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Eduardo Mendoza: Una comedia ligera (A Light Comedy)
As usual with Mendoza, this novel is set in Barcelona and its environs. In this case its environs include El Masnou, a coastal resort for Barcelona. Our hero is Carlos Prullàs, a popular and successful playwright. The novel is set in late 1940s Barcelona. Franco is well established and World War II has gone. People in Barcelona are happy that the Spanish Civil War is over, but there is still a lot of poverty, food quality is poor and housing is often makeshift. There is a lot of unemployment and, as a result, a lot of begging.
Carlos Prullàs is not one of those suffering. He churns out his plays. We get to see an example of one and it is dire but people enjoy them. He has a flat in Barcelona and a nice house in El Masnou. He is married with children but routinely unfaithful to his wife. Indeed, he seems to be interested in every youngish, attractive woman and quite a few seem to be interested in him.
His best friend is Pepe Gaudet, the director of his plays. They met at school and are the antithesis of one another. Carlos is handsome, dashing and elegant, while Gaudet is scruffy, seedy, unkempt and anything but handsome and dashing. At school, Gaudet was bullied for his appearance and it was Carlos who rescued him and they have remained friends. Gaudet lived for a long time with his mother, Doña Flavia, but she is now dead and her death has made Gaudet even worse, and more despondent.
It is Gaudet who tells Carlos that it might be time to change style. Carlos’ plays are light comedies, as the title tells us and he is happy writing them. He does not particularly like the cinema, though his girlfriends often persuade him to take them to a film and he certainly does not like the new more realistic French works by the likes of Anouilh, Camus and Sartre. However, he agrees to give the matter some thought.
We follow him in his idle, luxurious life, wining and dining, parties, attending rehearsals and so on, as well as his complicated love life. One of these complications is Lilí Villalba, who is playing the maid in his latest play. She has only got the role because of a powerful protector, Ignacio Vallsigorri. Gaudet is convinced that she has no talent and is too afraid to tell her and delegates Carlos to tell either her or her protector that she is wasting her time. Carlos fails to do so but he does meet Vallsigorri at a party and they get on well.
We are almost halfway through the book (a fairly long book) and not much has happened. However, everything changes, both as regards things happening and as regards Mendoza’s trademark style. This involves mockery of all and sundry but, in particular, the many strata of Barcelona society from the very rich to the very poor. It also involves a long and complicated investigation of some misdeed. We now get both.
Carlos and Vallsigorri left the party together and went to a bar or two before each one returned to his separate home. Carlos turns out to be the last known person to see Vallsigorri alive, as he is found murdered the next morning. The investigation is headed by Don Lorenzo Verdugones, who was at the party and quite scathing about the sort of plays Carlos writes. He is the clever cop, trying to outsmart the criminal. We have met his type before in Mendoza’s work. In this case, as far he is concerned, the criminal is Carlos.
Verdugones’ technique is to string Carlos along, pretending that he is using Carlos’ experience of detective work, gained from his plays when, in fact, we know and Carlos knows, he is trying to catch him out.
Carlos is, not surprisingly, worried and calls on various people to help, giving Mendoza ample opportunity to mock them – the lawyer, the priest, other writers, for example. Most people now want little to do with him, even his best friend Gaudet. Things inevitably get more complex, with a royalist plot, corruption in high places, attempts on his life and a host of strange Barcelona characters.
There is no question that the second part of this book is far superior to the first. A lot more happens. Carlos, from being a somewhat languid man, concerned with his love life and his eating (we see him at numerous meals) becomes an investigator, trying to find out who really killed Vallsigorri and why and what he can do to exonerate himself. Of course, he gets caught in all sorts of escapades. At the same time, Mendoza is giving us his colourful portraits of Barcelona people, from the very high to the very low.
As with other Mendoza works, this has been translated but is long since out of print in English, particularly in the UK but it is not his best work.
First published 1996 by Seix Barral
First English translation 2001 by Harvill
Translated by Nick Caistor