Andorra, A Novel
By Peter Cameron
Picador (Reprint ed., 2009)
Review: Andorra – A Tale of Two Rickys?
The opening line of Peter Cameron’s Andorra, A Novel is: “Many years ago, I read a book that was set in Andorra”. Unfortunately, despite having read all 263 pages of this book, I won’t really be able to make the same statement for I have only now discovered, to my disappointment, that while this book is set in Andorra, most of the fascinating information provided about the country in the book is false. Perhaps I should have cottoned onto this while reading the book given its constant preoccupation with mystery, deception and intrigue. Cameron even offers some hints along the way such as his use of a quote from Austen’s Emma at the beginning of Part Two:
“Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure, seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or mistaken”.
What is truthfully conveyed in the novel is that Andorra has a “dramatic topography” which “makes it unapproachable by air” and that most visitors, as with the protagonist of this novel Alex Fox, enter it by train from either France or Spain.
Fox is not disappointed by this mode of arrival as he prefers train travel to other forms of transportation:
“There is something about literally crossing borders, traversing frontiers, watching the countryside hurtle by the window… that allows one to arrive with an a experience of place that flying disallows”.
Fox claims to disembark in Andorra’s sole city and capital: “La Plata” but this is fictional. La Plata does not exist and Andorra’s capital city is Andorra la Vella. Fox is an enigmatic figure. We are told early on that he has come to Andorra from America to start his life again which, we later discover, follows a tragedy involving his wife and daughter which is not completely disclosed until the end of the novel.
Fox initially takes up residence in an exquisitely described hotel; his circular, rooftop room reached by a wrought-iron spiral staircase, furbished with all sorts of fascinating objet d’art and knick-knacks and possessing views over all of Andorra. I am picturing it would be something that looked a bit like this from outside:
I must confess I have always secretly coveted having a house with a circular turret, preferably reached by a concealed staircase, where I could go to read and write, probably with a feather quill and a bottle of ink (clearly I was meant to be born in a bygone era!).
After falling under the spell of his own divine room, Fox journeys downstairs to lunch in the hotel’s restaurant where he encounters an Australian woman named Ricky Dent, married to another Australian also, strangely, named Ricky Dent. We discover that the Dents, like Fox, have moved to Andorra to escape something in their past and both come to play an important role in Fox’s life as he does in theirs.
After living in the hotel for some time, Fox recognises he will have to settle somewhere more permanent and he is given the details of an extremely wealthy family named Quay who have been looking for someone to rent the home of a family member who is currently travelling aboard. The matriarch of the Quays imparts much of the “history” of Andorra which is fascinating to read and disappointingly untrue. This is mainly because much of her account of this history focuses on La Plata which, being entirely fictional and obviously not based on Andorra de Vella is, by necessity, also fictional. She claims, for example, that the arrangement of La Plata in a series of terraces with all the homes built in varying shades of terracotta is due to Caterina de Medici decreeing that all stone used in the building of homes in the city had to be red granite quarried from native sites in Andorra. The real capital city has no such organisation or decoration and it appears that Caterina de Medici did not play any significant role in Andorra’ real history.
Mrs Quay goes on to claim that Andorra adopted de Mirabeau’s model constitution for a new-world democracy and that the country has enjoyed peace for most of its past except for a period of unrest among its citizens in the 1960s which she proposes was largely resolved by the efforts of her husband. Again, these facts are untrue. Rather it seems Andorra was settled by Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious in 803 and has had, for most of its history, a feudal system of government with joint sovereignty held by the president of France and the bishop of See de Urgel in Spain. In 1993, the country adopted a constitutional system which significantly reduced the influence of the French and Spanish leaders on the country’s politics. There does not seem to be any period of unrest of the type described by Mrs Quay.
Mrs Quay is not the only source of false facts in the novel, however. Mrs Dent informs Fox that all Andorrans have to complete six hours of civil service every week – very useful as a plot device but as far as I can tell untrue – and Miss Quay informs Fox that the patron saint of Andorra is St Umiliana (it is actually Our Lady of Meritxell)
Despite these deceptions, Andorra is an enjoyable book. Its plot is, to be oxymoronic, ponderously compelling – a bit like an episode of Midsomer Murders, with the building of tension only just outweighing a tendency towards becoming boring. The plot is fairly thin, Fox travels around Andorra engaging in love affairs with the Dents (note the plural) and one of the Misses Quay, becomes suspected of murder despite the absence of a body and all the while maintains this air of mystery about the circumstances of his past and why he was so keen to escape it.
All is revealed and resolved by the end of the novel with an extremely satisfying twist which somewhat explains, and enables the reader to forgive, the level of deception and falsehoods contained in the rest of the book. In fact, Cameron must have been sitting at his desk having a belly laugh at the thought of leading his readers on the extraordinary caper that he does and then wrapping it all up in such a manner. Indeed he looks pretty bemused in this photo of him:
It is principally because Andorra is such a small, relatively unknown country that Cameron can get away with this, again much like the writers do with the Midsomer Murders stories, playing on a sort of shared humour and understanding with readers and viewers about “small towns” or in Andorra’s case, “small countries” and the goings-on that occur in such places.
And it must be said that Cameron provides many insightful remarks about the nature of travel and particularly of small countries. I particularly liked an observation by Mrs Fallowfield (owner of a boat upon which Fox is invited to sail):
“I’m afraid Ibiza is ruined. Although I haven’t been there in ages. Perhaps it is unruined. That can happen to places but it takes a while. You see a place is found, and then its lovely for a while and then it’s ruined, and then if you’re lucky it’s forgotten, and if it hasn’t become too, too ruined, it can start again – unruin itself”.
If what you are looking for is a story that offers you some insight into the history and culture of Andorra then don’t read this book. If what you are looking for is a delightful tale of mystery and intrigue which continues right up until the last sentence then you will enjoy this novel.
The Literary Nomad xx
General reading value: 3/5
Armchair travel value: 0/5
Capital: Andorra la Vella
Religion: Roman Catholic
Delay your stay
Fiction: Andorra – A Play (Max Fisch), Mrs and the Secrets of Andorra’s Box (Ross O’Connell-Kelly), The Man Who Could Grow Hair, Or Inside Andorra (William Atwood), The Valley of Andorra (Jean-Francois Blade, William Warren Tucker), The Road to Andorra (Shirley Deane), Assignment in Andorra (Mary Mackintosh)