After finishing a recent reread of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s excellent Spanish-Civil-War novel, In the Night of Time (translated by Edith Grossman), I was browsing my shelves for something else to try when I stumbled across an exciting (re)discovery. It was a book that had slipped my mind, another novel dealing with the same era, and one I had intended to try several times over the years without ever getting around to it. However, where AMM’s novel was a dark, brooding work detailing a descent into chaos, my latest read turned out to be a far lighter affair, featuring a foreigner caught up in intrigue and turmoil. Sounds great, no? If only I’d picked it up in 2013 when I was sent it 😉
Eduardo Mendoza’s An Englishman in Madrid (translated by Nick Caistor, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) begins with English academic and art expert Anthony Whitelands on his way to Madrid. He has been commissioned to examine the collection of an aristocratic Spanish family in the hope that some paintings can be sold to raise funds, enabling the family members to quietly slip out of the country before the inevitable bloodshed of the coming conflict begins. Whitelands has his own reasons for wanting some time abroad, and the warm welcome he receives from the Duke of Igualada, and his beautiful daughter Paquita, makes the job even more enjoyable.
Alas, it isn’t long before this excellent adventure turns into a bit of a nightmare. After losing his passport (at a brothel), our friend comes to the attention of the British Embassy, and further mishaps see him hauled into the local police station to be interrogated by some rather important people. The truth is that Whitelands’ innocent task turns out to be rather more complicated (not to mention illegal) than he’d imagined, involving a legendary lost painting, the charismatic leader of the Falange terrorist group and a Soviet spy eager to get rid of the interfering Englishman. And that’s before we even get to his women problems…
An Englishman in Madrid was the recipient of the Premio Planeta de Novela in 2010, an award that comes with a whopping €601,000 in prize money, so I was expecting something fairly high-brow from Mendoza’s novel, but what I ended up reading was very different. It’s an engaging, entertaining and at times farcical novel, with the setting of the build-up to the Spanish Civil War little more than window dressing to the plot. While the writer sets the stage with protagonists from all sides of the political divide, the book is really all about Whitelands and his journey into the unknown.
The humour is evident from the first pages, with our hero writing a letter from the safety of his train carriage, breaking off with a married woman he has been too cowardly to dump in person. Once in the Spanish capital, he bumbles from incident to incident, trailed by police officers and sought out by people who want to ingratiate themselves with him (or get rid of him). Despite his virtually perfect Spanish, he frequently manages to get lost, stranded or penniless – he’s not exactly spy material, but somehow he ends up in the middle of a conspiracy with all sides hoping to use him (including several women).
It’s only when it comes to art that Whitelands’ true colours actually shine. Mention a painting, and the confused tourist becomes an academic with a razor-sharp intellect, ready to shoot down anyone who challenges his views, even the fiery Paquita:
“I detect a hint of irony in your voice,” said Anthony. “I’m probably boring you with my ramblings. But I must insist that you’re wrong. Experts’ debates and theories may seem dull, and my articles definitely are, but art itself isn’t. Paintings mean things, just as much as poems or music do – important things. I know that for a lot of people an old painting is nothing more than a precious possession, a collector’s item or an excuse to show off one’s knowledge in order to advance in the academic world, and I won’t deny that these factors exist and need to be taken into account. But above all, a work of art is the expression of something both sublime and yet at the same time deeply rooted in our beliefs and emotions.”
p.171 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
It’s for this reason that the visiting Englishman is of such importance. At the heart of the story lies a special painting, a possible unknown Velázquez that has a different meaning for different people. For Whitelands, of course, it means fame in the art world; for some of the owner’s family members, it offers an opportunity to flee Spain. However, there are also those who hope to use the painting to fund their cause and bring the country closer to revolution…
While An Englishman in Madrid finishes before the revolutionary action begins, the reader is introduced to several real-life figures who were to feature in the events later that year. One of the key characters of the novel is José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the Falangist leader (and Whitelands’ main rival for Paquita), and he proves to be a fascinating character who is unable to decide what to do with his new acquaintance. We even catch a few glimpses of Franco himself, a brutal, brooding figure whom the Englishman is lucky enough to avoid (we sense this would not have been a happy encounter). Interestingly, where Muñoz Molina’s characters were overwhelmingly from the left, our time in Mendoza’s world is mostly spent with those on the right, making for an interesting overview of the complicated politics of the time.
In truth, though, In the Night of Time and An Englishman in Madrid are completely different books, and if you want a more apt comparison (albeit one only British readers of a certain age will understand), what Mendoza’s book reminds me of most is the BBC comedy series ‘Allo ‘Allo. This slightly dated (and very un-PC) sitcom featured a middle-aged café owner living under German occupation in Vichy France, and An Englishman in Madrid is surprisingly similar in the way a man who just wants to get on with his life is constantly sidetracked by women and rival spy factions. Take the following scene, in which the Duke’s son comes to Whitelands’ hotel room for an urgent discussion:
Anthony closed the door, pointed to the only chair in the room, quickly pulled the cover over the bed, and sat down on it.
“Don’t bother,” said Guillermo del Valle. “I’ll only take a few minutes of your time. Are we alone? Yes, I can see we are. I meant, can we talk and be sure no-one will overhear us? As I told you, it’s a matter of extreme urgency.”
Judging that this was hardly the moment to admit there was an adolescent prostitute hiding in the wardrobe, Anthony invited the newcomer to explain what it was all about. (p.226)
The parallels between Whitelands and the hapless René Artois include the frequent meetings with the authorities and various underground organisations (“I shall say ‘zis only once…”) and the way virtually every women he meets wants to jump into bed with him. Even the painting points to a connection – once we eventually get to ‘see’ the alleged lost Velázquez, it’s *very* difficult not to think of it as the picture of The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies…
An Englishman in Madrid is unlikely to add too much to your knowledge of 1930s Madrid, and it can be overwhelmed by some heavy info-dumping in places, but overall Mendoza’s humorous spy novel is a delight, with Caistor doing an excellent job of maintaining the tone and ensuring the story manages the difficult balancing act between farce and thriller. I’m not totally convinced that it deserved a cash prize that would enable the writer to buy my house several times over, but it certainly made for an enjoyable few hours and shows that you shouldn’t be too hasty about culling your bookcases – you never know when you might find time for those books lurking on the back shelves.