Eduardo Mendoza: El misterio de la cripta embrujada (Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt)
Mendoza has more than once said that this is his favourite of all the novels he has written. It is easy to see why. It has a complicated and tortuous plot. It has an unusual hero. It wanders all over Barcelona, Mendoza’s city. It was written and set in the period immediately after the death of Franco.
Mendoza explains that La verdad sobre el caso Savolta (The Truth about the Savolta Case), his first novel, was written in Barcelona but published while he was working as a translator in New York. Like many writers, he wondered how to follow up his first novel. A friend suggested using one of the secondary characters from his first novel as a basis. This was the character Nemesio Cabra Gómez, who has mental health problems but seems to have visionary powers. He returned to New York from visiting Barcelona and wrote the novel. He then sent it to Seix Barral, telling them to throw it in the bin if they did not like it. They did like it.
While Nemesio Cabra Gómez may have inspired the creation of his hero, he is not the same character. Our hero has been arrested and confined to an asylum. We do not know his name, only that his mother, a big fan of Clark Gable, proposed naming him Gone With the Wind or, rather, GoneWithTheWind. However, the priest had problems with this name at the christening and things got out of hand. We now know only that his name is hidden in the official records but, for most people, an appropriate, colourful Spanish epithet suffices.
He is apparently cured of his mental health problem but, though the hospital says he should be released, the courts have refused to grant him freedom. One day, while playing football, he is summoned to the officer of the director, Dr Sugrañes. There he meets Inspector Flores, who had arrested him, and a mother superior. They tell him about a convent school for girls of well-to-do families.
Six years ago, when the rooms were inspected in the morning one of the girls had disappeared. This is seemingly impossible. Everything is locked up. There are high walls with barbed wire on them and two ferocious mastiffs prowling the grounds, yet there was no evidence of how she escaped. The parents were summoned, as were the police. No-one had any idea what had happened.
The next morning, when the rooms were inspected, there she was, in her bed as usual. She had no idea that she had been missing. The parents asked for the case to be dropped. Now, six years later, another girl has disappeared.
Inspector Flores has called on our hero, as he has connections with the Barcelona underworld. He is told that, if he finds the girl, he will be released. He, of course, agrees. He is taken to Barcelona, and dropped in the town with no money, nowhere to stay and still in his sweaty football clothes. He is told not to contact anyone at the school nor the previous victim.
The rest of the book describes how he manages to track down the mystery. It involves the Enchanted Crypt of the title, his sister, who is a prostitute and not very fond of her brother, a large Swedish sailor, crooked businessmen, a hard-up dentist and our hero adopting multiple personalities, invariably called Sugrañes (the name of the asylum director) though with a different first name each time, as well as breaking the law (theft, assault, fraud, blackmail) on numerous occasions.
Though it is a police investigation, our hero can use techniques not open to the police (breaking and entering being just one of them) and, because, he never has time to wash, change clothes or even sleep, people do not suspect that he is in anyway connected to the police.
What makes this book is, firstly, having, essentially a down-and-out lunatic carrying out the investigation as well as telling the story and, secondly, Mendoza’s entirely tongue-in-cheek approach. The story is quite improbable, full of twists and turns but also very funny, if you stop to analyse it rationally for one minute. Indeed, because it is told in this manner, and not meant to be realistic, it is easy to suspend disbelief and go along with the colourful plot.
You can see why Mendoza considers it is the favourite of his novels. He must have had great fun thinking it up and plotting it and great fun thinking up an ever more improbable story line. Even the ending is not how we might have imagined it.
First published 1978 by Seix Barral
First English translation 1992 by Telegram
Translated by Nick Caistor