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Book Review: The Escape Artist - By M. G. Sanchez

Mark Sanchez recently launched his novel The Escape Artist at an event at Cambridge University. Below you can read Giordano Durante's impressions of the new book.

By Giordano Durante

With a large share of its action taking place in the University of Cambridge in the early to mid-1970s, M.G. Sanchez’s first novel can be justifiably regarded as a campus novel. That the first Gibraltarian effort in this genre was practically ignored when published in 2013 is inexplicable. One can only surmise that the cultural climate in Gibraltar at the time – a mix of establishment obliviousness and media indifference – was not a favourable one for local literature. 

A mere ten years on, we are presented with a different landscape. In that time, while Sanchez’s subsequent works attracted significant academic interest, the very notion of Gibraltarian writing quickly developed from what some saw as a ‘still-born’ fantasy into a mature and confident literary phenomenon able to present itself to the world on its own combative terms. 

This new version of The Escape Artist, which has undergone some revision by the author and has been published to coincide with a symposium on Gibraltarian writing held at the University of Cambridge, represents an opportunity for readers to encounter the governing themes of the fictional world of Sanchez in their germinal form. This reader, for one, fully enjoyed its well-paced plot which drives feverishly towards its unforgettably decadent finale.

The recurring tropes of Sanchez’s work are all here: the pessimism, the class divisions, the sense of dislocation, the outcast who goes against the grain and who labours under the malign influence of imbalanced friendships while nursing a problematic relationship with the idea of ‘home’.

In a deeper sense, this novel kicks off a project which Sanchez has refined in his later work: the fleshing out of a necessarily critical glance at Gibraltar, its society and its governing mores; all those hidden assumptions that provide the background to life on the Rock. The main achievement of Sanchez’s oeuvre, to me, is this making explicit of a host of truths that we’ve all tacitly believed, or sensed with increasing discomfort, for a generation. 

In this vein, The Fetishist’s (2021) exposure of the risible but profound extent of military fandom and Marlboro Man’s (2022) brave analysis of machismo find their seeds in this novel’s unflinching look at local bourgeois values. 

Although all the ingredients of the campus novel are also here – the homesickness, the pints, the terror of exams, the romantic encounters and the whole catalogue of eccentric and sexually alluring students – the novel’s real interest lies in how Sanchez paints the predicament of the thinking Llanito abroad, a ‘thinking Llanito’ standing for a new generation of university-educated, articulate and self-aware men and women who are overturning lazy assumptions (both domestic and international in origin) about the validity and sophistication of local culture.

For example, the main character, Brian Manrique, a student at Cambridge, holds an ambivalent attitude towards the Rock – a keenly felt nostalgia complicated and tempered by critical distance. 

At one point he says: “Strange that, wouldn’t you agree? That you can miss a place without missing anyone in it? But it does happen.”

Where Manrique is reflective and shy, the most potent impression by way of contrast is left by the character of Henry Portas – the intellectually confident seducer from a monied and well-connected family. He’s the first in a line of beguiling Sanchez alter egos who stalk the pages of his later novels and he emerges as a bewitching, sinister presence even when he enacts his own ‘escape’ in a novel that probes the many senses in which the human condition can be regarded as one of permanent escape: escape from obligation, from home (whatever that means) and from oneself. 

The novel is also particularly valuable as an interrogation of Gibraltarian identity. In particular, the work lays bare Manrique’s Britishness and how this is perceived, misunderstood and mocked by our purported compatriots in the UK, a concern which receives a more extended treatment in Gooseman (2020).

In its non-university sections, The Escape Artist also serves as a portrait of the closed border years and the claustrophobia of a city whose links with the outside world were suddenly severed. Manrique’s humdrum work and amorous exploits in a closed frontier Gibraltar emerge as a stale account of a life lived in the doldrums. 

Political and historical accounts of this period have inevitably missed out on the precise lived and felt aspects of these years. A read of these pages will convince you that to discount fiction of this kind – local, visceral, unafraid of the ugly and the mundane – is to cling to an impoverished view of the world.

That Sanchez returns to the same themes, in book after book, is not a limitation. Writers are obsessive creatures who often become fixated on a restricted number of interests and locations. If Sanchez’s characters enact long, flâneur-like walks through familiar streets day after day, it is both to forget their troubles and to let every fine detail of drain cover, lamp post and smell to permeate their being. Their walks are like the activity of their creator who finds himself returning to the same crucial matters, unable to shake off their intoxicating allure. 

The above appears in the foreword to The Escape Artist which is now on sale via Amazon: https://bit.ly/3Pn7zQ9 

Photo below: Mark Sanchez launching The Escape Artist at the Oriel Room at Cambridge University.