By J. H. Bográn
Here’s a brief description of Antonio Garrido’s new novel THE SCRIBE: The year is 799, and King Charlemagne awaits coronation as the Holy Roman emperor. But in the town of Würzburg, the young, willful Theresa dreams only of following in the footsteps of her scholarly father—a quiet man who taught her the forbidden pleasures of reading and writing. Though it was unthinkable for a medieval woman to pursue a career as a craftsperson, headstrong Theresa convinces the parchment-makers’ guild to test her. If she passes, it means access to her beloved manuscripts and nothing less than true independence. But as she treats the skins before an audience of jeering workmen, unimaginable tragedy strikes—tearing apart Theresa’s family and setting in motion a cascade of mysteries that Theresa must solve if she hopes to stay alive and save her family.
Mr. Garrido agreed to response a few questions posed to him in Spanish. I trust I kept the spirit of the ideas from his responses, with a bit of luck, nothing got lost in the translation.
How extensive was the research for THE SCRIBE?
Almost as extensive a thesis for a PH.D. You have to consider that in spite of the exciting events told, THE SCRIBE is inspired in real life, which meant that all the data was thoroughly crosschecked. The research lasted four years and took me to various museums and libraries in places like Germany, France, United Kingdom, and Italy.
What can you tell us about the plot?
Set in Germany, right in the heart of Medieval times, THE SCRIBE tells the story of Theresa, a young apprentice who longs to work in her father’s profession. However, an unfair accusation of an infamous crime forces her to flee her father’s shop. During her escape, she runs into Alcuino of York, a monk who takes her as his assistant to investigate the strange murders in the city. Meanwhile, Theresa’s father goes missing when he was working on a mysterious document. From that moment on, and with the company of Alcuino, Theresa finds herself tangled in a plot where nobody is who he seems. She must employ all her wits to save her father’s life, her own, and uncover a secret that will change the course of Christianity.
How would you describe the protagonist of THE SCRIBE?
Theresa is a young woman who refuses to abandon her dream. She aims to live her life learning the wisdom hidden in books, something reserved for men only. She’s a fighter, a rebel and an intrepid woman, like many women in similar times. She is an example to all those unjustly oppressed; someone with enough courage to stand up and fight for what she wants with all her might.
How would you describe the antagonist?
A surprise in this novel is the absence of a typical bad guy. In it is place, we find an antagonist that at times can work as ally and opponent: Alcuino of York, the great British wise man who Charlemagne himself named as cultural minister for his empire. He’s a wonderful character, full of lights and shadows, which will capture us with his character and cunning.
What is the difference between this novel and your previous one, THE CORPSE READER?
I’d say there are more similarities than differences. Both are exciting, filled with twists and suspense. Both are based on real events. The main differences are perhaps the protagonists, the era, and places. THE CORPSE READER tells the story of the first forensic doctor in ancient China, while THE SCRIBE tells us the amazing adventures of a young woman in a dark and difficult Europe.
Can you share with us any anecdote about THE SCRIBE?
It was a surprise for me that the rights for THE SCRIBE sold to countries like France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Greece, before they were acquired in my country Spain. As an amusing note, the first time my wife—who didn’t know what I was working on—read the draft,she raised her head after the first chapter and proclaimed, “Antonio, this is beautiful, but if they publish it and I learn you copied it from somewhere, I’ll divorce you!”
What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing a quite ambitious novel titled THE LAST PARADISE about a group of Americans that escape the Great Depression and immigrate to Russia, without knowing they were going to their doom.
Any last comment?
I’d like to declare my enthusiasm for the way readers and writers in the United States understand literature, of which I’m a big fan. Europe sets too much stock, perhaps, in the beauty of phrases, hidden messages, and plenty of symbolism, while in English it is mostly about telling a good story. In my opinion, this is the most important aspect. The essence of those stories told by our fathers when we were boys didn’t rely on the poetry of words or allegorical settings. Those stories captivated us because the stories were direct, emotional, and passionate; those stories that grab us and envelope us, making us believe they were truer than life itself. And that is how it should be.
Since THE SCRIBE was originally penned in Spanish, we approached the person in charge of translating the book, Mr. Simon Bruni, who answered a few questions for us.
What was the most challenging aspect in translating THE SCRIBE?
The big challenge when it comes to translating historical fiction is to find a tone that suits the historical and geographical setting of the book, in this case eighth-century Europe, without being jarring to the modern ear. Words and phrasing have to be carefully chosen so they’re neither too modern-sounding nor too overtly archaic, both of which would detract from the reading experience. In an attempt to fold some oldy-worldiness into the narrative and dialogue, it can be tempting to slip into a sort of mock-medieval English, which ends up sounding rather comical, or even some smatterings of Dickensesque Victorian English, which can lend authenticity but puts you on tricky ground because it can transport the setting to another very specific era, which can be distracting. There are some writers of popular historical fiction who hit just the right balance between modern English and a historical flavour, Bernard Cornwell for instance, and I drew some inspiration from these. English itself helped me out to a large extent, with its Anglo-Saxon origins it made the translation more congruous with the Germanic setting than the Spanish original would have been.
Were there any bits or passages that you feared could be lost in translation?
Although nuances are always lost and gained in translation, the book’s setting meant there weren’t too many cultural issues to overcome, or anything significant that could be lost in translation. If the book had been set in Spain and written for a Spanish readership, no doubt there would’ve been cultural aspects that would need further explanation for the American reader. The original book was written for a readership to whom the setting was foreign anyway, so there’s nothing cultural that would be would be implicitly understood by a Spanish readership yet lost on an English-speaking readership.
With THE SCRIBE, Garrido has created more than a suspenseful novel that will keep you up at night. More than a medieval story that will have you wondering about ancient court intrigues, THE SCRIBE is the journey of a young, literate woman who loved to read and write at a time when women were not supposed to be educated and who inadvertently weaves a web of danger for herself…and those she holds dear.
A native of Spain, a former educator, and an industrial engineer, Antonio Garrido has received acclaim for the darkly compelling storytelling and nuanced historical details that shape his novels. Each is a reflection of the author’s years of research into cultural, social, legal, and political aspects of ancient life. Garrido’s THE CORPSE READER, a fictionalized account of the early life of Song Cí, the Chinese founding father of forensic science, received the Zaragoza International Prize (Premio Internacional de Novela Histórica Ciudad de Zaragoza) for best historical novel published in Spain. His work has been translated into eighteen languages, and THE SCRIBE is his second publication in English. Garrido finds his inspiration when he writes in his studio at the Cullera bay, watching the deep blueness of the Mediterranean Sea.