Radical media, politics and culture.

Jill Adams, "Manuel Vázquez Montalbán [1939-2003]"

hydrarchist writes:

"From the Barcelona Review on the great spanish noir writer, recently deceased."

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

The Man and His Work: A Retrospective

Jill Adams

Reviewing: An Olympic Death and The Buenos Aires Quintet

When Manuel Vázquez Montalbán died suddenly last October, the city of
Barcelona went into serious mourning. Hours and hours of television were devoted to his
memory. Many of Spain’s most important literary figures, politicians and journalists
spoke movingly of the man and his work. Montalbán was a highly respected social critic
and political commentator, giving articulate and intelligent voice to the left. He wrote a
weekly column for El Pais and his byline was sought after by the major newspapers
in Europe; his frequent speaking engagements drew large audiences. He was equally well
known for his poetry, plays, essays and articles on food and culture, humorist pieces, and
numerous novels and short stories.He is the author of Galíndez (1990) — adapted for film in 2003 and staring
Harvey Keitel as the CIA agent. It is a fictional account of the real-life Jesús
Galíndez, a Basque Republican Nationalist who fled Franco’s Spain and became a
history professor at Columbia, New York, where he dedicated his life to fighting the
dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic until he "disappeared" after
being kidnapped from his home in 1956. Vintage Montalbán.

This award-winning novel and others, like the book collections of his articles and
essays, are only available in Spanish, but Spain was not alone in its mourning. For
Montalbán was also the creator of private detective José ‘Pepe’ Carvalho, one
of the world’s most popular detectives. The Pepe Carvalho novels have been translated
into 24 languages and continue to be read by all who love the genre as well as by those
who simply appreciate Pepe’s left-wing sentiments which not surprisingly crop up
quite regularly. Most of the novels are set in Barcelona, so for those who know the city,
it’s fun reading, and for those who would like to get to know it, there is no better
place to start. (Madrid, Buenos Aires, Afghanistan, Iraq and Bali provide other settings.)
For this series, which spans over two decades and 22 novels, Montalbán was awarded both
the Raymond Chandler Prize and the French Grand Prix for Detective Fiction.

Known to friends as Manolo, Montalbán was born in Barcelona’s seedy Barrio Chino
just after the Spanish civil war. His father (like Pepe’s) was a communist laborer
imprisoned for five years after the war; his mother, a member of the local anarchist
party, was a seamstress. Montalbán took a degree with honors in philosophy and literature
at the University of Barcelona, and then took a job selling funeral insurance policies. He
joined the anti-Franco resistance in the student-based Popular Liberation Front and the
Front Obrer Català, going on to become a leading member of Catalunya’s communist
party, the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya.

At a time when speaking out against the dictatorship meant imprisonment and possibly
death, Montalbán began his prolific journalistic career by contributing articles to the
Francoist newspaper Solidaridad Nacional, where he slyly slid in criticism of the
regime when the opportunity arose, such as in his obituary of Ernest Hemingway. But his
politics caught up with him and in 1962, after taking part in a demonstration supporting a
miners’ strike in Galicia, he was thrown in jail and tortured. The four-year sentence
was mercifully reduced to a year and a half thanks to an amnesty marking the death of Pope
John XXIII. His wife, Anna Sallés, who survives him along with a son, was also imprisoned
at the time.

Upon his release he was blacklisted from work in journalism. To make ends meet he
worked as a researcher for the encyclopedia publisher Larousse. Then when the progressive
news magazine Triunfo was launched in 1966, Montalbán found a new outlet for his
writing; here he contributed numerous essays and articles on Spanish culture while
continuing to deliver thinly veiled criticism of the Franco regime, later collected in the
book A Sentimental Chronicle of Spain. With Franco’s death in 1975 Montalbán
was at last given full rein to speak out, and he never ceased. His last book, La
, a scathing analysis of the policies of the current right-wing Spanish Prime
Minister, Jose María Aznar, came out posthumously and remains on the bestseller list in
Spain today. (Aznar was among those who spoke in tribute to Montalbán, which, as a Guardian
journalist noted, "must have been through clenched teeth.")

Dolors Udina, the Catalan editor of TBR, remembers how much she looked forward to his
weekly article in Triunfo during the 70s: "It came out every Thursday and I
was always eager to read it. He wrote under a variety of names then and one I’ll
always remember was ‘Sixto Cámera.’ After Triunfo came the politically
satirical magazine Por Favor, very funny, which got closed down, and later another,
Hermano Lobo . . . He was one of the leading spokespeople of our
generation."  University-age students I spoke to read him closely and were
equally saddened by his death. I asked Dolors if we could compare him to America’s
Michael Moore, another harsh critic of his country’s government with two bestsellers
under his belt. "Yes, but Montalbán was more serious, more analytical," she
said. "He had a sense of humor, but he wasn’t the joker that Moore is. He was
also further to the left."

* * *

Detective Pepe Carvalho, who resembles his author in more than politics,
is a distinct personality. Once, when Montalbán was asked just how much of Pepe was him,
he replied: "We have fairly common political, historical and family (personal)
experiences, but he’s taller and more handsome than me, and has become a total
nihilist. I haven’t yet."

Certain trappings of the Pepe Carvalho novels reflect the classics of old: the rundown
office on La Rambla; the partner, Biscuter (compared once to Peter Lorre), who lives
behind a curtain in the office; the dishevelled appearance of the two. But Biscuter is
actually a complex personality and Carvalho is no Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. For one
thing, he’s a gourmet cook and frequenter of top restaurants. (Biscuter also cooks
for him, in the kitchenette behind the office curtain.) Any novel, therefore, will take
you on a culinary tour of the city where Pepe finds himself, yet another draw. But if
he’s not enjoying a "Rabelaisian display of crayfish with garlic, squid and tiny
octopuses, baby eels, duck paté and slices of kiwi fruit, small lobsters and
langoustines" at Casa Leopoldo, he may be taking in a sex scene at Martin’s, one
of Barcelona’s many gay bars, for although he’s not homosexual, Pepe is a
bit of a voyeur, and depending on where his cases take him, he’s likely to take
advantage of the situation to fulfil his own diverse appetites.

Another Pepe Carvalho idiosyncrasy: he loves to burn books. When asked why, Pepe once
commented: "It’s an old habit of mine. For forty years I read book after book,
now I burn them because they taught me nothing of how to live." When Montalbán was
asked the same question, he replied: "It’s a cultural sarcasm deriving from the
supposedly low culture nature inherent in the detective genre. Moreover, it allows me to
play a few small cultural jokes: burning Quijote or The Theory of Life by
Engels. On one occasion Carvalho burns an anthology of erotic Spanish poetry whose editors
had lacked the good sense to include me" (Crime Factory interview).

Pepe Carvalho’s main informant was once a shoe-shine guy in the Barrio Chino named
Bromide. He dies along the way and a new one takes over, El Mohammed, indicating
the shift of immigrants in the barrio from Murcian and Andalucian to North African,
provoking Pepe’s opinion on all that that implies.

Charo is a prostitute who was once Carvalho’s sentimental companion. As do all the
characters, she ages through the years. By the 1990s she’s in her forties, and many
of her clients are dying of AIDS, so she goes into retirement about then, but the two keep
in touch. The middle-aged Carvalho still gets his head turned by young beauties who flit
through the cases - and he enjoys sex with some of them - but one suspects that he’d
take a fine dining experience over sex any day.

The bars and restaurants he talks about are all quite real. In Barcelona, he mentions
some of the finest eating establishments, most quite out of the ordinary budget: La
Odissea, Els Pescadors, and the aforementioned Casa Leopoldo, a swank restaurant smack in
the middle of the Barrio Chino. He also likes the cocktail bar on La Rambla, Can Boadas,
and the more casual Nostromos in the Barrio Gótico. But he could just as easily end up in
a dive on one of his cases, so one gets a full tour.

Pepe lives in Vallvidrea on Mt. Tibadabo (as did Montalbán), one of Barcelona’s
posher areas, which takes in a sweeping view of the city and the sea. His residence and
love of five-star cuisine may seem at odds with his shabby office, leftist politics, and
street-savvy manner, but that’s part of what makes him so intriguing, so human. He
has a quick wit and ironic, often cynical or sarcastic, attitude that can put people off,
but he does get one’s attention. He’ll even tic the reader off at times with the
occasional sexist remark, but you won’t want to let go of him; he’s as
"moreish" as a rich, rum-soaked chocolate truffle, which he could undoubtedly
whip up in a moment’s notice.

It’s heartbreaking to know that Pepe has solved his last case. It is also
heartbreaking that his creator is no longer with us to comment on the local, national and
international political scene. One wishes Montalbán could have seen the new socialist
government form in Catalunya last November. He would certainly have been critical of it as
well, but would have welcomed the end of the 23-year hold by the conservative nationalist
party. His voice will be terribly missed. But he’s left us so very much. For the
English-reading public, it is the Pepe Carvalho novels that are the most accessible of his
works. If you haven’t yet discovered him, hours of luscious entertainment await you,
and two recent re-releases by Serpent’s Tail are as good a place as any to jump in .
. . 1

olympic deathAn Olympic Death, which
first came out in 1991, is set in a pre-Olympic Barcelona, a city far different from the
one it was soon to become, with its newly created beach front and the inevitable arrival
of cruise ships, turning it into slick, urban tourist attraction. 1991 was an emotionally
wrenching year for many of us who lived here as we watched the city being dug up, torn
down and rebuilt. Construction work was everywhere you looked; cranes dominated the
landscape. At that time the Barceloneta "chiringuitos" (the tattered but
colorful open-air restaurants) dotted the beach. You could sit at a wooden table smack on
the sand and enjoy an affordable paella year-round (some even provided wool blankets to
keep the customers warm in winter). When those were pulled down that, for me, marked the
end of an era. Beach dining shifted to the overly priced Olympic Port, which doesn’t
even provide a view of the sea in most cases. A hastily and ill-conceived Olympic Village
was constructed which looked like standard-issue welfare housing (with apartments selling
for extraordinary prices) that within a few years was looking run down. The
"community" that was to have grown around this area never developed and is now
surrounded by much dead space. A superfluous airport-like mall went up at the other end of
the port (trendy bars, including one of the city’s many new Irish bars, and a
miniature golf course are located on its terrace rooftop; a McDonald’s and a Ben and
Jerry’s sit below.)

Everywhere you looked you could see the city’s motto: "Barcelona, look your
best. Barcelona, more than ever." Almost overnight the junkies from my plaza in the
Barrio Gótico began to disappear as did many of the prostitutes in the area. Good thing
or bad thing? Worrying, most of us thought, as no one seemed to know exactly what happened
to them.

More and more "guiris" (foreigners) began to pour into the city. The new
cheap flights, especially from the U.K., brought even more tourists, along with more
English and Irish bars. Then around the mid-nineties came the cruise ships. The records
for 2003 showed that over two million passengers had passed through the city in that year
alone. Yes, there was good to come of the reconstruction: the city now has a beach, not
the shabby waterfront where syringes could be found in the sand. And despite the Olympic
Village setback the new Barcelona boosted the city’s economy enormously. But think
that such radical plastic surgery and two-million plus tourists a year don’t damage a
city’s soul? Think it doesn’t take its toll on a personal level?

In An Olympic Death Pepe Carvalho foresees all to come. He speaks of his beloved
city "so threatened by modernity"; a city "on the point of being
destroyed." An insatiable greed has taken hold which spreads to all sectors. As an
artist acquaintance of Pepe’s says:

Everything that moves in Barcelona these days is at the service of the Olympics.

You have people coming to buy the place, people coming to see it all, and all the

rest of us trying to sell it. There’s not one artist in this city who’s not
looking out

for what he can get out of the Olympics. The lion’s share is going to go to the

architects, but they’ll also be needing sculptures and murals.

The same artist comments on the new breed of artists: "These days any pea-brain
can dip his cock into a paintpot and do a Homage to AIDS, and the next day his
picture’s hanging in some museum." It’s all about capitalizing on the
moment - and who you know.

Against this backdrop of upheaval, which elicits a running commentary from Pepe, we
find him at work on two separate cases. The first concerns a missing man, sought after by
a breath-taking French beauty, Mademoiselle Claire Delmas, and her friend Monsieur Georges
Lebrun. The man in question is a handsome Greek, once the companion to Mademoiselle
Delmas, who has fled from their apartment in Paris for life in Barcelona. Was his leaving
a result of a homosexual liaison with a Turkish youth? Pepe helps her track him down, but
the next day the Greek is found dead and the woman has left the city with no trail. As the
police know Pepe was involved, he must help solve the mystery.

The second case involves a man who has hired Pepe to look into the business of his
twentysomething daughter. She’s a bit of a wildcat and has been seen hanging around
Plaza Real and the Arco del Teatro trying to score drugs. Quite an embarrassment for this
well-to-do family.

Interestingly, both cases offer morally ambiguous conclusions: "beautiful or
sordid, depending on how you look at it." I quite liked that post-modern touch, which
could just as easily apply to the city’s reconstruction.

The detective work is fun, but as much as anything it provides an excuse for Pepe to
trail around Barcelona and record its demise. As only a native could, Pepe speaks
eloquently of the personal loss that comes with the greed-driven make-over. As he sees the
Barrio Chino being torn apart and "cleaned up," he feels that his memories -
specifically those of his old informant, the now deceased Bromide - are being wrenched
from him as well. In this novel, Pepe bids good-bye to . . .

. . . a city that was already dying in his memory and which no longer existed in his
desires. What was happening was the death of a city in which compassion was a human
necessity, and the birth of a city in which the only thing that mattered was the distance
between buying yourself and selling yourself.

It’s a sentiment that hardly applies to Barcelona alone.2

buenas aires quintetIn The Buenos Aires
, first published in 1997, we find Pepe in Buenos Aires, bringing that city to
life in the way he does Barcelona. Pepe’s been hired by an uncle of his who wants to
locate his son, now back in Argentina after years of exile in Spain. What does Pepe know
of Argentina? "Tango, the disappeared, Maradona," he flippantly answers,
although Pepe is fully aware of Argentina’s history. Once there, he encounters people
of around his age who fought against the military take-over in 1976; i.e., the
"subversives," most of whom have "disappeared." The nephew he is sent
to find, Raúl Tourón, was aligned with these left-wing Perónists, although he worked as
a research behavioral scientist and, in fact, made an important discovery in working with
rats: that a link exists between animal behavior and the quality of animal feed. Put
another way: "he taught how to treat people like rats." The military
dictatorship stole his research, putting it to use for their own ends. The following year
Raúl’s house was raided and his wife, the lovely, militant activist Belma was shot
and their baby daughter taken away. Raúl was taken into custody as was his sister-in-law
Alma, but they were later released. Raúl doesn’t learn the facts until much later,
but it was his father, already in exile in Spain, who made a deal with the military junta
to spare their lives and get them out of prison.

Because Pepe cannot practice as a detective legally in Buenos Aires, he hires a front
man: Don Vito Altofini, a roguish, older gentleman with very little money who is more talk
than action, but proves a good partner. Together they set up an office in Pepe’s
apartment, lent to him by his uncle.

He first seeks out Alma, an attractive and popular university professor of around forty
who brings politics and semiotics into her discussions of literature. Together they try to
figure out why Raúl came back after all these years. To find his daughter, who now must
be 20 years old? That would be a near impossible task as the military junta kidnapped many
of the children of the political activists they tortured and/or killed. Or, perhaps he
wants vengeance for his research being stolen and abused? Maybe he’s nostalgic for
his homeland?

A colorful cast of characters enters: a man who claims to be the son of Borges; a
cynical but comical Jewish presenter at the tango club, Tango Amigo, where Pepe is
mezmerized by the old tango singer, Adriana Varela, and her daringly low neckline; the
boxer Boom Boom Peretti; a team known as Robinson and Crusoe, who are crusading to retake
the Malvinas; an old man who hides in a cellar and only comes out once a year, still in
fear of the junta; Alma’s circle of friends and acquaintances from the revolution,
some of whom now hold government positions; and from the other side of the fence, the
wealthy "oligarchy" with their private planes and exclusive clubs; and a cruel
man known only as the Captain, once part of the Triple A torture and murder squad of the
dictatorship (as were many of the oligarchy), who has managed to retain his personal power
throughout the years and the changes of government. His men ride motorcycles, dress in
black and wear hoods. Violence erupts whenever the Captain, or one of the all-powerful
elite, is crossed or displeased.

It soon becomes clear that for whatever reason not only does Pepe want to find Raúl,
but so does the local policeman, Pascuali; and the Captain. He’s also sought after by
an ex-comrade, now a government minister, and by Ostiz, the leading figure of the
oligarchy. Pepe needs to get to Raúl first, and fast, but because this case takes
quite a while - and Pepe’s money is running out - he and Don Vito take on other cases
along the way, which all serve to give us a better picture of modern-day Buenos Aires and
its people.

Pepe attends more than one "asado" - the famous Argentinean barbeque feast -
where all animal parts are cooked and eaten. And, of course, he tries the cuisine and even
partakes of a dinner at the elite’s private Gourmet Club (Pantagruel potpourri,
tango oranges
), where all hell breaks loose in the kitchen, leaving three dead bodies
in the meat locker - a minor impediment for the grand chef who will not have
his dinner interrupted.

While dining at Chez Patron (cuisine d’auteur), or having a coffee at the
Café Tortoni ("[its] wonderful atmosphere is far removed from the ghastly
functionality of most Spanish cafés") or enjoying a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon
from Mendoza, Pepe engages in conversation about Argentina’s past and present.
He’s always made to feel the outsider, he notes, as Argentineans are made to feel in
Spain. He finds that the majority of natives, for all sorts of personal reasons, generally
do not want to talk about the past, but both the case and his curiosity force the subject
to arise. It becomes apparent that the traumas of the Dirty War lurk deep in the national
psyche and in many ways still manifest themselves in the present. Yet: at the end when he
is on a plane back to Barcelona, he speaks with a young Catalan couple, who comment that
he must know a lot about Buenos Aires, having been there so long. Pepe gives his standard
reply: "Tango, the disappeared, Maradona." To which they reply that Maradona is
ancient history, and the "disappeared" - well, that genuinely puzzles them:
"Are they something to do with the X-Files?" the young man asks.

Argentina in wanting to wipe the past away seems to have gone a long way in
accomplishing just that. Though the Catalan couple might have wondered about the Mothers
of the Plaza de Mayo who maintain an on-going protest in front of the Casa Rosada, urging
justice for and inquiries into their missing sons and daughters. To the locals this
reminder of the past is an embarrassment; they write them off as "mad, " simply
another unwanted tourist attraction, but as Alma explains: "If they accept their
deaths, they can’t accuse the system any more. If they accept money in reparation, it
would be exonerating the system."

With The Buenos Aires Quintet, Montalbán presents a riveting detective
narrative which quite naturally covers the country’s social and political history
from the military dictatorship onwards, exposing the hidden power and corruption beneath
the facade of democracy. The good, bad and the ugly side of the city comes alive
while Pepe, in the line of duty or solely for his own pleasure, explores the local haunts,
discovering the country’s food and drink along the way (carbonada, matambre,
the ubiquitous mate, and cocktails with names like
"Maradona" and "fifth centenary"). Ingredients given, too. What more
could one ask for in one book?

Reading the Pepe Carvalho series provides some deliciously fun reading. Most
informative, too, in terms of recent history, local setting, and cuisine, always cuisine.
. . . Oh, yes, books burned: among others, Cuba by Hugh Thomas and by that
"right-wing anarchist," The Complete Works of Jorge Luis Borges.
You’ll love the series and one hopes that other books by Montalbán may soon be
available as well.

[See Serpent’s Tail’s website for
other Pepe Carvalho novels available in English translation.]