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Eduardo Mendoza: El laberinto de las aceitunas (Olive Labyrinth)

This book is a follow-up to Mendoza’s El misterio de la cripta embrujada (Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt). He is interned in the asylum but claims that he has fully recovered from his mental health problems. Even his doctors agree but the authorities do not, so there he remains. Some of the main characters are the same as in the previous book and they behave in the same way.

As in the previous book, Inspector Flores, the somewhat dubious Barcelona police officer, comes to the asylum to collect our hero, whose only name, selected by his mother, a Clark Gable fan, is GoneWithTheWind, though no-one knows that. In the previous book, Flores came in through the front door. This time he has our hero kidnapped from the garden of the asylum.

Our hero is taken to a hotel room, where he is introduced to the Minister of Agriculture, don Ceregumio Lavaca. (Fictitious though he is, he even has a Facebook page). Don Ceregumio tells him that, despite his title, he also deals with matters relating to the Ministry of Interior, while the Minister for the Navy also deals with agricultural issues. Mendoza takes great pleasure in mocking Spanish officialdom.

It seems that someone important has been kidnapped and that a large ransom has been demanded, which the Spanish government is prepared to pay. Someone with no connections is required to be the bagman and our hero has been selected for this task. He will fly to Madrid with the money, spend the night at an already pre-booked hotel. The next morning he will go to a specific café, where he will be approached and exchange passwords with an individual and then hand over the bag. He will then fly back to Barcelona, where Flores will meet him.

Inevitably, it all goes terribly wrong. It appears he has been set up, though he does not know by whom or why. What he does know is that it is generally thought that he, our hero, has been killed. Obviously, he has not, but it seems likely that the killer(s), who killed a hotel employee by mistake, may wish to rectify his/their mistake. He returns to Barcelona, determined to investigate.

To do so, he once again calls on his sister, There is no love lost between brother and sister. She is, by profession, a prostitute. However she agrees to help and, as in the previous book, he is off again, on the chase.

As with the previous book there is a complicated plot. Yes, there is, as before a young woman with whom he becomes close, who is key to the plot. He spends much of the time without food, drink, money and sleep and frequently complains about this. He gets assaulted and nearly killed more than once. He is nearly always one step ahead of Inspector Flores, the well-mocked, somewhat bumbling, heavy-handed police officer.

He scales a tall building, meets a Peeping Tom, has to disguise himself in women’s clothing and is always on the lookout for those who are after him, whoever they may be. Indeed, about halfway through the book, he seems to have solved the mystery but, of course, he has not.

While he does eventually seem to solve the mystery, after a complicated plot involving, as the title tells us, olive oil, a mysterious Wizard-of-Oz behind-the-curtain mastermind and a Spain-Argentina football match, he gets a few things wrong but all is well, more or less, that ends well.

Once again this is an ingenious tale, well told, very funny, very complicated and full of mockery of officialdom, and giving us a guided tour to those parts of Barcelona that most tourists never see.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Seix Barral
First English translation 2009 by Telegram
Translated by Nick Caistor