Archive for the ‘Eduardo Mendoza’ Category

The Truth About the Savolta Case

July 1, 2014

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July is Spanish Lit month  thanks to Stu at winstonsdad  and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos so it seemed appropriate to begin with one of my favourite Spanish writers. (You can see Stu’s the first entry here).

Eduardo Mendoza’s most recent novel to appear in English was An Englishman in Madrid (not a literal translation of its Spanish title); his first novel, The Truth About the Savolta Case, might well have been called A Frenchman in Barcelona. (It did, in fact, have an alternative title, Soldiers of Catalonia, but this proved too politically sensitive when it was first published in 1975). Though largely narrated by Javier Miranda (more on that later), its events revolve around the charismatic French businessman, Lepprince who, shortly after his arrival in Barcelona, becomes indispensable to the Savolta company. It is Lepprince who takes the reins after Savolta is gunned down, supposedly by anarchists, after a bitter industrial dispute. This is only one of a number of deaths in the novel as Mendoza uses the crime genre to explore Catalonia’s turbulent history between 1917 and 1919 – its political chaos possibly a surreptitious way of reflecting anxiety about Spain’s future without Franco.

The novel’s narrative, perhaps appropriately for a mystery, is presented to us as a jigsaw. While Miranda is the central first person narrator, there are many other voices, including a transcript of Miranda’s deposition before a judge in America in 1927, a sworn statement by Inspector Vasquez, who plays the detective role in the story, and articles written by the radical journalist Parjito de Soto (another murder victim) as well as third person sections focussing on other characters. These are not always presented in chronological order, adding to the reader’s sense that they are solving the riddle, but it would be wrong to think of the novel as a post-modern playground where the word ‘Truth’ is ironic: by the novel’s conclusion it is quite clear who has done what and why.

If anything, Mendoza’s novel might be described as Dickensian. Not only does it comfortably range across the classes from Nemesio the mad beggar to the King, who graces one of Lepprince’s parties, but is clear about the economic motives of its characters. The central scam of the Savolta case involves selling illegal arms to Germany. Lepprince’s ruthless takeover of the company only mirrors the way Savolta and others came into their shareholding having duped the original Dutch owner and his heirs. Even Parjito is corrupted by Lepprine’s offer of money to conduct an ‘investigation’ into working conditions. Other Dickensian tropes are in evidence: a letter that Parjito posts before his death incriminating Lepprince which no-one seems to have; Nemesio who claims to know the truth but who no-one will listen to; and Miranda, implausibly innocent as so many of Dickens’ heroes are.

Miranda is redeemed by his love for the singer Maria Coral, but is so blind that, when Lepprince arranges for them to marry, he doesn’t realise that Lepprince’s main motive is to have Maria available as a lover. It could be argued, however, that Miranda’s love for Maria eventually saves her (literally when he finds her ill, but also metaphorically from herself). His loyalty to Lepprince is also admirable, if equally naïve. Again, Lepprince’s final act, through Miranda, suggests that, even there, he has had a positive influence. Like Dickens, and like most detective fiction, most characters get what they deserve.

The Truth About the Savolta Case is currently out of print, but well worth seeking out if you are interested in Spanish fiction. Despite the fractured narrative, the novel is very readable (and many of the different narrative forms disappear in the novel’s second half) and Mendoza recreates the period with panache but without ever losing sight of his characters. My only disappointment in finishing this was that I have now read all of his novels available in English.

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An Englishman in Madrid

July 11, 2013

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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.

Lost Books – City of Marvels

August 12, 2012

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…