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BOOK REVIEW

Spanish architect's Indy Jones adventure

The Creator's Map A Novel Emilio Calderon Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver Penguin Press: 260 pp., $24.95

July 30, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

One OF the particular joys of this golden age in translation is the fact that we now enjoy routine access not only to other languages' literary fiction and poetry, but also to a rich array of entertaining popular works.

In the years since Francisco Franco's death, Spanish literature has undergone both a remarkable flowering of formal literary experimentation and an explosion of first-rate works written for a broad audience. If you haven't sampled the historical detective fiction of Spain's bestselling author, the former journalist Arturo Perez-Reverte, for example, it's worth looking for his novels, "The Fencing Master," "The Club Dumas" and "The Seville Communion" -- all available in fine English translations. Somewhat harder to locate, but worth the trouble, are the hard-boiled detective novels of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, whose protagonist -- Pepe Carvalho -- is a former Marxist, ex-CIA agent with a wisecracking assistant, who works as a hooker.

"The Creator's Map" is the initial work of adult fiction by Emilio Calderon, a popular author of works for young people, and his first book published in English. It's a frustrating though not entirely unrewarding book to read -- in part, because the author has situated himself somewhere between the intelligent historical entertainments of Perez-Reverte and the more recent and rather vulgar pop-lit hits of another of his countrymen, Juan Gomez-Jurado ("God's Spy"), who tellingly provides a blurb for this book.

Calderon, unfortunately, has chosen to draw his own pop cultural influences from -- God help us all -- "The Da Vinci Code" and the Saturday-night-at-the multiplex buffoonery of the "Indiana Jones" flicks, though if you saw "Raiders of the Lost Ark" you've had a better version of that strand of this book's plot. The crystal skull from the most recent Indy film also has a walk-on part here.

All this is rather unfortunate, because Calderon has staked out some fascinating territory, Rome, from the late 1930s through the early '50s, and possesses a genuine facility for description and atmosphere, qualities essential in the novel of espionage "The Creator's Map" aspires to be.

There's also a rather daring structure that opens with a gripping first sentence under the chapter heading "Rome, Winter 1952":

"I felt both relieved and uneasy when I read in the newspaper yesterday that Prince Junio Valerio Cima Vivarini had been found, decapitated, near the Schlegeis Glacier at the foot of Hochfeiler peak in a remote region of the Austrian Alps."

The speaker is Jose Maria, a young Spanish architect in whose first-person voice the story unfolds. Some years before, the prince, a noted Fascist and Nazi sympathizer, had revealed to Jose Maria's wife, Montse -- who also happens to be the prince's former lover -- that, should he meet a violent end, she and Jose Maria would receive documents containing an unspeakably dangerous secret. The reception of those documents at the story's end, years after the war's conclusion, sets up an emotionally and physically shattering conclusion. In between, Jose Maria narrates his own convoluted history: what transpired between his arrival at the Spanish Academy in Rome -- to study Fascist architecture -- during his country's civil war and the end of World War II.

One of the conventions of contemporary Spanish popular fiction is an approach to plot that rather resembles those wooden Russian dolls in which smaller and smaller effigies are concealed within their larger counterparts -- identical and, somehow, different. "The Creator's Map" suffers from a surfeit of interlocking plots, some introduced glancingly, many of which peter off into narrative irrelevance. The narrative arc describes how Jose Maria is drawn reluctantly into the anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist underground, but before he's done, he'll encounter a variety of Fascist sympathizers, the Vatican's counterintelligence service and covert Catholic organizations that exist only in the fevered imaginations of the conspiratorial fringe.

The object of all their machinations is "the creator's map," a chart supposedly drawn by God himself to reveal the world's "power spots." Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler -- whose particular malevolent derangement did run to an obsession with the occult -- are supposed to be desperate to recover the map, which will show them which places to invade.

It's a bit of stretch -- even in this sort of fiction -- to believe that Hitler and Himmler needed an occult map to sanction their lust for other people's territory. One would have thought that megalomaniacal nationalism and the detailed plans of a supine general staff would be about all they and their henchman required -- as, in fact, it was.

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