I got thrown off for a bit when I started this book — missed the little “A Novel” postscript below the title. “Hmmm this is in first person with a kind of crotchety old man as a narrator, kind of odd for a historical book, but hey maybe that’s how they do it in Spain…” Then I realized that it was historical fiction, and it made much more sense. The format is the memoirs of Marti Zuviria, an aged siege engineer recounting his long ago participation in the War of the Spanish Succession and especially the siege of Barcelona.
In the beginning, the brash young Zuvi somewhat accidentally becomes a student of Vauban, one of the greatest military siege engineers of the day, expert at both designing fortifications and planning offensive strategies to overcome them. Zuvi catches engineering fever and quickly becomes Vauban’s protege (as well as falling in love with his daughter) and is inducted into the quasi-secret society of engineers. When Vauban falls mortally ill, his dying conversation with Zuvi is a graduation examination of sorts: “What is the optimal defense?” Zuvi gives all the “correct” answers, but Vauban rejects them one by one, almost pleading with Zuvi to give him the answer, it’s “just one word!” He can’t think of it; Vauban dies; and Zuvi feels a little disgraced. Although a native of Barcelona, Zuvi has been studying in France for several years and so joins up with the French army, which is fighting alongside the Spanish/Castilians against the Allies (Austria, Britain, and Catalonia). Evidently siege engineers are somewhat mercenary in nature and aloof from being bound by nationality.
That’s how it starts; Zuvi eventually switches to the Allied side, then back briefly to the French side (although only for reasons of sabotage — what better way to counter a siege than to “help” your enemy draw up deviously faulty attack plans?) and finally to the hopeless Catalan defense of besieged Barcelona. Along the way he becomes confidant to each opposing general, the Duke of Berwick (“Jimmy”) and Antonio de Villarroel. Furthermore, he discovers that war is not all fun and games and engineering puzzles; it’s full of death and pain and awful meaninglessness. For a long time, I thought the big reveal of Vauban’s “one word” would be “peace,” since that’s the only way no one gets hurt. Later, when all of Zuvi’s loved ones die, I began to think that the answer must be “death,” since if you are dead no one can hurt you anymore. But the actual answer (or what Zuvi ultimately accepts, from Villarroel in Vauban’s stead) was <spoiler>“give yourself,” eg. sacrifice your all</spoiler> …. uhh that’s not one word. Methinks something got lost in translation; there’s probably is a single Spanish word which encapsulates that idea. But it doesn’t totally make a lot of sense … even with it, Zuvi wasn’t able to defend Barcelona against admittedly impossible odds.
Anyway a pretty good story. Zuvi’s irreverent asides and insults to his overweight scribe, Waltraud, were pretty funny and gave the book a nice tone.