Eduardo Mendoza: La ciudad de los prodigios (The City of Marvels)
Having written two spoof detective stories, featuring the inmate of a mental hospital as the detective, Mendoza moves to a more epic approach in this novel.
The novel has two heroes. Both have a cerain charm, both for us as well as the other characters, but both are also severely flawed in many ways and cause much grief to those that come into contact with them.
The first hero is one that has been key to his other novels, namely the city of Barcelona. Mendoza clearly loves his home town but he is realistic enough to be aware that it is far from perfect, either the city itself or the people who live there. The erratic economy, corruption, poverty, disease and misery are rife in this book as in his others.
The second hero is Onofre Bouvila. He is thirteen when we first meet him. He has not had a happy childhood. He was an only child. He was still quite young when his father, Joan, went to Cuba to make his fortune, as anyone who went to Cuba was able to make a fortune. Onofre and his mother struggle without any funds or, indeed, any communication. One day, when Onofre was twelve, Joan returns, wearing a smart tropical suit and carrying a monkey in a cage. He gives the impression that he has made a fortune and often goes to the nearby town to discuss business.
Onofre eventually discovers that Joan did not make a fortune. Indeed, he struggled to find enough money to return to Spain. He has borrowed money on the strength of his non-existent fortune but cannot pay it back. Onofre is so disillusioned that he leaves for Barcelona. He will not see his parents for a long while.
Onofre has just enough money to stay in a cheap boarding-house for a week, in which time he hopes to find a job. The boarding house is run by Señor Braulio and his wife, Agata. However, Agata is handicapped and cannot walk and Braulio is lazy, so all the real work is done by their waif-like daughter, Delfina.
Onofre finds no work as Barcelona is currently facing economic hardship. However, Delfina tells him that she has a boyfriend – he is surprised to hear this – and he works for an anarchist group and they can give him some work. The work involves distributing leaflets to workers at the site where they are building for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition. At first he has difficulty distributing the leaflets, persuading people to take them, but soon gets the hang of it.
However, he decides to branch out. He steals some hair lotion from the barber who lives in the boarding house and sells it to the men he is distributing the leaflets to, as a cure for baldness. At first they are reluctant to buy, when a giant of a man steps forward and buys a bottle. The giant, Efrén Castells, tells him that he wants his share as he only bought a bottle to encourage the others. The pair will become partners in crime and will remain lifelong friends and business partners.
Meanwhile, Onofre has fallen for Delfina and is determined to find out who her boyfriend is, by spying on her at night. Eventually, he does, but not before he makes another strange discovery about Braulio. Braulio is arrested and Onofre promises to get him free, provided only that Delfina lets him have sex with her. When she refuses, he rapes her. The boyfriend is later caught by the police, resulting in the arrest of Delfina and her father and the police looking for Onofre.
Onofre and Efrén have been making money by stealing. We now follow Onofre’s meteoric rise in the Barcelona business world. First, he is recruited by a shady lawyer to join his group of spies and thugs. However, he soon expands his horizons and, with a combination of thuggery, dishonesty, opportunism and business acumen, he does very well for himself.
Micaela, a fortune-teller in the boarding house, had told him his fortune and, in particular, about three women in his life. Each will bring him good and bad. We meet all three and they will come in and out of his life, fulfilling Micaela’s prophecy.
Much of the book describes how he manages both his life and his business over the next forty years, with the novel anchored by the two Barcelona fairs, the second being held in 1929.
Onifre is imaginative, ruthless, cruel, ambitious, original and dishonest. We see all these traits throughout the book and many more. He becomes the richest man in Spain and possibly in the world. He kills (or has killed) not only rivals but anyone who stands in the way of his plans. He is both an unpleasant husband and unpleasant father. With Efrén possibly the only exception, he does not care whom he cheats, robs, deceives or destroys.
He gets involved in politics but his views are generally left-wing. There is a rumour that it was he who started the Russian Revolution, having been paid a large sum by the Germans to do so. He is certainly more sympathetic to the downtrodden than the rich. He works for the rich and powerful but is never accepted by them and never accepts them.
While we are following the story of Onofre, we are also following the story of Barcelona, as we see its development during the period between the two world fairs. Mendoza clearly knows his Barcelona history and gives us ample and colourful details about it over the period covered.
As I said above, this is something of an epic. Onofre is larger than life, as he rises with Barcelona or, perhaps, Barcelona rises with him. We undoubtedly have a grudging admiration for Onofre, because of his ability to take advantage of a situation and to turn it to his advantage, all the while despising him for the way he treats people. Mendoza tells his tale well, even though at times it seems somehow improbable but somewhat improbable is what we expect from Mendoza and very much part of what he does.
First published 1986 by Seix Barral
First English translation by 1988 by Collins Harvill
Translated by Bernard Molloy