I read through the description for The Dream of the City by Andrés Vidal and immediately wanted to preview this book. Originally published in Spanish in 2012, next week it will be released in English. The description paints a picture of contrasts—the beginning of World War I in Europe with the destruction that entailed juxtaposed against the construction of Gaudí’s Temple of the Sagrada Familia, the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie as workers pushed for better conditions, the seven virtues against the seven deadly sins. While elements of these are all present in the resulting novel, the fabric they weave is loose and porous.
Following an accident at work that leaves his father disabled, Dimas Navarro’s outlook is cynical and he is determined to make a way for himself that will provide for both his father and adopted younger brother—while he understands his fellow workers’ plight, he thinks their hopes for accomplishing any meaningful changes are unrealistic and when an opportunity to demonstrate his own ingenuity and problem-solving presents itself, he grabs it to pull himself out of a life of bare existence. He works his way up to become the right-hand man of the oldest son and heir for a local jeweler. Still resentful of the bourgeoisie, he can’t help but covet what they actually have and strives to prove himself equal to them—but his employer’s younger sister, Laura Jufresa, forces Dimas to confront these aspirations in unusual and unexpected ways. Though she grew up in bourgeois society, Laura developed an artist’s understanding of the world from her father and studied in Rome to develop her talents. Working as a designer in the family’s business, her idealism and respect for artistic form above profitability clashes with her brother—and Dimas’ employer—Ferran. In addition to her work in the family business, Laura spends time volunteering with the construction of her idol, Antoni Gaudí’s la Sagrada Familia temple.
The love story that arises between Dimas and Laura is clearly coming from Laura’s first appearance in the novel. It is full of tropes and entirely predictable but as individual characters they are well developed and strong enough to keep the forced and unoriginal romance from overpowering the narrative. The love story is not the only predictable element of the story being told—almost every element has a well-worn feel to it. With the exception of the two leads, the side characters are two-dimensionally archetypal. This felt less like a novel than a checklist or bingo card of tropes and clichés.
There were moments—usually when following Laura’s perspective as she works on her art or contemplates Gaudí’s designs—where the prose transcends the events of the story and a deeper level of feeling peeks through. As his relationship with Laura helps to open Dimas’ eyes to what he was in danger of becoming, the moralizing is overt and borders on becoming preachy—a fact emphasized in scenes dealing with the completely tangential and underdeveloped plot involving Dimas’ mother (predictable and underdeveloped, it is a plotline that could easily have been completely removed with almost no impact on the larger story).
In the end, The Dream of the City felt uncomfortably disjointed and like a poorly constructed mosaic of elements that worked in other stories but don’t quite fit well together for the purposes of this novel. While the plot itself is partially to blame, I think that at least some of the responsibility lies with the translation. I feel that it might be the perfect example of something being lost in translation—my gut says this is probably because the text is too literal a translation of the original but I don’t have the original Spanish (or enough experience with the language) to be able to say definitively that that’s what happened here. So though my hopes were high following how much I enjoyed the English translation of The Girl from the Train earlier this year, The Dream of the City is a less impressive English adaptation.
The Dream of the City will be available for purchase on November 24, 2015.