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The Last Nip of Vampire de Dip : NATURAL HISTORY by Joan Perucho; translated from the Catalan by David H. Rosenthal (Alfred A. Knopf: $17.95; 208 pp.)

February 12, 1989|Jean Franco | Franco is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese literature at Columbia University. and

Vampires have come a long way since 1897 when Bram Stoker published "Dracula." There have been rock 'n' roll vampires, stand-up comic vampires, romantic vampires and now in Joan Perucho's "Natural History," a Catalan vampire with political convictions.

Set in the Spain of the 1830s when liberal forces in support of Queen Isabel II and her mother, Maria Cristina, were fighting off a challenge from the pretender, Don Carlos, the novel describes a vampire hunt in war-torn Catalonia. The protagonist is the young liberal aristocrat and naturalist, Antoni de Montpalau, who has passion for collecting and classifying odd species and for whom even the common goat goes by the name of Capra Hispanica.

Although he has no belief in the supernatural and dismisses his cousin Isidre Novau's claim to have sighted the famous pesce cola as "nothing more than a hallucination caused by excessive ingestion of canned food," Montpalau's calm positivism is frequently disrupted--by the auguries of bats in flight, crazy bulls, a mysterious assassination attempt and puffs of smoke that take on unusual shapes.

And as inevitably as Sherlock Holmes is lured by the Hound of the Baskervilles, Montpalau is drawn to the village of Pratdip where every morning somebody is found dead with blood drained from the body and two small holes in the neck. Braving bandits and war and laden with garlic, Montpalau and his cousin Isidre make their way to Pratdip, which is dominated by a ruined castle, surrounded by a "veritable orgy of wild mushrooms, goats, partridges, lettuce and emeralds." Here they are met by the baroness d'Urpi and her daughter, Agnes, with whose help Montpalau identifies the vampire as 700-year-old Onofre de Dip who had been seduced by a Romanian vampire duchess but had returned to Catalonia out of nostalgia for his native land.

Although Montpalau saves Pratdip from further devastation, Onofre escapes destruction and resurfaces as a Carlist guerrilla known as the Owl. He is naturally drawn to the cause of authoritarian monarchism but paradoxically feeds on the Carlist Gen. Cabrera and tries to turn him into a vampire. Captured by Cabrera's forces, Montpalau providentially saves the general by feeding him garlic water and, when the Carlist forces are defeated, gallantly helps him escape to France. With the defeat, the Dip also gives himself up, weary of his 700 years of wandering and Montpalau marries Agnes to the music of Chopin.

"Natural History" is, as this summary is intended to suggest, not so much a vampire novel as a diverting spoof of historical novels and travel literature. The cameo appearance of historical characters like Gen. Prat, Frederic Chopin and George Sand reminds us of the way historical novels often pass off improbable fictions by giving them underpinnings of historical fact. In "Natural History," these historical encounters coexist with bizarre fantasies like the discoveries of a large phallus impudicus , of giant fleas and of human beings turned to stone.

The pursuit of the Dip into the mountains of Catalonia allows the author to parody travel literature, the writings of geologists and naturalists, 18th-Century treatises on the improvement of agriculture, the legends that surround all shrines to the Virgin, and the populist reverence for folklore.

The novel is thus a diverting collection of pastiches--of royal proclamations, popular songs, proverbs and most amusingly those travel books whose authors take delight in impassively consuming whatever exotic dish the peasantry prepares for them. Thus Montpalau and Novau eat a dish "invented by lower Aragon's transhuman shepherd" and which consists of "lamb tripe wound around oak branches and roasted over an open fire. Part of its excellence derived from the way it crunched between one's teeth, but its most exquisite and refined peculiarity was that it still contained the beast's excrement." The index of the novel is a comic masterpiece.

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