A novel set in Spain, or rather Catalonia, incorporating obscure religious sects, a world-battered outsider, fine wine and Mediterranean cooking was just too much for me to ignore. I’d never heard of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán until I spotted this in No Alibis bookshop in Belfast but now I will probably have to track down the rest of the novels in the Pepe Carvalho series.
The plot is flimsy and the writing is not great – although this is a translation – but there is a lot crammed into this supposed crime-fiction-genre novel – there are at least three recipes in here and dozens of other references to food, which had me salivating and on one occasion running to my larder and fridge to see if I could at least approximate one of the dishes.
In the course of trying to track down the murderer of the son of a leading businessman, the Barcelona based detective Carvalho also manages to reignite affairs with two former lovers, ruminate on the nature of nationalism and Catalan separatism, Cathars, Satanists and Barcelona Football Club.
The original Spanish (Castilian) title of the novel was El Hombre de mi Vida, which sounds a bit like the title of a movie by Pedro Almodovar. However, the cinematic backdrop, at least in terms of location, is probably more akin to Woody Allen’s New York as Montalbán leads us through the streets of Barcelona, past and present, lamenting the destruction of the old and celebrating its revitalization.
Montalbán ruminates on Catalan nationalism, how an autonomous region of Spain can assert its identity while incorporated in a nation state that itself is being slowly amalgamated into the larger, bureaucratic machine that is the European Union. The text is splattered with Catalan phrases and bits of folklore.
The plot is as much a platform for Montalbán to rehearse his take on globalization and an interesting take on Satanism – “God is lord of this world, and Satan is the negation of the idea that his creation is good. Satan is our critical intelligence, the culture of resistance.” (P178).
A pro-globalisation activists discussing Catalan nationalism says: “nations built on sentiment are an obstacle… that’s why we have to create them and destroy them at the same time”. (P192).
This is as much a novel of ideas rather than a great story, although the last 30 pages do re-engage with the traditional novel form and re-humanise the detective Carvalho and lift him from being a purely philosophical, and occasional culinary literary vehicle, into that old favourite of a hard-bitten detective on whom life has crapped and left him nothing to wipe himself clean with.