Friday, October 23, 2009

Tattoo, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Serpent's Tail recently published a new translation (by Nick Caistor) of Tattoo, the second Pepe Carvalho story by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (originally published in 1976, never before translated as far as I can tell, and the first in the series, Yo maté a Kennedy [I killed Kennedy] has never been translated). Carvalho is fully formed in Tattoo, and some of the background of all the novels is more fully shown here (a fuller description of Barcelona's Rambla and some other neighborhoods and of Pepe's habit of burning books, as well as a more developed sense of his girlfriend Charo's character and her life as a prostitute). His background in the CIA is relevant in Tattoo when he travels to Amsterdam and encounters cops that he knew in his former life (though as usual the Barcelona police are mostly off-stage, referred to but not present in the story). There is one name that I had always wondered about in the other books, Bromide, the shoe-shine man and informant who is obsessed with bromides being put in the drinking water to make the populace impotent: is his name meant to be pronounced Bro-mee-day as it would be in Spanish? A question rendered moot in Caistor's version, which gives his name as Bromuro, so I guess Bromide was an Anglicization of his nickname. Pepe is hired by the owner of a hair salon to identify a corpse recently discovered in the sea, with his face eaten away and a distinctive tattoo, "born to raise hell in hell." The dead man inspires a reference to song about a women seeking her missing tattooed sailor, a refrain that echoes throughout the novel, causing Pepe to assume that there is a lovelorn woman behind the man's death. Ultimately, Pepe becomes interested as much in why he has been hired than in the identification of the body (which he accomplishes easily enough in following the trail to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, though he's beaten up and thrown in a canal in the process). The eventual resolution of his search into that problem is a twist that shocks Pepe (who of course seeks solace in food, one of the chief themes of the series). It has never been that necessary to read the Carvalho novels in order, but now that this early book is available, it would be interesting to start at (nearly) the beginning and follow the detective's career as it developed up to the last translated novel, The Man of My Life, an elegaic farewell by Vázquez Montalbán to Barcelona and his character. Some changes occur to the characters along the way (the death of Bromuro/Bromide for one, as well as the appearance, post-Tattoo, of Biscuter, the detective's assistant and cook) but Carvalho is fully developed already in Tattoo: a philosophical, former Marxist, former CIA, always gourmet, and politically incorrect lens on Spain, Barcelona, and modern life. Some of his actions are deplorable, particularly in his treatment of women (both physical and emotional assaults), which would moderate a bit as he aged (Pepe is in his late 30s in Tattoo). Following that development would be one of the interesting aspects of starting the series over. Now we can only hope that Serpent's Tail (or someone) will bring us the the rest of the untranslated volumes (eight have been translated out of 24, though one is a cookbook), including the first and the last, Milenio Carvalho (Carvalho Millennium), which is a two-volume philosophical journey around the world with Carvalho and Biscuter.

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