Book Reviews

The following are some books I've read and my opinions about them.  I don't like the idea of rating books by using stars.  The use of stars is misleading.  I have given Wuthering Heights two stars before because I don't like Cathy or Heathcliffe, and I've given Twilight four stars because I devoured it in a day, but the two books are incomparable.  Twilight is not a better novel than Wuthering Heights.  So where does that leave me?  It leaves me with the conclusion that the star rating system doesn't work, at least not for me. 

Duende, by Lizzie Eldridge


‘Don’t you think that what’s happening in our very country is about ideas?’ asked the professor. ‘All too often ideas harden into rigid ideologies and these become used to justify all sorts of atrocities.'

This is the story of 'Duende', of the teeming philosophical and artistic ideas taking Europe by storm during the 1920s and 1930s, that led in Spain to the harsh political and military reality of one of the most brutal civil wars on record.

Two artists, Nayo (a painter) and José (a philosopher) fall in love and together wrestle with the 'duende', the force within art that evokes the essential experience of life in the face of the dread certainty of death.

Many of their friends, including Salvador Dalí, Ortega y Gasset and, most crucially, Frederico García Lorca, are struggling with the same issue in their art, nourished by the escalating violence in their country, and across Europe as a whole, that proportionately threatens their own existence. Frederico Lorca's poetry and plays were considered 'unSpanish' by traditionalists and he was duly murdered by a death squad at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

In Lizzie Eldridge's hands, 'Duende' is a consummate attempt in itself to capture the 'duende', the mechanics of constructing authentic art within the spirit of intellectual enquiry as to what life really means, and against the shadow of cataclysmic destruction.

My Review

Duende, by Lizzie Eldridge, is deeply thought provoking, classically written, and teems with wise interpretations of philosophy, art, and politics.  It is not a quick read, not something you’d bring with you to the beach while the children play in the sand; it is something to contemplate.  It’s a book for someone who can enjoy thinking deeply and slowly, who can stand before a painting and get lost in it or read a text on philosophy and bask in all the connections to real life. 

It is not everyone who can relate to a person who can become lost in a poem that traces “the randomness of inspiration”, but in a world where people seem to flit, to participate without really caring, to quip on Facebook without thinking, there is something deeply satisfying to read about characters who have the capacity to weep at a painting or a poem.

While reading this book over a couple of weeks, I took about ten pages of notes.  I wrote down things I found interesting, things I disagreed with, connections I made or formed, or ideas I wanted to explore further.

In fact, I would say that it’s misleading to classify Duende as a novel.  Plot development is not central to the story, and though the political background and setting reflect the character development, it is not done in the way one might be used to in a novel.  Duende belongs, I believe, in the category of academic readings.  Philosophy students, art history students, political theory students: these people should read this book, keep it, and make notes in the margins.

In the first few chapters I found reading this book much like watching a movie from a different room.  You don’t get the entire picture, you don’t know the full story, but it still draws your attention because of the language and the conviction you have that some climax or pinnacle will happen.  It’s like a painting that you see and love but never get the full explanation from the artist, and I found myself at times craving more plot, more show.  Duende is written like real life in the sense that in small things there is great significance but it doesn’t always culminate toward one theme or goal.  Many readers might find this tendency tedious, but Eldridge does it beautifully.  It’s like a stream of consciousness, but erudite and focused, if that makes sense.  To quote from the book, “Life is fundamentally paradoxical.  So you can’t apply any logical or rational analysis because it’ll never give you the answers.”  Duende embodies this and once I realized that plot was far from central to this story, that this book is not a novel in the traditional sense of the word, I relaxed into the philosophy and thoughts of the characters.

There is a lot to think about in this book – perhaps too much – but you only need to focus on what you find interesting, what speaks to you.  I found myself skipping over some of the political references, obscure to me, but I found myself drawn in to the discussion of the different philosophers. 

I enjoyed the constant conflict between nature and culture.  The characters are engaged in a struggle, or more accurately a dance, between their natural drives and tendencies and society’s limitations upon them, and this mirrors what they’re studying and the political landscape around them.  The characters also struggle at times with the need to be separate versus the need to belong.

What is included in the book is significant, but I would have liked to have seen some of what was not included.  Did the characters’ families find it strange or suspicious that their sons had such a lasting, deep friendship?  There was almost no discussion about the daily risk that the men were taking by being together.  How would the story have been different if they had been a heterosexual couple?  Did the fact of their both being men give them an equality that couldn’t be illustrated so clearly or simply if one of them had been a woman?  And what of Angelita?  In the first few pages of the book I had thought she was going to be the protagonist, the main character, and yet she drifted away to hardly even a secondary character.  It took me quite a while to stop waiting for Angelita to come back. 

But again, this is the way life is.  Some people play a significant role in our lives, and then they disappear and we forget about them.  There are other characters that we catch a glimpse of (like Nuria) but they have little impact on our lives.  Again it illustrates the fleetingness of the world.  “All that is solid melts into air,” so said Marx according to Duende.

“Duende” means the force within art that evokes the essential experience of life in the face of death, and Duende ends with the ultimate in “duende.” It is the culmination of happiness and despair, of beauty and ugliness, of love superimposed on a backdrop of hatred.  That is, perhaps, the sublime, the transforming of things into an ideal or pure form.  But unfortunately, “we can touch perfection but we cannot sustain it.”

It is well-executed book, impeccably researched and beautifully written.  If you love to think deeply, I highly recommend it.