Homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

//Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (photo Aq. Mancini)
The grimacing architecture of Gaudi, the smell of fried food in the alleys of Barrio Chino, the musical rainbow of parakeets on the Ramblas, the turquoise belt of the Mediterranean at the bottom of the town, in short, all Barcelona is in mourning. Manuel Vazquez Montalban has definitely abandoned the city, taking with him on his last voyage Pepe Carvalho, the favourite anti-hero of readers of his detective novels, with Mediterranean taste.

In respect to his readers, a writer does not have the right to die, to take away the key of innumerable combinations of an ideal that vanishes with him in a single instant. Yet Montalban has gone like a comedian whose heart brutally stops beating whilst on stage. The scene is none other than the airport of Bangkok, site of one of the most beautiful adventures of Pepe Carvalho: The birds of Bangkok.
Thus concludes the wanderings of this solitary and emotional bon vivant. His acuity and humour will not labour anymore on the enigmas of his creator, of stories with uncertain endings that serve most of all to denounce the mechanisms of a more and more cruel and absurd world.

It is precisely about this decaying world with its drifting continents of poverty, enclosed in a vice of an increasingly exigent international terrorist, that the Catalan writer has built the scaffolding for in his last story : Millennium, the thickest of all, around a thousand pages; it was planned to be published in two volumes in January and March.

But the worldwide success of the Carvalhesque cycle reminds us that Manuel Vazquez Montalban was much more than a talented writer of detective novels and that his novels were much more than simple detective novels. Here we pay him homage by looking back at an interview, a few years ago, with one of our journalists.

You also write poetry, stories that don’t belong to the detective novel genre, essays. How do you reconcile this output with your detective novels?
My detective novels are of a particular genre. I use the genre like a game of extremely rich narrative devices: the point of view of the detective, the intrigue, the violations of taboos that is homicide, etc this structure allows for a very interesting political discussion, half way between Dashiell Hammat and Kafka.

In your novels, the enigma often remains in suspense, and the story in some way incomplete….
As a rule, the interesting dimension of a detective novel consists in revealing the identity of the guilty person, placing the victim in the narrative logic, explaining the motive. In the Carvalho novels, this aspect is secondary, which in some way represents a kind of literacy transgression, a violence done against the detective novel genre. Carvalho walks along the boundary of these two genres. In following him, the reader accompanies him on a voyage across a town and its “ethnicities”, from the most rich to the most impoverished. It is also a voyage across the memories of the characters, from where the historical dimension of my stories is born. Of course, all this happens following the logic of the investigation but the essential thing is not to find out who the murderer is.

It seems you also like to play with the different genres of the detective novel, I am thinking in particular of your novel El Balneario whose structure resembles exactly that of the novels of Agatha Christie?
El Balneario is without doubt a parody of the crime novel tecnique of Agatha Chrisite : the closed environment, the mystery of the house, the passage of strange characters, the parade of corpses. It is also a metaphor of Europe that I wanted to build around the myth of its unification. This technique lends itself well as it allows characters of different European nations to come together in the same place, at the thermal baths.

You also often refer to John Le Carré.
I love Le Carré. He writes spy novels that are in reality historical novels of great importance. By historical novel, I don’t obviously mean the great murals that can produce a bourgeois vision of history, nor the great works of social realism. On the contrary, I mean an underground and international history, a history that no-one sees but that exists. The meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in Vienna, the red tape of the secret services, the international conflicts; all this is what one can experience in the stories of Le Carré, and it is captivating. Graham Greene and Sciascia are also writers of the same mould.

The family of Pepe Carvalho is composed of marginalised people : his partner Charo is a prostitute, his cook “a man of many talents” is an ex prisoner, the wretched Bromure is his informer. Do you also feel the same affection for the marginalised?
Yes, it is Dostoevskian affection towards those have lost the war, not the civil war, but the social-emotional war. In a society of winners like the Barcelona of today, a high-tech Barcelona, European, Olympic, I believe that is essential to remember the losing and desolated side of this city.
Carvalho is profoundly without roots, he is not a real Catalan, his father comes from Galicia, and he doesn’t have a real family. I belong to the same milieu as him, I am son of an immigrant family that left the south of Spain for Barcelona (at the time the promised land), that swapped his old poverty for that of Barrio Chino.

Why does Carvalho burn his books?
Let's say it is a sort of vengeance that he takes against the culture in which he believed. He is disappointed in thought but at the same time he is nostalgic. It is a bit as if knowledge had betrayed him, a certain spontaneity has been taken away from him. This said, have you noticed how Carvalho chooses the books he means to burn? For example, while he sacrifices an anthology of erotic Spanish poetry, he chooses the one that does not feature any of my poems !

The same feelings, the same attraction to good food, the same fierce humour, and both ex communists, isn’t it time for a confrontation between Pepe Carvalho and Montalban?
Though Pepe and I have many things in common, in the last few years a real tension has emerged between the logic of the character and that of the author. Pepe Carvalho has his own biological evolution, he is not a character like Maigret, whose age is immutable. Novel after novel, Carvalho has grown older, fatter. he hasn’t the same energy and aggression as before. He has abused his body with good food and drunk too much alcohol. These rapid signs of old age are already evident in El Balneario where Carvalho is a passive subject, weakened by his eating habits, voyeur of a thermal cure.

You’re not thinking of killing him off though?
No, it would be too brutal and too dramatic. But Pepe is without doubt destined to disappear. Maybe a goodbye through a trip around the world, surreal, as a pretext, in the manner of Jules Verne. In the cases of all the characters, the final of this cycle will be dedicated to a confrontation between him and myself that I will entitle “Carvalho and me”. It will be an occasion to talk about our conflicts and to reaffirm our accord through the internal history of all my novels.

Article compiled by Nathalie Galesne

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