A while back, I enjoyed two very different works by Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina, where the contrast lay not so much in the style but in the size. While the slender In Her Absence can be knocked off in an hour or so, the rather meatier Spanish-Civil-War epic In the Night of Time, running to around six-hundred pages, required a much larger investment of reading hours. Still, I’d have to say that in terms of difficulty, my latest Muñoz Molina read has easily taken the most effort. You see, when I checked the library database to see if any of his books were available, only one showed up – and that just happened to be in the original language. It was time to once again scrape the rust off my GCSE Spanish and see if I could make sense of a story that focuses on a man, a woman and the night…
In El invierno in Lisboa (Winter in Lisbon), the narrator visits a hotel bar in Madrid and is surprised to see an old friend up on stage playing the piano. While the name used by the pianist is Giacomo Dolphin, the writer knows him better as Santiago Biralbo, a man he used to drink with a few years back at The Lady Bug bar in the coastal town of San Sebastián. After the performance, the old friends get to talking and drinking, and over the next few days, Biralbo gradually reveals what he’s been up to since they last met.
What the writer is most curious about is the whereabouts of Lucrecia, a married woman Biralbo had a fling with before she disappeared one day with her husband. Little does he know that there’s a long story behind this sudden dislocation, one that involves Biralbo himself, and it will eventually take us to Lisbon. If we thought the story was ancient history, though, we’re very much mistaken:
– Míralo – dijo Biralbo -. Mira cómo sonrie.
Me acerqué a él y aparté ligeramente la cortina para mirar a la calle. En la otra acera, inmóvil y más alto que quienes pasaban a su lado, Toussaints Morton miraba y sonreía como aprobándolo todo: la noche de Madrid, el frío, las mujeres quietas que fumaban cerca de él, al filo de la acera, apoyadas en un indicador de dirección, en la pared de la Telefónica.
p.74 (Seix Barral, 2016)
“Look at him,” said Biralbo. “Look at him smiling.”
I moved towards him and opened the curtain a little to look out into the street. On the opposite pavement, unmoving and taller than anyone walking past, Toussaints Morton was watching and smiling approvingly at everything: the Madrid night, the cold, the hookers smoking nearby at the end of the pavement, leaning against a signpost, against the wall of the telephone booth. *** (my translation)
Biralbo’s adventures have seen him pursued by some very dangerous people, and they’re not quite prepared to give up on him yet…
If that sounds very much like a set up for a noir thriller, you’re not far wrong. Il invierno in Lisboa is very much a story of the dark, with much of the action occurring as night falls over San Sebastián and Lisbon (although, of course, the majority actually takes place in Biralbo’s hotel room as he recounts his adventures over a bottle of bourbon). Languidly told for the most part, there’s a marked contrast with the occasional acceleration, a few adrenalin-filled scenes thrown in for good measure, and together this quasi-melodramatic style makes for an evocative mood reminiscent of a classic movie from the 1950s – which is certainly no coincidence.
The key to the story is the relationship between Lucrecia and Biralbo, one her jealous husband, the American art dealer and restorer Bruce Malcolm, is suspicious of from the start. One day the pair disappear, primarily to get Lucrecia out of Biralbo’s sights. However, as we later learn, there’s a further, more mercenary, incentive for the move, as Malcolm becomes involved in a shadowy world of art dealers and small-time crooks, always believing that the chance of a major coup is just around the corner.
It comes as no surprise when Lucrecia returns to San Sebastián, and when she begs for help, it’s hard for Biralbo to turn her down:
“Me hiciste una promesa”, dijo, con la cara hundida en el pecho de Biralbo, incorporándose sobre los codos para apresarle el vientre bajo las duras aristas de sus caderas y alcanzar su boca, como si temiera perderlo: “Llévame a Lisboa.” (pp.112/3)
“You made me a promise,” she said, with her face buried in Biralbo’s chest, raising herself onto her elbows to squeeze his stomach beneath the hard ridges of her hips, and reach his mouth, as if she were afraid of losing him: “Take me to Lisbon.” ***
Throughout the first half of the novel, Lisbon is used as a recurring theme, playing on the musical background of the novel. There’s the song on the album Biralbo once recorded and the scrawled letter on the back of a map, clues as to what is to come, teasing the reader mercilessly. We know there’s a Lisbon-sized gap in Biralbo’s history, but it’s not until the final third of the novel that Biralbo lets his friend – and us – in on his secrets.
The evident noir style is particularly apparent in the cast of characters Muñoz Molina provides. There are Malcolm and Lucrecia, of course, as well as the splendidly world-weary alcoholic trumpeter Billy Swan. However, the stars of the show are the enigmatic Toussaints Morton and his secretary Daphne, a couple who radiate charm and trouble from the off. Their first appearance is in San Sebastián, pretending to be friends of Lucrecia’s, when the truth is that they’re anything but. The giant African’s appearance beneath Biralbo’s Madrid window years later is typically underplayed. Toussaints’ casual smiling manner belying his desire to track down the couple he believes to have double-crossed him.
El invierno en Lisboa is an incredibly evocative novel, with scents, songs and phrases returning to haunt pianist and reader alike, and you can’t go wrong with a liberal amount of music, whiskey, spying and revolvers. At one point, it even turns meta when Biralbo’s response to one of Malcolm’s threats turns out to be a quotation from Casablanca, with the American infuriated by the ‘cultural’ talk… It’s all very cinematic, so there’s no surprise that it was actually adapted for the screen. In literary terms, there’s more than a hint of Javier Marías here in the nocturnal scenes and the lengthy conversations, but my one criticism would be that the characters, while vivid, are very much types rather than people, showing very little psychological development (Daphne, for example, is particularly two-dimensional). Still, you can’t have everything, and if there are a few flat spots, for the most part it all comes together nicely.
Overall, El invierno en Lisboa is an entertaining slow burner, at the same time a love story, a thriller of sorts and an homage to old crime writers and cinema. It’s an early work, but while I wouldn’t say that it’s up there with In the Night of Time, for example, it’s certainly worth a read if you can get your hands on a copy (there is a Granta Books edition, Winter in Lisbon, translated by Sonia Soto, but it appears to be out of print). Interestingly enough, it appears that Muñoz Molina himself recently looked back at the book. The copy I read was a later edition, and the afterword has him looking back at the book almost thirty years on and commenting on how his latest work sees him return to Lisbon. Like a Fading Shadow (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is due for release in July – I, for one, am very keen to see how the writer uses the city as a backdrop this time around.