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‘Everyone in their rightful place’ [book review]

A review of Andrea Víctrix by Llorenç Villalonga, translated from the Catalan by P. Louise Johnson

The high-rise streets are lit by lurid advertisements and a slogan flashing in neon letters above the constant stream of traffic: ‘PROGRESS CANNOT BE STOPPED.’ This is Turclub – proper name Tourist Club of the Mediterranean – the setting of Llorenç Villalonga’s hugely imaginative novel Andrea Víctrix, brought to us in English translation by P. Louise Johnson and Fum d’Estampa Press. Dystopian fiction at its very best, Andrea Víctrix opens the door to a new world that is as entertaining as it is horrifying – and bears more than a fleeting resemblance to our own.

Cover image Andrea Victrix

‘Beautiful, if disconcerting’ is how the narrator of Andrea Víctrix describes his experience on awakening from a ‘cryo cure’ in the year 2050. Having entered a frozen sleep aged around sixty in 1965, he has come back to life in the body of a thirty-year-old and found the world around him unrecognisable. The city that was once Palma de Mallorca has become Turclub, capital of pleasure in the new world order dictated by the US of Europe. After accidentally destroying one another with nuclear weapons, the USA and Russia have disappeared from the map, while an event ominously referred to as ‘the great fumigations of China’ seems to have made that region of the world equally uninhabitable. But no matter: ‘Europe was victorious and free of nightmares, and was the perfect synthesis of Marxism and capitalism’. Or at least that is how ministers like Andrea Víctrix, Director of Pleasure and later Economy, would have it. Unfortunately for our narrator, he sees things rather differently.

Andrea Víctrix opens at high speed, in a red Rolls Royce driven by Andrea, an ‘enchantingly, androgynously feminine’ figure with whom our narrator falls more or less instantly in love. This – falling in love – is just one of the many human actions forbidden in the new US of Europe, where babies are born in procreation centres and the concepts of family and romantic love are considered ‘pornography’. Even identifying as masculine or feminine is prohibited: when our narrator persists in referring to Andrea as a ‘she’, he is given a sound beating and thrown out of the vehicle. Androgyny is a central tenet of this new world, which would have ‘everyone in their rightful place’ – in other words, displaying as few individual differences as possible.

Gender and sexuality are just two of the many themes explored by Villalonga in this highly conceptual novel, which continues at the white-knuckle pace of the opening scene. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, the reader is heaped with information and a series of vivid impressions that mirror what the narrator must be feeling to have awakened in this strange new society. Not only are the streets awash with cars and adverts (the capitalist side of Turclub is especially virulent, with citizens required to purchase new refrigerators and vacuum cleaners every couple of months), but loudspeakers constantly chant slogans and the president of the US of Europe, the mysterious yet slightly ridiculous figure of Monsieur-Dame, appears on giant screens every evening to blow his subjects a goodnight kiss. It is the ultimate sensory overload, a totally exhausting experience, which, to his credit, Villalonga conveys powerfully to the reader.

Inspired in part by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – ‘It’s Huxley’s fault,’ gripes one of Villalonga’s characters at one point – Andrea Víctrix is a spirited criticism of rampant consumerism and technological progress, a warning about the consequences of climate change and our increasingly digitalised, self-centred ways of living. Though set firmly in the future, much of it mirrors the present, with certain touches more than recognisable – a loudspeaker blaring, ‘THE STATE OF UNIFIED EUROPE IS THE BEST STATE IN HISTORY,’ is more than a little uncomfortably Trumpian. It is astonishing, then, that Andrea Víctrix should have been published in Catalan in 1974, at a time in which the notion that ‘progress cannot be stopped’ was hopefully not yet as alarmingly strong as it is now.

It isn’t easy for dystopian fiction to retain its relevance, yet the ambitious scope and critical bent of Andrea Víctrix has ensured its success – and will doubtless keep it prescient for some time to come. Villalonga is a talented world builder and, though the majority of the characters aren’t necessarily likeable, the strong narrative voice and constant stream of absurd plot details conspire to make the reading experience rather compulsive. Another major boon is the English translation by P. Louise Johnson, which is incredibly fresh and accessible, making this into a dynamic, contemporary work of fiction. Even for those who don’t tend to read dystopian literature (and I willingly raise my hand at this point), Andrea Víctrix is an easy book in which to get lost.

Though it often feels like a bit of a romp across strange new frontiers – our narrator spends his time surrounded by an unusual cast of characters, including the androgynous Andrea, a high-class prostitute named Lola, various other ‘cryo survivors’, waiters who serve synthetic food while their maître d’s perform ballet poses, and a small flock of drug-addled Ibizan children – it often dips into more serious philosophising, which is perhaps what makes the publisher describe it as ‘part socio-political essay’. Though it definitely read like fiction to me, the lectures given by opponents of the regime and our narrator’s musings on social, environmental and economic issues all serve to give it a sombre edge that provides not just food for thought but a welcome respite from all that capering. There is a moral dynamic to the story, and Villalonga raises important questions about the rise and fall of dictatorships, confronting our tendency to wilfully ignore what is right in front of us. Many of the terrible aspects of unstoppable progress seem crystal clear to the narrator – and therefore the reader – yet are mutely accepted by Andrea and the citizens of Turclub for whom life has entirely different parameters. Though essentially anti-progress (or better said, anti unnatural progress), the narrator does in the end have to admit a certain degree of resignation: ‘My mistake,’ he muses, ‘was wanting to survive my time or overtake it.’ A cryo cure, we get the feeling, is perhaps not something any of us should be embarking on.

Relayed in pacey, atmospheric prose peppered with sharp wit, Andrea Víctrix is a vision of a future none of us is likely to want to experience. Part incisive social criticism, part wild flight of the imagination, Villalonga’s masterpiece is a complex and entertaining work of fiction that deserves both to inspire and terrify readers for many years to come.

Andrea Víctrix by Llorenç Villalonga, translated by P. Louise Johnson, is published in paperback by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


4 thoughts on “‘Everyone in their rightful place’ [book review]

  1. This book looks both insightful and fun, impressive for a dystopian seemingly meant to warn us of things going wrong! It sounds like every piece of this book is so carefully calculated, to pack as much in as possible without ever losing its thematic thread. Happy to have this one on my radar- great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! The entertainment factor was definitely a lot higher than I’d anticipated, which really helped me engage with the book and its themes. I can find dystopian fiction a bit hard to get on with, but this really is well worth reading. I’m glad you like the sound of it too!

      Liked by 1 person

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