Eduardo Mendoza’s Riña de gatos won the Planeta Prize in 2010 (worth an astonishing 601,000 euros) ensuring that every review of its English translation by Nick Caistor, An Englishman in Madrid, begins with mention of this fact – this one being no exception. Unfortunately it also influences our reception of the novel, raising expectations of a literary classic, particularly given its eve of civil war setting. Mendoza, however, is a novelist who wants to entertain as well impress, and also has a taste for the absurd, as anyone who has read the laugh out loud No Word from Gurb will testify. What we have then is a comic thriller with a cast of ridiculous characters and a convoluted plot which still manages to shed light on Spain at a turning point in its history.
The Englishman of the title, Anthony Whitehead, is an art expert lured to Madrid to value the art collection of the Duke of La Igualada who hopes, so he is told, to raise capital abroad as Spain approaches crisis point, and kept there by a combination of the Duke’s alluring elder daughter and the belief he has unearthed a lost Velazquez in the family basement. All the characters in the novel are comic creations to some extent but Whitehead particularly so, handing over his wallet and passport for safekeeping to a Spaniard he has just met in order to avail himself of the services of a teenage prostitute. He is the very opposite of James Bond: hapless, helpless, easily confused by the opposite sex, and always the last to know what is really going on. Inadvertently he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that includes fascists, communists, the army, the British and the Russians with real life figures such as Rivera and Franco making an appearance. Though constantly distracted by his appetites for food and sex, he remains fixated on the main prize of the painting.
Though as pacey as any thriller, history tells us the outcome of the various machinations of the time: no-one can save Spain from civil war. Defying the expectations of the genre, Whitehead’s actions are ultimately inconsequential – even the letter he writes at the very beginning breaking off a love affair, advised, as he is, at the end to:
“Go back to London to your paintings and your books. And ask Catherine to forgive you.”
Similarly, his face off with Rivera when he denounces him as a communist spy – a typical thriller confrontation – also comes to nothing: the pair simply burst out laughing.
Any darkness seems almost accidental: Whitehead’s hospitality in the homes of both the rich and the poor stressing the divide that will bring the nation to war, echoed perhaps in Velazquez’s painting so both royalty and the court’s fools. Another painting takes centre stage, however: Titian’s Death of Actaeon – a copy of which resides in the Duke’s house. In it Actaeon is in the process of transforming into a deer, his own dogs already attacking him. It is this image of violence, rather than Velazquez’s depiction of beauty, which best illustrates what is to come.