The OF Blog: Max Mallmann, O Centésimo em Roma (The Hundredth in Rome)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Max Mallmann, O Centésimo em Roma (The Hundredth in Rome)

O passo indolente do cavalo contrasta com a empertigada postura de quem o conduz.  Para o quadrúpede, não importa se estão a chegar num quartel, no Palácio ou na casa de mãe de alguém.  Para o bípede nos costados do animal, pesa a obrigação de simular dignidade; ele é um veterano, metido em seu fardamento completo:  o báculo de madeira que o distingue como centurião, o elmo encimado pelo penacho escarlate, a capa voejando nos ombros, a couraça ornada com medalhas de mérito, as grevas de bronze protegendo as canelas, o calção escondido sob a túnica de lã e a sobretúnica de couro, as botas com cravos na sola, o gládio e o punhal pendenes na cintura e, preso ao braço, o escudo riscado pelos golpes do aço germano. (p. 15)

The indolent step of the horse contrasts with the haughty posture of its rider.  For the quadruped, it's not important if they are arriving at a barracks, a palace, or the house of someone's mother.  For the biped on the animal's shoulders, he ponders the obligation of feigning dignity; he is a veteran, decked out in complete uniform:  the wooden baculus which distinguishes him as a centurion, the helmet crowned by a scarlet plume, the cape fluttering on the shoulders, the cuirass decorated with merit medals, the bronze grieves protecting the shins, the trunks hidden under the tunic of wool and the overtunic of leather, the boots with nails in the soles, the gladium and dagger hanging on the belt and, pinioned to the arm, the scratched shield due to the blows of German steel.

Historical novels set in Hellenistic or Roman times have long appealed to me.  Despite not reading as many ancient historical fictions as I perhaps could have, I scarcely have failed to enjoy what works did come my way.  Recently, this love has been extended to works published in languages other than English.  In recent years, I have reviewed two of Spanish writer Javier Negrete's historical novels and alt-histories, including the excellent Salamina, so it was with celerity that I accepted an offer a couple of months ago to receive a review copy of Brazilian author Max Mallmann's O Centésimo em Roma (I have chosen to translate the title as The Hundredth in Rome in order to preserve a bit of wordplay between the small coin - "the hundredth" - and centurion).  This book was, with few exceptions, a very enjoyable read.

Set in Rome in the months and year following Nero's "suicide" in 68 AD, the story revolves around the centurion Publius Desiderius Dolens, a veteran of the wars on the German frontier, and what he experiences after he arrives in Rome.  Known as the Butcher of Bonna, Dolens discovers that his previous deeds have created a mixture of awe, respect, fear, and hatred among the Roman populace.  Ambitious, Dolens reaches for the Equestrian rank, but he discovers that there are some dangerous currents swirling in the Eternal City, currents that can be deadly for those caught up in them.

From this premise, Mallmann has developed a fast-paced, exciting story that unfolds at a rapid pace across nearly 400 pages.  Mixing in excerpts from an apparent fictitious work called Vita Dolentis with Dolens' "present" story, Mallmann constructs a vivid rendition of first century Rome in the years immediately following the Fire.  Via his extensive use of these quotations from the Vita Dolentis, Mallmann manages to develop finely-described snapshots of Roman politics and society during this time around Dolens' story of ambition and political survival.  For the most part, this juxtaposing of montages with the main action works well, as the rapid-fire alternation between the two creates a sense that not only is the story moving rapidly, but also that it contains both breadth of action and depth of characterization and events.

However, there are some occasions where this narrative structure weakens the story's potential power.  By having so many excerpts and so many chapters, there are times that it feels as though the narrative flow has become a bit choppy.  There were a few moments in the middle of the novel where it seemed at times that Mallmann could not decide if the Vita Dolentis fragments should bear more importance than some of the middle scenes of Dolens' "present" plot.  Despite this weakness in the middle, Mallmann does manage to recapture the strong narrative flow found in the early chapters and by the story's conclusion, there is a greater integration of the fictitious epigraphs and the main plot.

Perhaps a native Portuguese reader might think differently, but for a foreigner such as myself, I found Mallmann's prose to be elegant without being too terribly difficult in its parsing.  The story is replete with passages similar to the opening paragraph that I translated above.  There is a definite flow in several of these descriptive passages and instead of weighing down the narrative with unnecessary ornate prose, I found these descriptive sections to add a sense of "local color" to the story, making it more interesting, even despite the weaknesses I noted above.

To the best of my knowledge, O Centésimo em Roma does not have an English language translation scheduled at the present.  This is a shame, as I can see fans of Roman era historical fiction wanting to read this excellent tale of ambition, political intrigue, and a fight for survival.


Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

That is an excellent review. It will be great if more titles such as this one will be translated into English. I believe the authors and readers will gain much from these translations. I hope that someday my wish will come true.
At the moment I started to read Angelica Gorodischer's "Kalpa Imperial" and Jose Eduardo Agualusa's "O Vendedor de Passados" (available in English as "The Book of Chameleons") and it is great to see them available for new readership.
I also hope that Javier Negrete will be translated very soon though, since I understand that he is a very good writer. Besides his works you reviewed I hope to see his "Saga de Tramorea" series translated too.

Ana Cristina Rodrigues said...

As a native reader, I couldn't agree more with you. Mallmann is one of the best brazilia writers I ever read.

Tibor Moricz said...

Max is a very good writer as well as another brazilian writers. We need a larger market and more readers. Thank you, your reviews help us to increase our responsability with we are writing.

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