Lost Books – City of Marvels

Eduardo Mendoza has only been sporadically well-served by UK publishers: City of Marvels, originally published in 1986, appeared in English as soon as 1988 thanks to Harvill Press, with another three novels following. Then, in 2007, Telegram published the hilarious No Word from Gurb followed by another early, humorous work, The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt. (A third title was announced but has yet to appear.) City of Marvels has long been out of print but I recently discovered a copy in a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh (an unusual occurrence these days where almost everything is found online).

City of Marvels is the story of Onofre Bouvila who rises from poverty to riches in the traditional manner – dishonestly (even Dickens teaches us, in Great Expectations, that wealth, unless inherited, can only be gained through criminality, albeit second hand). This is, in fact, a rather traditional novel, and hugely entertaining for that. Bouvila arrives in Barcelona looking for a job but unable to find one. When all seems lost he is offered work handing out leaflets for an anarchist group, but soon decides there is a better living to be made selling hair restorer. From this point on he rarely looks back, rising, by cunning (and a little violence) to the top of Barcelona’s criminal class. During the course of the story he manages to fall in love no less than three times: firstly to his landlord’s daughter (where he overcomes the twin obstacles of an existing boyfriend and a mad cat); secondly with the daughter of his crime boss (for whom, of course, he is not good enough); and finally with the daughter of an inventor he finances. (I don’t know if he can’t find a woman attractive without knowing her father or whether it’s simply that that’s the only way he meets women).

As you might suspect, Bouvila is not an entirely attractive character. He uses all those around him (though admittedly that is the kind of world he lives in) and has largely disowned his family. His desire to succeed stems for his own father’s failure – having spent years in Cuba he returned claiming to be wealthy only for it to be discovered he was as poor as when he departed. He does show loyalty to a few souls, particularly Efren with whom he began his adventures in hair product retail, and his cross-dressing landlord whom he later employs. But he is, above all, a character from a novel, just that little bit bigger than life in every direction. The same can be said of many of the other characters, the plainest probably being his only friend, Efren, who is literally a giant instead.

The novel is also about Barcelona itself, as we can see from the opening pages which give us a history of the city from its founding by the Phoenicians. It is book-ended by the two World’s Fairs which took place in the city. Bouvila begins handing out pamphlets to the workers building the first World Fair in 1888, and ends by sponsoring an exhibit at the second in 1929. Clearly Mendoza is to Barcelona as Dickens is to London, and, like Dickens, he is a novelist who likes to leaven his drama with humour and a world-weary satire. A thoroughly enjoyable novel which deserves reprinting (hopefully at the same time his award winning Rina de gatas. Madrid, 1936 appears in English!)

But, before I go, I can’t resist leaving you with this quotation on the night that the Olympics come to a close:

“Ever since fascism caught on in Europe, all governments were encouraging participation in sports and attendance at sports competitions.”

Of course, in 1929 economic conditions weren’t great…


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