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Eduardo Mendoza: Riña de gatos (An Englishman in Madrid)

The Spanish title translates as catfight which, I would tend to agree, is not a very meaningful title and could apply to any number of novels and only seems somewhat relevant to this novel. The English title does at least have the advantage of telling us very succinctly what the novel is about, even if it does make me think of Sting’s An Englishman in New York. Interestingly, Mendoza moves away from his usual habitat of in and around Barcelona.

Our eponymous Englishman is Anthony Whitelands. He is in his early thirties. By profession, he is an art expert – I write articles, teach classes and collaborate with a few galleries. He is very fond of, obsessed even, with Spanish art (the older art, not the more modern art) and loves Madrid. He had been married to a rich woman who was able to subsidise his activities but she hated Spain and they soon fell out and divorced. Since then he had been having an affair with Catherine, the wife of an old university friend.

The novel is set in 1936, i.e. just before the Spanish Civil War with the country in a state of turmoil. Anthony is travelling by train to Spain and, on the train, he is finally writing the letter to Catherine he has long since intended to write, breaking up their relationship, not least because it makes both of them feel guilty, because of her husband. He manages to post it when they change trains.

While still in London, he was visited by the imaginatively named Pedro Teacher, a half-Spanish, half-English, shady art wheeler-dealer. He was representing a family who had a collection of Spanish paintings. As they fear that they might have to leave Spain precipitously, they want to sell some of their paintings. However, the Spanish government will generally not allow great Spanish works of art to be exported, though that is where the money is to be made. The family believes that they may be able to smuggle out lesser works and need someone to help identify which ones would be appropriate. They do not trust any Spaniard, for fear he might be on the wrong side, so they are calling on our hero.

Our hero is the Spanish stereotypical view of the Englishman. He is naive, decent, strong on fair play, generally well-behaved, easily seduced by a pretty face and did I mention naive? This is by comparison with the Spanish who are deemed to be passionate, strong on social savoir-faire, cunning, worldly-wise and able to hold their drink. As Anthony says of Spain It is a land of violence, passion, of grandiose individual gestures. Not like us, constrained by our petty morality and trivial social conventions. Indeed, a Spaniard he meets on the train who does not know that our hero speaks good Spanish sums it up as Spain very different England. Spain sun, bulls, guitars, wine. Everibodi olé. England, no sun, no bulls, no enjoyment. Everibodi kaput. This issue occurs and reoccurs throughout the book.

Anthony goes to the house of Alvaro del Valle y Salamero, Duke of La Igualada where he learns that the Duke wants his paintings evaluated and, because of the political situation, is thinking of temporarily abandoning Spain but needs to raise some cash and selling his paintings abroad (probably illegally) seems a good way to do it. Incidentally, though he is living in Madrid, Igualada is a small town in Catalonia, though the dukedom is fictitious.

As this is Mendoza, we know that we are going to get a very complicated plot, lots of mockery and things not being what they seem. Poor old Anthony falls in head first. He is seriously attracted to Paquita, daughter of the Duke. He also is somewhat seduced (politically, not sexually) by the very real José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of Miguel Primo de Rivera, former dictator of Spain and himself head of the Falange, the right-wing group which will later carry out an insurrection.

As mentioned the plot is complicated. As well as Primo de Rivera Jr, the Duke and his daughter, it involves Velazquez (the painter), the British Embassy, the British Foreign Office, the Spanish security service, a down on her luck prostitute, Soviet agents, art world rivalry, the only female nude in the history of Spanish painting and very murky politics, both Spanish and British. Anthony blithely pushes on, drunk on alcohol, love and art, completely unaware of what is going on around him, eager to make a name for himself in the art world and all the while being bamboozled by pretty well everyone he meets.

The one thing that has changed since he first came to Spain is that he finds the Spanish, instead of arguing about bullfighting, are now arguing about politics. We see acts of violent from both sides of the political spectrum and the only reasonable people in this book seem to be the Spanish security services trying, all too often in vain, to keep a lid on it. Indeed, as we move through the book, the plotting and manoeuvring by all sides of the political spectrum, not to mention the British government, intensifies and, while our hero tries not to not get too much involved, inevitably he does, partially because of his sympathy for Primo de Rivera Jr but partially because he is inadvertently dragged into the murky situation.

While he does not meet Franco, he is with a foot or two of him (unbeknown to Franco). He does, however, meet and talk to Manuel Azaña, the Prime Minister, and Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, the President. They seem almost as much adrift as he is.

Mendoza, as always, has great fun mocking all and sundry but, in particular, our hapless Brit abroad. He does give some sort of reason for what happened: The dramatic events that occurred in rapid succession from that moment on were due in good measure to the crossed paths of the protagonists involved, partly to the climate of fear and violence evident throughout Spain, and partly to an unfortunate conjunction of mistakes and coincidences. However, he does make it clear that the Republic was blindly trying to keep hold, while, around them, everyone, the army in particular, was plotting their downfall. A bumbling Englishman charging into the middle did not help.

First published 2010 by Planeta
First English translation 2013 by Maclehose Press
Translated by Nick Caistor