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Antonio Muñoz Molina: El invierno en Lisboa (Winter In Lisbon)

This novel is Muñoz Molina’s tribute to the American film noir and an excellent tribute it is. Amazingly, at the time of writing, it is out of print in English. Set in smoke-filled jazz bars, switching between San Sebastián, Madrid and Lisbon, with stops in New York and various European cities, it brilliantly evokes those American films of the 1940s and 1950s which, to use a cliché, they don’t make any more.

An unnamed narrator tells the story of Santiago Biralbo, a jazz pianist, who plays in a jazz combo in a club in San Sebastián, owned by the suitably mysterious Floro Bloom. One night, Biralbo meets Bruce Malcolm, a shady American art dealer, with whom the narrator has done some business and, more particularly, meets Malcolm’s wife Lucrecia. Biralbo and Lucrecia immediately hit it off and Malcolm clearly notices it. Indeed, as Malcolm points out, they know about books, music and films of which he is ignorant. (Though the Ugly American theme is not stressed, it is clearly there.) Malcolm immediately moves himself and Lucrecia off to Berlin as he is very jealous.

The rest of the book follows three interrelated plots. Biralbo’s love for Lucrecia and how he tries to get back to her is the number one plot. They meet. They separate. They meet again, all in somewhat shady circumstances, with Muñoz Molina superbly describing an atmosphere of darkened houses, strange hotels and seedy clubs. The second plot element is the fact that Lucrecia, Malcolm, a mysterious man known only as The Portuguese, a black thug called Toussaints Morton and Malcolm’s secretary, Daphne, are involved in a plot to steal and sell a Cézanne painting (a suitable McGuffin), which seems somehow to be linked to a place called Burma which is probably in Lisbon. Indeed, the dénouement takes place in Lisbon and in Burma. Burma turns out to have been the Lisbon hideaway of a former Angolan landowner who lost much of his property after Angolan independence but spirited some of it away to Lisbon. (Shades of The Maltese Falcon, though more shades of The Mask of Dimitrios.)

There is a third plot element which is the jazz music and Biralbo’s fellow jazz musicians. In particular, we follow his relationship with Billy Swann (no not that Billy Swann nor Billy Swan), jazz trumpeter extraordinaire. One of the reasons for Biralbo’s being in Lisbon at the end of the book is to visit Billy Swann who is in a hospital there, having suffered a complete breakdown. Swann is also one of the links to Lucrecia. But it is Muñoz Molina’s love both for jazz music but also the lifestyle associated with jazz music that comes through very strongly. Indeed, the intermingling of these three plot elements makes for a first-class novel which really, really needs to be reissued in English.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1987 by Seix Barral
First published in English 1999 by Granta Books
Translated by Sonia Soto