Book of the month

'In somewhat of a pickle'

Eduardo Mendoza presents us with Spain seen through the eyes of An Englishman in Madrid as happenstance carries the protagonist on an unplanned journey into unknown terrain

Look, I'll tell you how things really are,” says one of the author's characters (speaking in 1936,) “whatever they say, this is not a poor country. This is a country of poor people.”

And it is the elements of social class, poverty and inherited wealth that I most enjoyed in this book, and not just those about Spain. The Englishman of the title is Anthony Whitelands, a middle-class, Cambridge-educated art specialist who meets a seemingly generous and affable police officer on a train to the capital. Before long though, we learn that he is being closely watched. Whitelands has arrived in an atmosphere of public demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, beatings and sometimes fatal street violence between the forces of the right and the left. The victims are largely the young and politically undeveloped but Whitelands is at first ignorant of all the friction and tension that has been gripping so much of the country.

Increasingly, the protagonist is caught up in a number of situations outside his control and he is also snared by his own appetites: both carnal and his desire for greater recognition and fortune in “the narrow world of academia, with its tedious research and sordid rivalries.” He sees himself as just a small fish but is convinced that a newly discovered (privately-owned) Velazquez painting could be exactly what he his hoping for. Whitelands goes on to find himself “in somewhat of a pickle,” as his compatriots might say, everyone in the big, small town of Madrid wanting a piece of him for their own particular reasons. Whitelands appears in many senses to be an “English gentlemen” but he eats like someone else. I find it hard to accept that he would sit down to a breakfast of “squid and beer.”

Amongst other things, what really comes through in the pages of this jaunty, lively tale is Mendoza's sensitive and intuitive reading of art. This book reads like a longish short story though it has a pace that is clearly Mediterranean. After ninety pages very little has happened. It's a kind of slow burner with the characters regularly spouting extended “speechifying” monologues or digressing into unconnected anecdotes. The reader gets a good feel for their personalities, facial expressions and other mannerisms and this all gives the narrative the feel of something written almost in the period in which it is said. That's not something easily achieved by a writer sitting at a computer in the 21st century.

The author is also astute enough to point out the existence of masons in Azaña's government of the time and, with an eye for detail, draws what he must think is a distinction between the British upper class with their apparent love of ceremony and the Spanish upper class who opt for simpler, less formal social situations and meals. Ones of his more observant characters knows the necessity of explaining to the Englishman that “it's not just money that the proletariat wants. They want justice and respect.” In fact Mendoza drops comments on the hesitancy, contradictory decision-making and general malfunctioning of public administration that surely also apply to many companies and to the excesses of today. “The Spaniards keep wages low,” says a English diplomat “while at the same time making social hierarchies plain. Workers earn half what they should and have to thank their employers... that way, their social position is reinforced.” On the other hand, one of the Spanish toffs makes the absurd statement that England has an “egalitarian society based on social relations that satisfy everyone,” as if the trade union members and socialists in Britain did not exist.

Ultimately, the author entertains and occasionally informs while giving a relatively favourable portrait of the Spanish “nobility” of the day. He provides an explanation for their inaction on social progress that lies somewhere between a reason and a weak excuse.

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