Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"No. 4 Imperial Lane"

Jonathan Weisman is a Washington-based economic policy reporter for the New York Times.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane, and reported the following:
As many readers and some reviewers have noted, No. 4 Imperial Lane is two books in one: a coming-of-age story of an American student abroad, learning to examine -- and embrace -- his tragic past in the employ of a fallen aristocrat-turned-quadriplegic, and a sweeping war story encompassing the collapse of Portugal's empire in Africa. That story is seen through the eyes of the fictional protagonist, Elizabeth Bromwell, but the events are real and many of the characters historical.

Page 69 captures the sweep of that historical fiction. It introduces readers to one such historical figure, Antonio Sebastiao Ribeiro de Spinola, here the newly appointed governor and commander of Portuguese forces in what is now Guinea-Bissau. His own evolution from colonial true believer to coup leader mirrors the disintegration of the Portuguese empire as well as the collapse of Elizabeth's marriage. It is an example of how I try to have the tightly focused stories of my characters reflect and feed off the historical events of their time.
Spinola flew in by helicopter and found himself in the interior of the province, in a colonial outpost in the town of Bafata -- and in utter disgust. The forces of flamboyant rebel leader Amilcar Cabral, the PAIGC, the African Party for the Independence of Guine and Cabo Varde, controlled half the country -- malarial mangrove swamps to the west, razor-sharp elephant grass hiding guerrillas in the east, with scorching, soaking heat all over its 36,125 square kilometers, not much bigger than the state of Maryland. But Spinola wasn't worried; he'd seen worse. In 1938 he had commanded a Portuguese contingent fighting on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He spat on the Lincoln Brigade, the Commune de Paris Battalion, the Internationals, the communists, all those idealists who had flooded Spain to fight for the Republicans. They knew nothing of the chaos and corruption that lay in the hearts of Iberian men when they lacked proper supervision and authority. The defeat of those pompous pretenders was one of his life's greatest pleasures. In 1941 he had the good fortune to study German cavalry techniques as the Nazis rolled eastward, unstoppable. He was an observer on the Nazi side as German artillery reduced Leningrad to rubble.

But damn if the Soviets didn't survive that.

If the Russians could walk out of Leningrad, we Portuguese can stand tall in the ultramar, he thought, as Soviet-made rockets thudded down from the east. It did not occur to him that the Russians had been defending the motherland, a different proposition than a bedraggled imperial army subduing Africans in three different parts of their continent. Nor would it. He, like any good Portuguese officer, was convinced Guine, Mozambique, and Angola were inseparable from the metropole. As far as he was concerned, he was defending the motherland.
This is the unrepentant Spinola, the man of war convinced he can subdue any man or any force, given enough resources. One of those resources is Elizabeth's new husband, the young conscripted doctor, Joao Goncalves. Through war, capture, escape, disillusionment, and his personal descent into violence, Joao sees the folly of Spinola's certitude. Spinola sees it too. Midway through the book, we see him authoring the true-life book "Portugal and the Future," which will badly undermine the fascist regime in Lisbon. By the end, Spinola has led the Carnation Revolution, overthrown the regime, and led the dismantlement of the empire that on page 69, he is determined to preserve -- by any means possible.

As a launch point for that historical drama -- one that most readers will know nothing about, page 69 works very well.
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My Book, The Movie: No. 4 Imperial Lane.

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--Marshal Zeringue