Spanish Book Club: Los Mares del Sur by Manuel Vazquez Montalbán

This week, a postmodern take on the hardboiled detective novel, the Planeta-award winning and internationally acclaimed Los Mares del Sur, by food-obsessed Catalan writer Manuel Vazquez Montalbán.

‘Three months without eating a rosco,’ begins the second chapter of the Barcelona-based detective novel The South Seas. ‘Not a whiff of a husband looking for his wife. No father looking for his son. No idiot trying to prove his wife’s adultery. What’s going on? Don’t women run away from home anymore? Don’t girls? Yes, Biscuter. More than ever. But these days their husbands and fathers don’t give a shit if they run anyway. The fundamental values of our society have been lost. Didn’t you all cry out for democracy?’

The third novel in the Pepe Carvalho detective series, The South Seas is a deliciously grim tour of the personalities and obsessions of La Transición-period Barcelona after the death of Franco. The Spanish-hasta-las-tripas detective, Pepe Carvalho (‘Un ex-poli, un marxista y un gourmet’). Carvalho is a flaneur who loves to ramblear about the Raval and Las Ramblas, and a contrite intellectual, who burns books in his fireplace to keep warm.

A wealthy and morally questionable Catalan businessman (Stuart Pedrell), long-believed to have run away for a sabbatical in Polynesia, turns up murdered in a mouldy lock-up on the edge of Barcelona. His widow approaches Carvalho looking for the truth behind his death; it’s the start of a penetrating examination of values across a deeply polarized and scarred society, with an unforgettable cast of period-piece chulos, Bohemians, civil servants and piìos.

Carvalho’s relationship with his secretary/chef/former prison cellmate Biscuter (the Sancho Panza of Spanish noir) add a dash of Spanish picaresque (and paprika) to the detective trope, and there’s much to savour from snappy dialogue and curt witticisms that unashamedly owe much to the oeuvre.

While the spirit of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler lurks in each cynical snatch of dialogue, penumbrous avenue or sultry femme, Montalban still manages to create something vividly new and memorable, particularly through the sheer personality of the book’s real protagonist; late 70s-era Barcelona.

A Barcelona struggling to find its soul in the midst of municipal elections, just three years into the new era of democràcia. Divided both geographically and spiritually, with its old beating heart – Chinatown - walled-off and almost separate from the ivory towers of the higher reaches – Sarria, Pedralbes , Sant Gervasi.

There’s the out-of-touch aristocrat, the Marquis de Munt, who goes shopping for servants in Jamaica and drinks Chablis for breakfast to keep up the appearance of wealth. The flamboyantly opinionated artist Artimbau, commissioned by Pedrell to rehash Gaugin’s paintings. Or the hermetically-sealed snob of a widow, Señora Pedrell, and her stoned, equally emotionally-innoculated, but wild-spirited daughter Jessica (‘Yes’).

As Carvalho puts together the dead man’s personality jigsaw, a picture emerges of a brittle, secretive, intellectual character, obsessed by Gauguin and longing to follow in the artist’s footsteps to Polynesia, but disturbingly trapped in a city that won’t let him go, and which, he in to some degree has helped create (in his case designing an ill-fated building project which has helped bring disaster to a humble barrio to the city’s south called San Magin).

Other reasons to distinguish Los Mares del Sur from typical noir fare; meta-literary winks (Carvalho attends a Noir book convention, where he meets someone claiming to be Dashiell Hammett), tangential dialogues, often ruminating on Spain’s political problems or another of Montalban’s infatuations, gastronomy, which the critic Colmeiro calls Montalban's ‘delaying mechanism for information exposition.’ There are lengthy, amusing diatribes on food; discussions of brands of jamón, the Argentine asado (bbq) or a Penedes wine, and that typically Mediterranean sense of always – even in the middle of a murder investigation - having time for gastronomical indulgence.

In one heated gastronomic scene Carvalho and two Valencians (Fuster and Beser) have an argument about the preparation of paella, a Valencian speciality. Beser insists on using onion, resulting in furiously indignant heckling from Fuster. In another, the lawyer Planas, Pedrell’s old business partner, who tries to direct Carvalho towards a health spa, is discreetly mocked for favouring a macrobiotic diet, while the Marques del Munt – the watermark of moral and spiritual dubiousness - eats morturuelo (a Manchegan stew made with pig’s liver) with his Chablis for breakfast.

At times it seems that food – habits, preparation, dishes (traditional, nouvelle, haut) - are what really embody the contradictions in Montalban’s Spain.

They certainly mattered enough for Montalbán to reportedly ask for his ashes to be sprinkled on the ground of the legendary Costa Brava restaurant, El Bulli. The Catalan author will always be a favoured resource for book-loving gastronomes. But he is also the author who took noir into the streets of Barcelona, in order to peel away the complex layers of its soul in the transition years and declare in the voice of Pepe Carvalho:

Contra Franco, estabamos mejor. (Against Franco, we were better')

It's a perversión of the familiar old Falagangist complaint, 'Con Franco, estábamos mejor.' 'With Franco, we were better.'

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