuality, and being aware of those references, or clues, may, or may not, get us closer to the way out, to the authenticity of a book.

This is the secret life of books! Books are made up of many other hidden books, subterranean intellectual currents, and characters more accurate than their authors. But no matter how genuine and honest all these elements can be, they always become fiction when permeated by a writer’s imagination, always bind to a given historical and cultural context.

“The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”, by Santiago Posteguillo, not translated into English.

You’ll never get out of the labyrinth

Pursuing the authenticity of a novel is nothing but an illusion that all readers like to believe. Let me tell you: you’ll never get out of the labyrinth! Not even writers have total control over the fictional plot or maze they’ve created, and that’s why they’re the first to get caught up in constant battles with the Minotaur that patrols every turning point of the maze. Ultimately, the writer also fails to grasp all the layers of meaning that their text can contain and inevitably gets lost in their entanglement.

When a novel is finally published, things only get more entangled because there will be a different meaning for each reader. I like to linger around the pages, with the torch of plurality wielded, and accept that a literary work must be open to multiple interpretations and, therefore, poses nothing but dead-end labyrinths. Like an atheist that agrees with a Cosmos without a God, I accept relativity by venturing into a space journey into the literary universe.

Assuming readers have enough power to warp space-time, let’s think of a well-known writer with several biographies at your disposal to unveil all of his or her secrets. It is possible to attempt to build a bridge between the writer’s life and the fiction created by an author (remember Barthes’ distinction between author and writer by saying that “the author is something more profound than a writer” in “The Death of the Author”, 1967?). But again, we may be facing a fictional author too! Nevertheless, all details from biographies also give you the illusion of a better understanding of a novel. In the end, these details will only entice your curiosity to read it instead of illuminating you.

It’s all about reinventing narratives

Enthusiasm is what I recall whenever I attended my Literature classes years ago. I remember how my teachers would lecture on the biographical details and provided what students thought was unnecessary historical and socio-political context. It was a parallel narrative to the narrative of the book we were studying, but it was that alternative narrative that would arouse my desire to start reading it.

For instance, when I had to read Aristophanes, which I resisted at first, I learned that romantic love was invented in ancient Greece more than 2000 years ago. The way Aristophanes presented the subject in his plays was usually under the form of an amusing allegory. However, his way of perceiving that emotion is an echo that still reverberates today. Since then, love has been the central theme of countless novels up to the nineteenth century’s Romantic movement. After that, it feels like there’s nothing more than writers reinventing the narrative of love with the lenses of post-modern liquid times. And when a book narrates love differently, it has repercussions on its readers and how they feel and act in a particular society.

With this, I think it is inevitable to mention Shakespeare (or, perhaps, was it Marlowe?), who reinvented the way of understanding the “I” or the “self”, directly influenced by the Greco-Roman classics. Innovative for his time’s literary patterns, Shakespeare’s plays have incorporated 1,776 words into the English language. For new realities and fictions, Shakespeare had to invent new words. And it is incredible to observe how each epoch expanded the limits of language and thinking; expanded the boundaries of how we think, feel and perceive the world around us.
Much of this, thanks to artistic production!

Dwarfs standing on the giants’ shoulders

Having said this, I think we are nothing more than dwarfs standing on giants’ shoulders, reinterpreting and narrating in different ways what we have learned from history books, from the novels of giants, always limited or circumscribed by a specific socio-cultural context.

An invisible thread stretches out from primordial cave painting to the works of art we produced to this day. Therefore, very little of what we think, read, paint or write is original. I dare to say that there is no originality. Everything is pastiche!

From the history of the origin of alphabetical order to the night when Frankenstein read Don Quixote (through the eyes of his ingenious creator, Mary Shelley), there is a whole universe of intertextualities, blatant pastiche, and mysteries to be solved behind a book and behind an author.

Here’s a glimpse of my intertextuality: “On the Giants’ Shoulders“, by the brilliant Umberto Eco

Is it possible that Frankenstein read Don Quixote?

As Santiago Posteguillo himself admits – author of “The Night When Frankenstein Read Don Quixote”, written in Spanish – “this volume recreates some of those moments, fleeting flashes of great moments in the history of universal literature.”

The short fiction that makes up Posteguillo’s book tells us about what remains between the lines of some of the greatest novels, such as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. They describe how it is an actual historical fact that she read Don Quixote while she was in Switzerland. It is also a real historical fact that she learned Spanish to read Don Quixote in Cervantes’ language – Spanish.

But there are also these “fleeting flashes” referred to by Santiago Posteguillo. The fleeting flashes are historical facts transfigured into fiction. And that is why I make this apology for historical fiction using this book because Posteguillo did not restrain his narrative to biographical or historical rigor.

Imagination as liberation

Beginning with facts well known to readers and inviting them into a light and delicious reading, Posteguillo recreates the rest of the plot, like an omnipresent time traveler who can even describe those artists’ moods and memories of their quirky fictional characters. And it is here where you can tell Santiago Posteguillo is a Professor of Literature and a historical novelist. In fact, these short narratives could be the key that will awaken his most uninterested student.

“I have been teaching literature for many years and I discovered some time ago that the curious, the anecdotal or the mysterious facts of writers’ life is what attracts students to their works, which is what really matters: that they read their novels.” Santiago Posteguillo (Source: El Espectador)

Therefore, reading “The Night When Frankenstein Read Don Quixote” feels like an invitation to travel back to your bookworm teenage years when you used to marvel at every new book. As if these series of short essays were written for beginners, to remind you of something very naive: there’s something more to a writer or a novel than it meets the eye. In the end, and with an ironic wink, I confess that this book could also be the much-desired light and fast reading, for all those too-many-moments in which we do not have much free time to enter into the grand narratives of the classics. Even so, it counts as Santiago Posteguillo’s admirable attempt to teach young readers that they can imagine their way out of the labyrinth!

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