The blurb of Territorial Rights, one of prolific author Muriel Spark’s novels, says that it is ‘a celebration of human imperfection and complexity, with as many shifting identities, wardrobe changes, and sumptuous settings as a comic opera’. The novel was first published in 1979, and has been recently reissued by Virago.
The novel’s protagonist, Robert Leaver, has one aim in life – to become a serious art historian. The blurb, however, shows that there is an obstacle in way of his plans, when ‘his hopes for an academic life are put on hold when he flees from London to Venice to escape one lover and seek out another: the enigmatic Bulgarian refugee Lina Pancev’. Spark states that the trip which her protagonist takes is his first to the city, and goes on to describe that ‘he was young; but he had only half a mind to feel enchanted, the other half being still occupied with a personal anxiety in Paris from where he had just come’.
Lina, the woman with whom Robert meets up with in the city, has her own problems. Her father, Victor, was suspected of being involved in a plan to poison King Boris of Bulgaria. She has journeyed to Venice in order to locate her father’s grave and pay her respects. Robert’s friend Curran, a sixty-something American, who is also introduced rather early on in the story, believes that Lina is ‘dangerous. She’s a defector from Bulgaria and it seems to me she’s being followed’. Indeed, many of Spark’s characters in Territorial Rights are not quite as they seem from the first. Elements of smoke and mirrors have been used throughout, to create almost a mystery novel of sorts.
Territorial Rights soon turns into a family affair. Rather than remaining the protagonist of the piece, Robert is merely the link in the chain, allowing Spark to tell the stories of many other characters whilst using their relationships with him as a starting point. Robert’s father, for example, turns up in Venice on the premise of having a ‘little holiday’ with his mistress, Mary Tiller. A parallel story also runs alongside the action in Italy, which details the actions of Anthea Leaver, who decides to appoint a private investigator from the ‘Fidelity Department’ to watch her unfaithful husband.
As with the majority of Spark’s novels, the third person perspective has been used throughout. In this way, Spark highlights the differences between her characters, from the rather eccentric and adulterous Lina, to caddish Robert, and his sensible mother, Anthea. The characters are introduced at intervals, and the way which Spark has of launching her readers directly into the action which involves each and every person she creates is marvellous. She is so gifted at crafting believable scenarios and memorable characters.
Throughout, Spark’s writing and the sense of place which she creates are certainly strong. As in her other books, her wit and cunning find strong footholds throughout the novel, and she does sarcasm so very well. The political undercurrents, which are brought to the forefront of the novel from around the halfway point, have all been well considered. Territorial Rights is not the best of Spark’s stories, but it is a clever and thoroughly entertaining one nonetheless.