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The International Writers Magazine - Our 21st Year: Opinion Archives

What the's Mr. Dickens
Colin Fisher

1805, Admiral Nelson, hopelessly romantic and missing parts of his body, leads his ships to victory against the combined fleets of Spain and France. His body, pickled, I believe, in a barrel is brought back to Britain and buried with due ceremony in St. Paul's cathedral. And then, with the arrogance of a country that can look back on many military victories, we let it merge into that general feeling that when it comes to killing foreigners we are really quite good at it.

We don't ignore it. We just don't write novels about it. Benito Pérez Galdos, quite clearly not British, uses the Battle of Trafalgar to open his series of novels called  Episodios Nacionales. From 1873 until 1912, in 46 novels, he covered the main events of Spanish history in the nineteenth century. He is highly regarded in Spain, not least for using as his principal characters ordinary people who, up to then, had been largely absent from popular novels. He is compared with Balzac, Stendal, Dickens and Tolstoy. I've read three of his novels and feel confident that if I met him I could have a bit of a blether with him. I can't say I would feel the same if I met Charles Dickens. 

I think it was when I was reading Pérez's  account of the Spanish uprising against the French in Madrid in 1808, that I realized that I could understand it without too much difficulty. I've read enough in Spanish to know that I read it better than I speak it. But it was more than that. Yes, there were a few old-fashioned words which I had to ask my girlfriend to translate. Some of those she had to guess because they were words which even her parents wouldn't have used. But the main reason why I could follow the story was that his written Spanish was identical to what I was reading in contemporary Spanish novels despite being separated by  more than a century. Hence the feeling that if I met him I could have a nice chat with him. Naturally, I would avoid any reference to him being dead but we could at least talk about the weather, the state of public transport and importance of eating at least three portions of fruit per day. 

Charles Dickens, on the other hand, would be quite a different kettle of fish. Only a fool would criticise him as a writer but he was a man of his time. And his time was that of Britain in the nineteenth century. Reading his novels, as we read Shakespeare or Jane Austen, we have to assume that he spoke as his characters spoke. It would be a short time into the conversation with him that we would find, to our horror, that we were talking like him too. Well, you would, wouldn't you? After all, it is Charles Dickens. "Ah yes, Mr. Dickens, I was commenting only the other day, the numerous hardships and general malfeasance that have recently befallen the poor souls of this parish who, through the intervention of the mighty potato barons, have seen their hard won potatoes torn, at times quite literally, from their calloused hands, the calloused hands, mind you, of the sons of lost fishermen." Or some such bollocks. Charles Dickens, insulted at being patronised like this, would leave in high dudgeon, doffing his top hat , while saying, "And I wish you good day sir!".

Am I saying that whereas English has evolved throughout the centuries, adapting itself to changes within society, renewing itself constantly, Spanish has remained static, unchanged for more than a century? Quite clearly, yes, that's exactly what I am saying. Am I saying that this is one of the strengths of English, and one of the weaknesses of Spanish? Ah well, that is a horse of another colour. What I would say, is that the more I am here and the more I read in Spanish, the more I am aware of the capacity for invention that writers in English display. Be it Winnie the Pooh and Piglet hunting Heffalumps or Winston Smith deciphering the coded layers of Doublespeak, there is in written English a sense of adventure, a search for the next discoveries, in the words themselves. This can have unforeseen consequences.

In my desire to explain this theory to my girlfriend I chose as an example of this eternal search for the new in English literature, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Here was the writer who would show her the capacity for invention that English has and also how it can be assimilated into popular culture. I read the passage to her and in the short silence that followed it was clear that I had misjudged her taste in literature. She then made her feelings very clear, using a range of well-chosen Spanish phrases that would have made Begsy blush and the crew of the Santisima Trinidad, flagship of the Spanish fleet that fought bravely against Nelson's ships, cheer to the rigging. English may have the capacity for never-ending renewal. But it can also weigh itself down with metaphor, imagery and ambiguity. Spanish, on the other hand, says exactly what it wants, when it wants to and to whom it wants to. My ship listing, holed below the waterline, I did what Nelson never did. I retreated. 

© Colin Fisher February 2009

Coilin Fisher

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