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Juan Marsé: El embrujo de Shanghai (Shanghai Nights)

Hay dos clases de escritores, aquellos que se desprenden de la infancia, no hablan de ella y viven en una especie de presente infinito; y aquellos escritores que no se desprenden nunca de la infancia, y yo soy uno de ellos. Considero que la memoria, de un tiempo y de una vivencia, es lo mismo que la imaginación, que no es más que otra forma de memoria. Así que infancia, memoria, imaginación, va todo junto. [There are two types of writer, those who move away from their childhood, do not talk about it and live in a kind of infinite present and those who never move away from their childhood and I am one of those. I consider that memory of a past time and the way we lived is the same as imagination, which is just another form of memory. So childhood, memory and imagination all go together.]

This quote from an interview Marsé gave to a magazine gives an idea of his intentions in this novel which, as he makes quite clear, concerns his or, at least, a childhood and how events of that childhood made a deep impression on the person that will last into adulthood. The novel is set in a poor neighbourhood of Barcelona soon after the Spanish Civil War. The narrator is a boy called Daniel who lives with his mother. His father had gone off to the war but had not come back. They do not know if he died and, if so, how he died, though Daniel imagines him lying dead in a trench. At the beginning of the book, the neighbourhood notices a stench coming from near the buildings where they live. They contact the gas company but there is no reaction. Everyone is afraid that will be an explosion. Eventually, some workmen turn up and dig a hole and then do nothing, except sit by the hole all day, eating, drinking and chatting. They maintain that there is no gas leak but merely an ancient cemetery buried beneath the road. However, once it has been examined and the hole filled in, the smell persists.

Daniel is friendly with two brothers of his own age – Juan and Finito Chacón – two boys who have scant regard for the law and who make money by selling second-hand books and comics. There are, apparently, two strange people who wander around the neighbourhood, Captain Blay, an old man who was wounded in the Civil War and whose behaviour has been erratic since then and a man the neighbourhood children call the Invisible Man, as he is wrapped up with bandages over his face like the Invisible Man. These two turn out to be the same person and Daniel is given the task of keeping an eye on the Captain. It is the Captain who is most concerned with the smell both from the cemetery and also the emissions from the chimney of a nearby factory. He will spend much of the book trying to get signatures on a petition for the authorities to do something about both problems and will elicit the help of both Daniel and the Chacón brothers to do so. As well as selling books and comics, the Chacón brothers guard the house of Susana, a fifteen year old who has tuberculosis. She lives with her mother, Anita. Susana’s father/Anita’s husband, Kim, was involved in the Civil War but cannot return to Spain as he is wanted by the authorities.

One Civil War veteran, who does return, though he may be wanted, is Nandu Forcat. He visits his mother and then departs for Toulouse. When his mother dies, it is expected that he will come for the funeral but he does not but he does reappear a few months later and moves in with Anita and Susana, having told them that Kim wants him to wait there till Kim returns from a mission. By this time, Daniel has become a regular at the house. Initially the Captain had asked him to draw Susana so that he could use the drawing on the petition to show the harm of the emissions on the sick girl. However, Daniel takes his time and spends a lot of time with Susana, clearly attracted to her. It is at this point that the novel changes dramatically. Forcat starts to tell Susana (and Daniel) the story of Kim, first a failed mission but then a long complicated mission resulting from that. Kim meets an old friend, Michel Lévy, in Paris. Lévy is handicapped as a result of ill-treatment by the Gestapo. However, Lévy is also rich. He has made money in Shanghai, where he has left his beautiful Chinese wife, Chen Jing Fang, in order to come to Paris to have two operations. However, he has discovered that the owner of one of the nightclubs in Shanghai is, in fact, Kruger, the Gestapo colonel who tortured him, and he is worried that Kruger may harm Chen Jing Fang. He wants Kim to go to Shanghai to protect Chen Jing Fang and kill Kruger. He also wants him to go by boat in order to steal a book that the captain of the ship has and that Lévy very much wants to get back.

The rest of the book is divided between the Kim story and his adventures on the way to and in Shanghai, alternating with what is happening in Barcelona. Much of this involves Susana and Daniel (and the Chacón brothers) as well as what happens to Anita, who works as a ticket seller at a cinema and is a drunk. Marsé, interestingly enough, moves away from his normal realism, injecting an element of fantasy, both through the Captain’s mental problems and the Shanghai story. It is this that makes this one of Marsé’s better novels and a fascinating read.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1993 by Plaza & Janés
First published in English 2006 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Nick Caistor