Friday, October 12, 2007

Barcelona and Pepe Carvalho

I still have Offside to read, but have worked my way through all the rest of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Carvalho books (such as have been translated in any case). The earliest (or earliest to be translated) is The Angst-Ridden Executive, the closest of the novels to the end of the Franco regime and the first glimpse of the pessimism or disillusionment with democracy in Barcelona that characterizes the series as a whole. Carvalho's previous life in the CIA is also explained here a bit more fully than in later novels. First one and then another executive of a multinational corporation are killed, and there are hints of both corporate corruption and political collusion (plus ça change, as the French say). If later novels (and in particular An Olympic Death) bemoan the redevelopment (or destruction) of the city for the Olympics, the earlier ones, in particular The Angst-Ridden Executive, provide plenty of evidence that the city needed some cleaning up. Executive includes a hint of the metafictional quality of the series: a film director interviewed by Carvalho (one of the angst-ridden and deceased executive's friends) describes a film he'd like to make--and the plot is that of a later book in the series, Southern Seas.

In that book, one of the more philosophical in the series, a rich developer dreams of escaping to the South Seas, but instead goes underground in a seedy housing development that he built himself. Themes of bourgeois guilt, Marxist sympathies, and the real interests and points of view of the working classes are portrayed with empathy and specificity as elsewhere in the series, but in Southern Seas with exceptional clarity and sadness. There's a bit of animal cruelty in this book that you can smell from a mile away, when the animal is first introduced--adding an element of sadness that Vazquez Montalban will return to again and again, even in references to this specific animal, in later books. Another example of returning characters and themes occurs in An Olympic Death (which does not in fact deal directly with the Olympics at all, but with the demolition and construction leading up to it--and that only tangentially). In that book, a beautiful woman asks Carvalho to find "the man of my life," which is the title of the last Carvalho novel--and the woman (as well as the young woman at the center of Southern Seas) returns both in the "present" of that novel as well as in excerpts from the earlier books.

For a notorious book-burner, Carvalho demonstrates great respect for his fictional milieu. Two more comments--one about milieu and, first, one about the book burning. It originally shocked me when Carvalho pulled a book off the shelf and began tearing it up for kindling. Now, a bit older myself, I understand the impulse on several levels. While constitutionally incapable of destroying a book myself, I feel the same weight of a library carried forward through the years, and some of the same weariness with the published philosophies and discussions that I once found essential. The other comment, about milieu: some of the real places that Carvalho visits no longer exist, and others have changed. Barcelona is still a beautiful city, though it has lost some of the character that Vazquez Montalban treasured and portrayed. It's quite interesting to read the novels during and after a visit to Barcelona, because a historical, even geological, layer of the city's life and history are revealed behind and beneath the tourist-crowded plazas and buildings that embody the city's charm. Vazquez Montalban provides not a tourist guide to Barcelona and Catalonia, but a portrait that is at once narrow and in great depth. I'm motivated to go back to the other Barcelona crime novels that I've reviewed here to see if any will capture a view of the city that measures up to Vazquez Montalban's, even in part.


Knud Erik said...

Have any of you Montalban readers found some kind of overview that describes 1) Carvalhos menus and 2) a map that let you follow Carvalhos travels and wanderings?

Knud Erik Serup

Josh said...

I admire Manuel Montalbán who is supposed to be one of Catalonia's best writers. He is a prize winning mystery author (having won the Raymond Chandler Prize). Since most of his books are set in Barcelona - in main libraries and even in hotels in Barcelona halls and since Montalbán was a Catalan resident of Barcelona himself, I thought that his books might give me a feel for the city. Main character in series of his books is Pepe Carvalho a private detective. There is also a relatively constant cast of supporting dramatic personae, most notably Carvalho's friend, sidekick and cook, Biscuter. Like his creator, Manuel Montalbán, Carvalho is a leftist and ex-communist. Carvalho was imprisoned by Franco and Biscuter was his cellmate.