Spanish, by George

Last year I published a post, titled English, by George, about some lapses in Elizabeth George’s otherwise highly successful endeavor (endeavour, as she would put it) to write her set-in-Britain Inspector Lynley mysteries as if she were herself English. Those lapses, some of which I listed in the cited post, I can only call Americanisms.

I have just finished Elizabeth George’s last Lynley novel, Believing the Lie, and I can report that, in a fast but not sloppy reading of its 600+ pages, not one such Americanism jumped out at me. Instead, she showed herself as being even more like a British writer in another respect: clumsiness in writing about non-anglophone culture.

Ms. George seems to have fine a fine ear for the varieties of language spoken by indigenous English folk of different classes and regions. Her occasional Scottish characters, on the other had, speak a kind of stereotypical Scots that one rarely hears in Scotland. (She makes other mistakes about Scotland, for example supposing — in This Body of Death — that a crime committed in the Highlands would be investigated by the Glasgow-based Strathclyde Police rather than the Northern Constabulary.) For her West Indian characters she writes a kind of eye dialect that doesn’t really reflect an accent, only that it’s somehow different.

In the new novel, one of the dozen or so central characters (yes!) is an Argentinean woman named Alatea Vasquez y del Torres. It’s the kind of name one would expect in a second-rate comedy skit making fun of Spanish names, not in a serious novel.

Let me discuss the various parts of the name. To begin with, Del Torres is grammatically impossible as a Spanish name, since the contraction del is singular masculine, while Torres is plural feminine. De la Torre is a standard Spanish surname, as is simply Torres, and De las Torres is possible, but not what Ms. George chose. (Note: the initial d is capitalized when the name stands by itself, but not when it immediately follows another part of the full name.) A Web search for Del Torres turns up Americans with Del and Torres as first and last names, respectively, and a supposed place in Costa Rica called Bajos del Torres which, on further inspection, turns out to be Bajos de Torres (a neighborhood in the Uruca District of San José). And, of course there are also tracts in Florida with Del Torres as part of the name, just like Seinfeld‘s Del Boca Vista.

Now, the conjunction y (‘and’) was once commonly used between the first (paternal) and the second (maternal) surname in Spanish, but is now largely obsolete; for example, the son of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset went by José Ortega Spottorno. The y is sometimes inserted when it helps to avoid confusion, as, for example, when the first surname has the same form as a possible forename. Thus, if the famous physiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal had not used y, he might have been taken for someone with Santiago Ramón as his given names; similarly for Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, José María Gabriel y Galán, and others.

But, most importantly, most Hispanics don’t present themselves with their double surnames outside of official circumstances, and Argentineans least of all, perhaps because a great many of them are of non-Spanish descent. I have known a good many Argentineans in person, and many more by reputation. and only one person I knew used the double name: his name was Carlos García, and his desire to be distinguished from the thousands of other Carlos Garcías was understandable. If you look at Wikipedia’s long list of famous Argentineans, you will find that a bare handful have two surnames listed, and only one of them (Vicente López y Planes, 1785–1856) used y.

There is another factor to consider: there is a certain mystery about the character named Alatea Vasquez y del Torres, and I have to say, without revealing too much of the plot, that a change of identity is involved. It seems very unlikely that such a character, on leaving Latin America, would keep the full official Spanish version of her name, even if she had used it before, which is also unlikely. Of course the fact that she did so makes it possible for Barbara Havers (with Winston Nkata’s help) to trace Alatea’s background on the Internet, with the result that her parents are found to be Esteban Vega y de Vasquez and Dominga Padilla y del Torres de Vasquez. If those (with some corrections) were in fact the parents’ names, then Alatea would be Vega Padilla, not Vasquez y del Torres, and her mother’s name would end in de Vega, not de Vasquez. (Argentineans have clung, more than others, to the tradition of appending a man’s paternal surname, preceded by de, to his wife’s name; witness Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.)

As I said, all this would be fine in a comedy skit. As would be the name of Alatea’s hometown, Santa Maria de la Cruz, de los Angeles, y de los Santos. (Never mind that Spanish doesn’t use the serial comma, except to prevent ambiguity.) But not in a would-be realistic novel.

And then there is the matter of Alatea’s English. While we are told at the outset that she has a strong accent, and on at least one occasion that she can’t come up with the English word for something (though we are not told what the Spanish word might be), there is no indication of any Spanish influence in either the direct dialogue in which she participates, or in her thoughts as given in indirect speech. No eye dialect, no how do you say it in English, no grammatical lapses. The detectives’ attempts to contact her family show that no one in Santa Maria etc. speaks English, and Alatea seems to have had no higher eductaion, with her sojourn in anglophone territory (first Utah, then England) being relatively brief. So how, then, did she acquire the impeccable English of Elizabeth George’s upper-class characters?

It’s an added mystery, with no solution provided.

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One Response to “Spanish, by George”

  1. Italian, by George? | Coby Lubliner's Blog Says:

    […] George. In the first installment I detailed her lapses in reproducing British English, while in the second I discussed the mess she made trying to represent Spanish […]

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