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.