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Eduardo Mendoza: La verdad sobre el caso Savolta (The Truth about the Savolta Case)

This novel, Mendoza’s first, was originally published under the title Soldiers of Catalonia but, as this was during the Franco era, and Franco did not like Catalonia, the title now used was adopted. Franco died soon after the novel was published, so it has come to be seen as one of the early post-Franco novels.

Mendoza tells us a complex tale, set in World War I Barcelona. He uses various styles. Firstly, the main character, Javier Miranda, is telling his version of events to a New York judge, ten years after the events. Miranda has become a US citizen.

We also get a version of the events recounted by Inspector Vázquez, a police officer who subsequently died in mysterious circumstances. Another key character, also dead in mysterious circumstances, was Domingo Pajarito de Soto, an anarchist journalist and we get to see some of his articles. Other documents – letters, legal documents and so on – are also used. Initially, we get Miranda’s first-person narration as well as third-person narration of other key characters, from all strata of Barcelona. Inevitably, he jumps around chronologically, so we learn some details earlier and some later.

Miranda comes from Valladolid, where there is no work. Thanks to the contacts of his father, he has found a job in Madrid working for a shady lawyer called Cortabanyes. He is generally just an assistant, running errands, doing research and so on. He does not like the job and does not like Cortabanyes.

While we are following his life, we are also following the firm of Savolta. It was originally set up by a Dutchman as a tax dodge and with Savolta as the man of straw. Savolta, however, by dubious means, gradually, acquired more and more shares and when the Dutchman had mental health problems, took over completely. Savolta now runs it. The firm sells arms and as it is the First World War, the firm seems to be selling arms to the Germans, from which it makes a lot of money out of doing so. As with many issues in this novel, this situation is not quite what it seems.

He has two main associates. One man is called Claudedeu and is known as The Man With the Iron Hand, not just because has an iron hand, which he does, but because he uses it to to great effect to thump on the table. He lost his hand in one of the many real events described in this book – The Anarchist Bombing of the Liceu in 1893.

Paul-André Lepprince is French, though his mother was Spanish which means he speaks fluent Spanish. He arrived in Barcelona at the beginning of World War I. He was seemingly rich, elegant and clever and soon managed to become close to Savolta and get a senior position in the firm. He will later marry Savolta’s only daughter.

Inevitably, the firm faces labour problems. While business is booming, the firm expects the workers to work harder without a commensurate increase in pay. Not surprisingly, the workers are not entirely happy with this and there is considerable agitation.

One day Lepprince comes to Cortabanyes’ office. Miranda is engaged to accompany him, to be used in negotiations with the workers. Lepprince’s initial plan is to hire thugs to intimidate the difficult workers, which he does and to which Miranda is party to. Miranda gets to know one of the workers, Domingo Pajarito de Soto, an anarchist whose articles we see, and even falls in love with Domingo’s wife. However, as a result of helping Lepprince, he becomes close to him.

Things go wrong when several of the key characters (separately) are murdered and it is at this point that we get to know Inspector Vázquez better. There are various suspects, including, primarily, anarchists, which is partially confirmed when anarchists mount an attack on another key character but fail and are killed or injured. Vázquez suspects Miranda knows more than he is letting on but Vázquez gets transferred away – his letters to his former sergeant, still in Madrid, are part of the documents we see – and the issue fades away, though we know it will reoccur in the United States, with Miranda’s deposition to the court in New York in 1927 and, of course, it is more or less resolved well before then.

Miranda has two loves – Teresa and then a gypsy dancer called Maria Coral, whom he later marries. Both relationships have their problems and both are strongly connected with the main plot. Miranda gets dragged into the murky plot with Lepprince and is totally hoodwinked by Lepprince, Cortabanyes and Maria Coral. Indeed, he seems to show considerable naivety. It all ends up with several of the main characters dead (mainly murdered) and, as we know from the beginning of the book, Miranda in the United States.

There are several things that make this book a fascinating read. First of all, it gives a wonderful picture of the Barcelona of the era, at all levels of society, from the rich and powerful – Lepprince even has the King as his guest at a dinner – to the seedy bars of the city.

Secondly, there is a very complicated plot, with lots of dirty deeds, skulduggery, accusations and counter-accusations, corruption in high places and a fair bit of slaughter. We probably have a pretty good idea who did what to whom well before the end of the book but the details only come out at the end.

Thirdly there is a rich cast of colourful characters. Vázquez, for example, and his loyal sergeant, are somewhat stereotypical, but even so Vázquez is one of those cops who seemingly does not know what is going on but actually knows more than he is letting on. We also have Nemesio Cabra Gómez, a beggar with mental health problems, but who seems to know before Vázquez what happened and is convinced that Jesus Christ told him though we learn later how he really found out (without divine intervention). Miranda’s various friends and the two women in his life add to the colour.

This book was well received in Spain and it is easy to see why. However, though it has been translated into English, it now appears to be out of print, which is a pity. Fortunately, it is not too difficult to get hold and is well worth the read.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by Seix Barral
First English translation 1992 by Pantheon
Translated by Alfred J Mac Adam