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Jesus Torbado. El imperio de arena. Barcelona. Plaza & Janes. 1998. 286 pages. ISBN 84-01-38583-0.

Of all the Spanish overseas territories, perhaps the least known were those protectorates in the western Sahara whose boundaries were the Atlantic Ocean on the west and Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania on the north, east, and south respectively. This veritable "empire of sand" was created by Isabel La Catolica and abandoned by General Franco, once and for all, in 1975.

Jesus Torbado invites us to relive the last forty years of this quasi- extraterrestrial enclave through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards that he weaves around the protagonist, Lisa Cifuentes de Vega. She was the only Spaniard who stayed behind when all the others, including the Spanish Foreign Legion, left. For almost the entire novel we think we know why Lisa refused to go, but it is not until story's end that we are jolted with the truth. In fact, Torbado so completely lulls us into a sense of complacency that we do not even look forward to a surprise ending. Instead, like the protagonist herself, we abandon any attempt to control time in this timeless outpost and give ourselves over to the existential moment.

By and large, most of those moments are worth living, even though the Spanish Civil War looms ominously overhead like a Saharan sirocco. Mercifully, Torbado dispenses with the sordid details of the war and begins his story with young Lisa's departure from La Mancha and her arrival, via the Canary Islands, in sun-drenched, coastal Sidi Ifni, where her aunt and uncle became in loco parentis. In one sense, it was as if Lisa had been brought there by a genie, since the land was one where even the most commonplace possessed an aura of marvel. Accordingly, when Lisa relinquished her virginity to Captain Rafa Hernandez, the rite de passage unfolded in a starlit palm grove with crescent moon overhead and a muezzin's languorous chanting emanating from a distant minaret. There are also moments of adventure for adventure's sake reminiscent of Percival Wren's Beau Geste, as when we glimpse life lived on the edge by legionnaires at Ug Gug and Tabelcut, whose toponymy was as exotic as their locations were remote.

Notwithstanding the extraordinariness of Lisa's surroundings, she was not blinded to the inexorable duplicity and betrayal by Franco and Spain as a whole that led to the ultimate demise of the protectorates and the life-style associated with them. Torbado makes very clear that Franco and his cabinet ministers at the Foreign Office displayed arrogant ingratitude toward those Spaniards who had tried to make of the empire of sand something more than a mirage and a stage for international proxy wars. Nevertheless, the demoralization that the General's political expediency caused among the troops gave rise to some unforgettable compensatory behavior, such as that which occurred one Saturday afternoon when Lisa was visited by a dejected young recruit. The combination of an older, more worldly Lisa's generous desire to lift the spirits of the homesick boy while simultaneously releasing her own pent-up emotions culminates in a scene that makes the movie Deep Throat pale by comparison.

Jesus Torbado's intimate knowledge of western Saharan geography, along with his historically based fiction, puts into motion a most pleasing sphere of discourse whose intertextual components never once allow the story line to crash.

David Ross Gerling

Sam Houston State University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Gerling, David Ross
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Words:550
Previous Article:Lorenzo Silva. El lejano pais de los estanques. Barcelona. Destino. 1998. 244 pages. ISBN 84-233-2991-7.
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