Listen With Wicked Witch: sitting uncomfortably with Pérez-Reverte in my brain

Each peach, pear, plum
I spy Tom Thumb

Tom Thumb in the cupboard
I spy Mother Hubbard

Mother Hubbard on the stairs
I spy the Three Bears

I know that off by heart. And the rest of  Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s classic children’s book. I know it off by heart!

Don’t be impressed. Oh, okay, do be impressed. If you want. But it’s nothing really. It was having to read it to all four of them. Repeatedly and one more time. There’s no trick to it. You say it often enough and your mouth knows it even if your brain is silently screaming NO! NO! Not again! I give in. You can have what’s left of my body and my soul. Just don’t make me READ IT again.

I’ve got nothing against the book in principle. It’s a lovely book, as a small, squashed, rational part of my brain concedes. It’s got nice pictures.

It’s just that I could have been reading, for example, The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, which I have just managed to finish.

I might have to read it again. I didn’t understand it all. It’s about chess and life and art and death and history. And everything. But mostly chess.

It’s so clever. I hope Pérez-Reverte wouldn’t mind me calling it clever. I call it ‘clever’ in huge admiration.

He sets it up beautifully. A game of chess depicted in a beautiful 15th Century painting with hidden clues to an ancient murder and a contemporary picture restorer whose friends keep turning up dead as she tries to unravel the mystery.

As the protagonist begins to play the chess game in the painting in search of clues to the murder,  I began to see that all the actors in all the various stories in the novel are pieces in simultaneously-played chess games and  can be identified as the various pieces (bishops, rooks, knights, Kings, Queens etc). It is great fun trying to work out who is the Queen or a knight – and whether they’re black or white.

Even the reader is an actor in these games, Pérez-Reverte suggests. We can close the book with a regal snap or we can read on, pawns in the narrative snare or we could be any piece in between. We could be the next piece to be taken, we could be in check, or perhaps it’s a Mexican Standoff. I honestly don’t know. But, having whipped through the pages, all these, and more, are possibilities, I feel.

It’s the first book I’ve read that’s ever made me feel dizzy. I felt as though Pérez-Reverte was playing chess in my brain, a definite physical sensation and quite a trippy one.

I think Pérez-Reverte must be interested in reader-response theory which, if I’ve got it right, suggests that a story doesn’t happen until it hits a reader’s brain. Like the artist of his novel, who paints over an intriguing inscription to be found at some point in the future, Pérez-Reverte seems to be talking about the role, or position, of the reader in a novel. That’s something I’m interested in too, although I’d not understood the full potential  that it offers, until reading this book.

Of course, it’s very flattering to readers too, to be part of it all, to be included. Readers love being flattered.

Or is that just me?

Pérez-Reverte has hidden the answers to all the enigmas in words. We have to scrutinise the plot, setting and characters to find them with all the critical resources available to us. Oh, it’s a clever, clever book which can be read on more levels than I can hold in my head at one time.

It’s a masterclass in the use of metaphor in novels. I loved it.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been reading it. No. I shouldn’t have been reading any of my books. One child is desperate for me to read The Hunger Games. Another begs for me to read Sepron the Sea Serpent, book 2 in the Beastquest series. A third is pasting toothpaste and toffee into something called Don’t Eat This Book and the fourth has nicked my Guardian newspaper from which he keeps trying to read me sports reports. Me. Sports reports.

It’s not enough, you see, that I know a millionty nursery rhymes and have the whole of the Oxford Learning Tree inscribed on my prefrontal lobes. No, that’s not nearly enough. Now I have to read the books they love so I can share in their pleasure and validate it. With toothpaste if required.

There’s nothing like a pair of large blue eyes above a small mouth which is forming the words, ‘Well, could you just read the blurb?’ to make me feel acutely uncomfortable and a gigantic meanie.

But I don’t want to read their books. I never imagined they’d want me to read their books. I want to mainline my books. I want to write some.

Robin Hood in the ditch
I spy the Wicked Witch

And yes I do know how bloody lucky I am. It doesn’t help that these impulses are not the prescribed Listen With Mother -serenely-voiced dedication to the children, who after all did not ask to be born. She’s sets a high standard, that woman. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.


Posted in Arturo Perez-Reverte, creativity, games, historical fiction, literature, narration, Writing, writing novels
4 comments on “Listen With Wicked Witch: sitting uncomfortably with Pérez-Reverte in my brain
  1. Nikki Fine says:

    It sounds a bit too clever for my addled brain to cope with, but a fascinating read nonetheless. And I also use ‘clever’ as a compliment. I was criticised recently for saying that something was ‘interesting’ (it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was interesting); since when did terms such as ‘clever’ and ‘interesting’ become pejorative?

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      That’s a really interesting question – worthy of a blog in itself, I’d’ve thought. I think it’s about class. You know, that really posh people just hang around being posh, perhaps doing some ‘good’ works. Being ‘clever’ is trying too hard and a bit middle-class. I don’t really need to be so self-conscious, do I? Not being posh. ‘Interesting’ can be damning with faint praise, can’t it? It’s also often a word people use when they mean ‘awful’, I think. Thanks Nikki. PS Not buying the idea that you’re not clever enough for the novel. Besides, I didn’t understand all the chess stuff – was still a great read. 🙂

  2. justinbog says:

    I like what Nikki said above too. Clever and interesting are vague, as are the words beautiful and wonderful, used often as descriptives, but I like the use of clever in your case Cathy, apologizing for doing so: brazen. I can’t wait to read the book you describe just enough for me to want to become a character in the game. Way to go and you’ve got a bit of toothpaste on the side of . . . er, right there, you got it now. 🙂

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      Justin, I think what happened is that last night I was dreaming about saying the wrong thing (again) and I got corrector-fluid all over my mouth when I was trying to correct my words! Thanks though. I think I’ve scrubbed it all off now ;-#

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