The fine line between solitude and loneliness cracks into a chasm in the solipsistic novel ominously titled ‘Solitude House’, published by local writer M. G. Sanchez, who participated in the last Gibraltar International Literary Festival, to present his latest novel ‘Jonathan Gallardo’.
Surely, Sanchez knows how to put the ‘soul’ – or shall we say ghoul? – in ‘solitude’, when he unravels in some three hundred pages the last thirty years of the tormented life of a darkly narcissistic character whom everyone sees as a respectable general physician at the Medical Centre, but who in reality is a self-confessed amoral misanthrope and misogynistic womaniser. The subplot surfs the significant political and social changes that Gibraltar experienced in the 80s, including the partial opening of the border in 1982 and the full reopening of the gates in 1985, while the protagonist strives in his personal ascension to the summit of the metaphoric and topographic hill of premium property ownership.
Doctor John Seracino is the anti-hero every reader will love to hate and, despite rationally finding him despicable in his bedside manners, or lack thereof, both with his tedious patients and his sassy señoritas, you will be mesmerised by the brazen charisma and utter cheek with which he conducts himself in all situations, whether he is processing patients like items at the supermarket checkout or shopping for ‘fresh meat’ at the nightclub.
The reader will wonder how on earth – or how in hell – this sociopathic doctor is allowed to practice when he exhibits such little empathy for those around him. And yet, you will do just that: empathise to the fullest with his lifelong goal to isolate himself from any form of human contact.
There’s indeed a romantic, almost Wildean grandeur in the stylisation of this Maltese-born, London-educated otolaryngologist relegated to GP duties in a British colony where he expects to work the least possible hours, make the most possible money and enjoy an early and secluded retirement. If the first part of the story could fit comfortably with Zola or Dickens, the grand finale is definitely worthy of Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King in its clinical analysis of the devastating effects of loneliness on the human mind, no matter how conceitedly superior or educated.
At the core of what Mark describes as his ‘irreverent’ novel, stands the purpose, perhaps life mission, of the doctor to move up the property ladder – ridding himself of obnoxious neighbours and landing himself the most isolated house on the Rock, after years of frustrated and frustrating attempts. The cynical descriptions of insufferable neighbours are the highlight of his residency in rented accommodation – though not half as freaky as the ones he will bump into at Solitude House though…
There are two living exceptions to the mob of faceless characters populating the book: the first is the gentlemanly attired realtor who seeks Seracino’s medical help in treating his grandson’s throat infection, and becomes pivotal in advising him about the imminent auctioning of a derelict, solitary, and almost inaccessible colonial cottage perched on a cliff. The second is named just as the Bishop, a level-headed bereted septuagenarian who accepts to perform a purification ritual at the grounds, but unwittingly ends up unleashing hell, if not literally, at least literarily.
And if the power of the mind is indeed stronger than the laws of physics, then the last chapter affords unobstructed views over the dire straits of the personal hell that psychosis or obsession can stir. Mark says: “I chose a doctor as my protagonist, because I was interested in the idea of the duality of a man who is supposed to care for others, but is also very misanthropic and a shameless womaniser. I wanted the character to be Maltese because I wanted him to have an outsider’s view of Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians. If he had been Gibraltarian, he would have never been able to reflect on what he sees around him like he does. I also cherish the idea of a pro-British Empire traditionalist coming to Gibraltar because of its Britishness, only to discover that Gibraltar and Malta are more similar than what he thought at first.”
John Seracino is a particularly vivid character, whose disdainful manner cannot be easily forgotten, and whose dramatic self-confinement to his bedroom to avoid the ‘faces’ appearing in and around the ruin in his property’s backyard will surely haunt you. Although the novel deals with issues such as medical negligence, superstition, mental illness, depression and loneliness with high-flying professionals, Mark assures us that his exquisitely confectioned noir is nothing more than a divertissement, a form of escapism for the twisted mind: “There’s no moral in this story. It’s just a work of black comedy, that’s all, and everybody can read into it what they will. Above all, it is meant to be an entertaining book.”
The novel has been critically acclaimed overseas and was the subject of two lectures delivered by Professor Ina Habermann last June and October, at the Universities of Basel and Portsmouth respectively. Similarly, the Italian journal of post-colonial studies Il Tolomeo writes: “With his new novel, M.G. Sanchez not only brings to the fore the theme of Gibraltar identity and society, but he also widens his gaze and considers the historical interconnections with another anglophone territory in the Mediterranean: Malta.”
Speaking about his recent participation at at the Gibraltar Literary Festival, Mark said: “It was great to come back home and deliver a talk before a Gibraltarian audience. In the last eighteen months I have spoken about my books in different venues across Europe, but, above all, I wanted to do so in my hometown. It was both an honour and a pleasure for me to be finally able to do so.”
Solitude House is available on Amazon in paperback and e-book, or can be purchased locally from the Gibraltar Heritage Trust shop in John Mackintosh Square.