In the prologue to the descriptively titled The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia, by Max Besora (and brilliantly translated by Mara Faye Lethem), an invented academic explains how he combed through centuries old archival documents to piece together the story of the forgotten conquistador, Joan Orpí del Pou. This academic allegedly found a version of Orpí’s story, as told by a bunch of soldiers during the Siege of Barcelona in 1714. What follows is a madcap adventure through the first half of the seventeenth century, full of anachronisms, literary references, obscene events, and a quest for glory.
Orpí (in this fictional biography) is the kind of kid that makes his parents despair. He’s naive, trusting everyone he meets. He’s curious about all the wrong things, meaning that he’s a terrible student. After failing so many opportunities, Orpí’s father packs him off to law school in Barcelona. Orpí’s smart mouth and inability to keep it close have to be good for something. But a series of wild events lead Orpí to boarding a ship for Spain’s colonies in what is now Venezuela.
“A series of wild events” is a good way to sum up this version of Orpí’s life. Highwaymen rob him. Women wind him up in their schemes. No one gives the Catalan a chance. Enemies plot against him constantly. But this summary barely scratches the surface of the sheer wackiness of what happens in this book. Every page had me gasping in surprise, laughing out loud, rolling my eyes, or gripped by the action. The summary also doesn’t reflect how well Besora captured the idiom of seventeenth century literature. Cervantes and Rabelais are name dropped more than once. Plus, Besora’s dialogue is full of period and anachronistic speech that made me chuckle at the way it wandered through centuries of linguistic evolution. Translator Mara Faye Lethem deserves all kinds of awards for her work on this book. She is pitch-perfect at translating all kinds of voices, dialects, time periods from Catalan, Spanish, and other languages into English. She’s so good that I genuinely thought this book was originally written in English, by someone who knows the history of the language from the 1600s to the present.
The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí is a remarkable book, even though some of the events mentioned in the book (especially the sexual ones) are hard to take. Thankfully, these are brief and, I think, only included because they were the kinds of things that would have been included in period literature. I mention them because they hold me back from unreservedly recommending this book to fans of historical metafiction and pastiches. I feel like I would need to warn a reader about the orgies and racism while I was talking up this truly outstanding book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.