I’m not sophisticated enough to read Montalbán.
All my life I’ve had a reputation for being fairly bright, but I’ve borne this secret shame—there’s lots of modern literature, highly praised by people of greater intellect than mine, that I just don’t comprehend. I read these works through (or did, when I was in school and had to), but they speak to me not at all, and I have to assume it’s my own fault.
But I’m not entirely sure that’s the reason I didn’t like this Spanish novel. I have a suspicion that this one is just plain superficial and dull. Somebody sent it to Phil for review, and he passed it on to me without finishing it. I read the whole thing because I enjoy writing nasty reviews better than he does.
Montalbán’s detective hero, Pepe Carvalho, is advertised as Barcelona’s answer to Philip Marlowe. I suppose that’s true. Just as Marlowe embodied a certain world-weary, mid-twentieth century American cynicism which, being American, retained a reservation of personal integrity and courage, Pepe Carvalho is the perfect postmodern European.
Pepe is, above everything else, cool. He’s too cool to have close personal relationships. There is Charo, his on-and-off girlfriend, a former prostitute. There is Biscuter, a physically unimpressive young man whom Pepe rescued from the streets and made his personal assistant. But Pepe doesn’t open up much to either one. He cares about gourmet cooking, and he likes to start fires in his fireplace with books that have displeased him. I suppose that’s supposed to constitute character development.
Pepe’s too cool to believe in anything, religious or political. This novel puts him in contact with a confusing array of cults, parties and movements, and he analyzes them all with the detachment of a man who has transcended all that. He has been, we are told, both a Communist and a CIA operative in his time (the CIA, of course, taught him to commit soul-destroying cruelties, assuming one has a soul).
The plot involves a young man, son of a powerful capitalist, who has rejected his father’s values to start a satanic cult, “Lucifer’s Witnesses.” He has been accused of murdering his male lover, another leader of the same cult, who happens to be the son of a rival capitalist.
Then the plot, such as it is, begins a confusing wander (or meander, the pace is pretty slow) among groups like neo-Cathars and rival parties of Catalan nationalists. I quickly lost track of them.
And why should I be interested? Pepe himself doesn’t seem very interested. He didn’t seem to me to do much actual detecting in the book. He’d get calls from various people telling him to meet someone at this or that spot, and generally he’d go there and be beaten up or witness a crime. But, after all, he knows that it’s all a put-up job, that the real criminals are multinational, globalist corporations who kill people for profit and have innocent people blamed. Justice, such as it is, is something Pepe will dispense himself in the end, as he has no faith in the corrupt justice system either.
The only point at which Pepe displays anything like human emotion is in connection with “Yes,” a mysterious woman who introduces herself to him first through anonymous faxes, daring him to guess which character from his past she is. She is, he learns at last, a beautiful American-born woman with whom he had a brief affair when he was younger and she was very young. For her he displays real feeling, but he is reluctant to take her away from her husband and children. This is commendable, of course, but one can’t tell whether the refusal springs from any kind of moral scruple, or from a more basic inability to give himself wholly to anyone or anything.
But maybe I misjudge the book. Maybe it’s just too good for me.
I’ll tell you this, though—the translation isn’t. I speak as a man who does bad translations himself when I say that this translation is very, very poor. The dialogue, in particular, has the tinny sound you hear in dubbed Italian westerns. Take this excerpt, from a scene where the suspect young man is being pursued by thugs. A young woman named Margalida sees the baddies (or goodies, one is never sure) pursuing him by motorbike:
Furious, she turned back to Carvalho.
“Your pistol! Why didn’t you get it out?”
“I hardly ever carry one.”
“Some private eye you are! You have to have a gun for this kind of thing. Now they’re going to catch Albert.”
Well, I finished it at last. But if I had a fireplace in my house, I know which book I’d use to start the first fire of the winter.