Monday, August 8, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Catalonia

The train has headed for Spain this week according to the itinerary laid out by our host Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. This particular train is headed for the northeast of Spain, specifically Barcelona and the surrounding towns of Catalonia and the beaches of Costa Brava. There is also rather an extensive side trip to the Netherlands which came as a complete surprise to me as I read Tattoo, the completely engrossing second crime novel by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Amsterdam, the Hague and Rotterdam were included in this private eye story that had much to offer in local color of two countries and - probably the best part of the book - in the discussions of food.

Pepe Carvalho is a private eye who lives and works in Barcelona who is hired by Senor Ramon, the owner of a hairdressing salon, to help identify the faceless corpse recently pulled from the ocean. The young blond man had a distinctive tattoo on his back that reads "Born to raise hell in hell" that should make the identification somewhat easier if only Carvalho can find out who did the tattoo. His search conveniently leads Carvalho to Amsterdam -- a city he knows all too well. He was formerly a CIA operative there in an antique shop that covered as a station for monitoring communist activities and illegal immigrants.

I can't speak for the original Spanish, but the English translation by Nick Caistor beautifully captures a European flavor both figuratively and literally. Carvalho is in love with food. The passages describing his own cooking and the meals he rapturously enjoys in the restaurants of both countries are some of the most poetic and evocative in the book.

Take this visit to the House of Lords, a restaurant Carvalho chose for their offering of gigot of lamb:
He tucked into the lamb without holding back. Well cooked meat is first and foremost a tactile pleasure to the roof of the mouth. [...] When the aroma of the burgundy hit the delicate skin of his palate and rose to fill his nostrils with the heady perfume of red wine, it was like having a velvet fluid wipe away the tiny wounds that the pieces of meat had caused.
There are also philosophical observations rendered in a witty offbeat manner:
A pleasure shared can become a spectacle, but never one enjoyed in private. ... [S]howing too plainly how much enjoyment a meal is giving you has a direct influence on the size of the tip you leave. Waiters are subtle psychoanalysts. As soon as they see from your expression that you are approaching ecstasy, they ask you to confirm it out loud, and peer into the recesses of your mind and your wallet with the intensity of a soul mate who will not achieve their own orgasm unless you leave at least fifteen per cent tip.
As Carvalho makes his way through Amsterdam where he enjoys rollmops (raw herring with onions in black bread), genever (a powerful Dutch gin) and other local fare he makes contact with all his old cronies. This leads him to the tattoo artist who created the hellish design. The tattooist also reports the dead man was employed with other Spanish immigrants at a local Philips electronics factory. There he finally gets a name for the dead man:  Julio Chesma. Carvalho then must travel to the Hague and Rotterdam for further interviews with the many women in Chesma's life. After gathering all this information (and consuming several hearty memorable meals) he heads back to Barcelona.

It is a very basic plot with more question and answer scenes than legitimate detection. However, the pull of the story is not so much in the plot as it is the writing itself: the 1970s details and atmosphere of a hippie laden Amsterdam, the colorfully drawn aspects of hidden lives of the working poor in Catalonia, the odd nature of Spanish relations between Andalusian, Catalan, and Galician cultures, and ultimately his discussions of food.

Carvalho is a gourmet - not a gourmand - whose highly developed tastes have become his religion. His altar is the dining table and each meal cannot be complete without the ritual drink - the perfect wine, the crispest beer, the most potent potable - each to be served in its appropriately chosen glass. Early in the book, for example, he prepares a caldeirada and he chooses a Fefiñanes that must be served in a tall elegant wine glass. He likes people even more -- women especially -- when they truly enjoy their food. He takes note of one woman eating her meal and is "pleased to see her make short work of her barbecue ribs."

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Violence and food are genuine turn-ons and often they go hand in hand. In the midst of one of the most suspenseful scenes in the book -- pursuing Fat Nuria, a teenage girl employed by Senor Ramon at the hair salon -- he cannot stop thinking of food. While spying on her family who may be involved in the death of Chesma he overhears someone mention chitterlings and is sent off into a reverie of sense memory as he tries to recall the taste and texture of a "glazed pottery dish heap full of them." After a knife fight outside a bar Carvalho "could feel a warm glow in his chest as if he had drunk a glass of fine french brandy of Black Label whiskey."

The other characters are well drawn, earthy and memorable from his prostitute girlfriend Charo who must squeeze in time for her Pepito in between client appointments to the paranoid shoeshine man, Bromuro, who acts as Carvalho's informer on the seedy underworld of the Catalan neighborhoods. There is also Teresa Marsé, a typical femme fatale found in all private eye novels. She is suitably cynical and sexy and immediately attracted to Carvalho who stimulates her insatiable appetite for sexual dalliances.  And there are quite a few of them.

Tattoo uses as a framework the lyrics of a popular song from the 1940s which sets to music a poem called appropriately "Tatuaje" by Rafael De León. The English translation of the song includes a line about a young man who is "bold and blond as beer"-- a phrase which recurs throughout the story and that Carvalho also uses to describe the faceless Julio Chesma. The rest of lyrics also are peppered throughout the story which made me curious to hear the song. It has been recorded by many singers, but I was fortunate to find one of the earliest filmed versions. The performer is Concha Márquez Piquer and she can be seen and heard passionately singing in the clip below.

For the complete list of this week's crime ridden journeys through Spain (and Portugal), please visit Mysteries in Paradise.


  1. Many thanks for this contribution John, a new-to-me author too

  2. John: The descriptions of food are striking. I thought of Nero Wolfe's passion for fine food.

  3. I am enjoying your trip thru Europe.

  4. In later Carvalho novels, Vázquez Montalbán became quite boring, but the novels of the beginning not only are briliant, but are a great portrait of the late seventies in Barcelona.