by Manuel Rivas
"Your problem is not tuberculosis. It has to do with the heart."
- The Carpenter's Pencil, p 155
Manuel Rivas's short novel, The Carpenter's Pencil, tells the story of Dr. Daniel Da Barca, who twice miraculously escapes death in front of the firing squad only to be given life imprisonment, a sentence that is later commuted. However the principal narrator is Herbal, the guard who escorts Da Barca during his various incarcerations. The third major character is Marisa Mallo, whose marriage by proxy to the doctor is ultimately consummated with Herbal's assistance. Ironically, the ubiquitous role of the painter ("He's the one who paints the ideas") is mostly symbolic. It is he who keeps his drawing ideas in a notebook and uses a "carpenter's pencil" that is symbolic of those standing against authority. Rivas leaps across time zones and switches narrative voice. Yet in a very minimalist style he masterfully sketches, for example, the hopeless atmosphere of the dank prison with a few brushstrokes, as if he held the titular pencil. And for a novel set during wartime to convince us of the doom and despair of conflict without a single battle scene is admirable indeed. The novel is one that this reader wishes lasted a bit longer.
The Carpenter's Pencil: A Novel of the Spanish Civil War by Manuel Rivas. Overlook Press, New York. 2001 (1998)