In a small town, down by the quayside, the fascists are burning books. We meet the motley inhabitants of the town - a judge, a gravedigger, a boxer, a painter, a washerwoman – and are whisked away into their memories and stories. (If that sounds a bit contrived, it’s partly because I’m oversimplifying but also partly because it is. But no more so than any other collection of people sharing stories, say, on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, or whatever.)
Throughout the novel books are burned, buried, rescued, bought, sold and stolen. They are treated very interestingly by the author, who clearly regards them as a form of solidified – almost personified - knowledge. Polka, The superstitious gravedigger, remarks that the burning books gave off a smell like burning flesh. The ever-rational judge suggests that this is merely their leather bindings, but Rivas portrays the bonfire and its repercussions vividly in terms of human tragedy. Book burning and physical repression merge as Rivas deliberately conflates knowledge and humanity.
The author’s concern is with words being scattered and destroyed, and this shapes his narrative. It is chaotic, with most characters not being clearly introduced and several of them going by more than one name to add to the confusion. Polka is a standout character because he is witty and entertaining and, crucially, is fully developed by Rivas. Many others are not so well developed, and remain as shadowy names and ideas throughout, which can be frustrating if you let it get to you. Perhaps my expectations are too conventional.
In the way it is constructed, Books Burn Badly seems to have a lot in common with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. They are both books full of surprising and beautiful sentences with some very interesting perspectives on mundane things. But neither of them feels like a novel. I thought that Calvino’s book seemed more like a collection of very short stories or a scrapbook full of ideas, and the same can be said of Books Burn Badly.
This is really a consequence of it lacking a central plot. Rivas has a theme – the impact of fascism – and although this affects various characters in various ways it doesn’t really bind the book together. This can sometimes make reading it a bit of a chore. Whereas Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a playful and thought-provoking 150 pages, Books Burn Badly clocks in at a meaty 550, and suffers as a result.
Rivas creates a bewildering experience for his reader, caught amid the charred fragments of dozens of separate stories. As I said, this can be difficult to follow, with the consequence that this unique book never quite draws you in or delivers all that the author is clearly capable of.