issue 40: January - February 2004 

photo: Hado Lyria
Manuel Vázquez Montalbáno
1939 - 2003:
A Retrospective

by Jill Adams

The Man and His Work

Two reviews 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. Montalbán's 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 aznaridad, 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.")

[Update on original article:  On March 14, 2004, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, representing the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), defeated Aznar and was elected the Prime Minister of Spain. He immediately withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq, legalized same-sex marriages and  began to pursue the end of ETA by means of a peace process.  Montalbán would have rejoiced.]

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 Quintet, 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, empanadas, 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.)

© TBR 2004

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issue 40: January - February 2004  

Short Fiction

Mary Woronov: George and Shoe Store
Leelila Strogov: Fatso
Simmone Howell: Golden
Connla Stokes: The Splurgy Shore
picks from back issues
Lynn Coady: Jesus Christ, Murdeena
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
and Stars and Losers


Manuel Vázquez Montalbán: 1939 – 2003
The man and his work
Two reviews: An Olympic Death
and The Buenos Aires Quintet


Ilan Stavans


John Steinbeck
answers to last issue’s 18th-Century English Literature

Readers' Poll

Readers’ Poll Results - Best/Worst of 2003

Book Reviews

Demonized and The Devil in Me by Christopher Fowler
The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen
Blind Love by Mary Woronov
Lizard Dreaming of Birds by John Gist
Dreamland by Newton Thornburg

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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