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Hunting the Last Wild Man
ISBN: 1583224882
By Angela Vallvey
Review by: Elea Weaver


Candela, the 25-year-old narrator of this smart, funny novel from Spain, delivers a wonderfully acerbic commentary on a series of personal and philosophical crises. The book starts with Candela panicking – she’s stolen some diamonds of a dead man, and she’s sure his family will find out and get their revenge. She then tries to figure out how to cash in and escape without getting caught or killed, even as she makes the dead man’s younger son her new boyfriend. But the real fun of the novel is how Candela responds to the dangers of the life she is trying to get-rich-and-escape from: a dead-end job, a host of fears and neuroses, and four generations of family.

Candela is actually a barrelful of contradictions – her cynicism is matched only by her naiveté, her fear of death doesn’t stop her from working in a funeral home, she strives for total apathy but chases drama, she verbally skewers male chauvinists but leaps to all sorts of stereotypes (including sexist ideas about other women). The biggest treat of the novel, though, is Candela’s riffing (and often contradicting herself) on everything from class tensions to Alice in Wonderland to Aristotle to Tank Girl to dictionaries of sexual terms. She speculates privately on several fascinating questions: Did the Seventeenth Century scientist who claimed you could create live mice by mixing human sweat, cloth, and hay proudly use his own sweat? Does Candela’s sister Carmina (a butcher) find use for her work skills during sex? Can chaos theory help you live a better life? What do property speculators have to do with entropy? What is the connection between Absolute Power and Absolute Stupidity? What if people kissed “hello” on a different part of the body?

Like many comic characters, Candela is at her most appealing when she treads the line between brilliance and cluelessness – about herself, her non-career, and especially romantic relationships. It’s really a series of mistakes that makes her endearing. In some ways, she’s like a combination of a more sarcastic Bridget Jones and a less principled Daria Morgendorfer. A more precise literary heritage, however, would be the picaresque novel, an old genre that focuses on a roguish hero, who does all sorts of inappropriateness, which makes readers enjoy him (it’s almost always him) all the more (e.g., Don Quixote). In fact, Candela can be a real jerk – she purposely lets her hateful Aunt Mary eat moldy olives, and expresses any number of truly offensive beliefs (and stealing from a dead guy doesn’t help either). But the novel doesn’t gloss over her flaws; it makes them the focus of interest.

Her family (grandmother, great-aunt, mother, numerous sisters, and an outspoken niece) is another highlight. They’re wacky and eccentric but never cloying; there’s real affection, but some real (and often unexpressed) tensions as well, and they provide both the best comedy and the best drama. Much of the diamond-theft plot, however, is plodding, and the suspense usually fails, but the book actually stays exciting because of the more mundane aspects of Candela’s life. The ending doesn’t have the big bang finish that some readers (including me) might expect, but it fits with the rest of the book. The translation from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa is fast-paced, engaging, and conveys Candela’s unusual sense of humor, but it definitely feels translated (though actually, through some personal weakness of mine, I prefer a faithful translation to a more artful one).

This novel is definitely versatile. There’s enough to make you think – about society, politics, psychology, philosophy – if you feel like approaching the book intellectually. But it’s also a quick and easy read with a sense of humor and a heart – it could just as easily be a beach read. Despite its flaws (mentioned above), this book is sharp-witted, inventive, and hilarious, with just the right amount of peculiar. It’s a diamond in the rough that’s worth getting your hands on.

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