Tattoo: A Pepe Carvalho Mystery Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (trans. Nick Caistor). Serpent’s Tail, 145 pp. $14.95
Tattoo, the second in Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho murder mysteries, first appeared in Spanish as Tatuaje (Tattoos) in 1976. The lyrics from Tatuaje “bold and blond as beer was he / A heart tattooed on his chest,” by the Catalan artist Rafael de León, a friend of García Lorca’s and Antonio Machado’s, made famous by the singer Concha Piquer, appear as an epigraph and recur throughout the book.
Tattoo reads more like a character sketch than a novel. Few of the rich details and intellectual tensions of Montalbán’s later novels appear here. It has a thin plot. A businessman hires Pepe Carvalho, ex-CIA, ex-cop, ex-Marxist and gourmet, to find out the identity of a drowned young man, “bold and blond as beer,” who has the words born to raise hell in hell tattooed on his back. The police suspect a drug deal gone wrong.
The trail takes Carvalho to the seamier parts of Barcelona and the Netherlands. He enters Amsterdam, a city he loves, with a Star revolver and jackknives concealed on his person. He stays at the Hotel Schiller in Rembrandtplein but avoids his former colleagues. He appreciates the softer community policing methods of the Amsterdam Politie. He is picked up smoking a joint in Paradiso (now a prominent arts space on Weteringschans) and questioned in a drug raid in the aftermath of the Provo youth revolt.
Later, Pepe gets beaten up and dumped in a canal. On his trips to Rotterdam and The Hague, he discovers the murder victim to have been Julio Chesma, among other things, a cheese importer and a gigolo. He figures out the motive for the killing to be passion, not drug money. There is a violent twist ending.
In Montalbán’s works, Spanish society is critiqued as decadent and corrupt and the path to solving a crime is often a compromise with truth. Justice, particularly in the Pepe Carvalho books, is thuggishly violent, instrumental and retributive rather than redemptive or distributive, given over, rather than to the state, to individual agency or vigilantism, or is often self-administered. This is not surprising as the literary roots of the Spanish noir novel lie in a rejection of the optimistic theme of Spanish regeneration espoused by the 1898 Generation of Rubén Darío and Valle-Inclán. The major faultlines for this consciously oppositional form lie between the Republican and Nationalist camps and the Castilian and Catalan divides. (Some of these divisions are also handled subtly in Rebecca Pawel’s excellent murder mystery Death of a Nationalist.)
Montalbán was born in Barcelona in 1939. A larger-than-life figure, he was a member of the Communist party from his student days. He was jailed for four years for supporting a miners’ strike. His early journalism was satirical, as one would expect, of the Francoist regime and its allies. After this stint with a left-wing magazine, he devoted himself to writing and became an established poet, essayist, anthologist and novelist. He was a gastronome and a FC Barcelona supporter. Both obsessions and his left-wing views found their way into his Pepe Carvalho novels. Montalbán died in 2003.
Like his creator, Pepe Carvalho straddles the genre with bravura gestures. He thumbs his nose at convention and received opinion. Phlegmatic and relentless in pursuit like Maigret, Pepe has a tough physical side. He beats up pimps. He drips cynicism. He is disputatious. His lover Charo is a prostitute and his sidekick Bromuro (Bromide, in other English translations), a shoeshiner, believes just in “money, fucking and food.” In many ways, the Pepe novels can be seen as a retort to the “exemplary novels” of an earlier age in Spain.
Montalbán’s detective would, one imagines, take a stand against the works of Miguel Unamuno and his ideas of “quixoticism” and the “universal Spaniard.” Unamuno’s saying “those who live in history render themselves deaf to silence” would have grated on Pepe’s ears, attuned as they were, despite his disenchantment with the fractured left, to the rhetoric and slogans of historical materialism.
As a gesture of protest against haute-bourgeoisie culture in this highly aware literary form, or one might say formula, Pepe burns many books in the grate, including Don Quixote, to keep himself warm. In The Buenos Aires Trilogy, he goes on to revile Jorge Luis Borges for his conservatism and argues the merits of Ernesto Sabato, another Argentine writer favored by the left.
Like van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels, each Pepe book furnishes cumulative details to create a composite picture of this compassionate and tough detective. In Tattoo, there is not much compassion on display. Pepe is boorish and leeringly sexist, like much of the macho anti-bourgeois left depicted in Montalbán’s other novels. In fact, he is over-the-top scary and unlikable. His overpowering lust for women verges on the misogynistic. He views all women in their forties as hopeless and starved of sex. His lovemaking is violent. He despises the “brutal, stupid LAPD cops” and the corrupt characters in Raymond Chandler’s novels but he tortures a middle-class woman into confessing her affair with Chesma and follows this up by sleeping with her.
Pepe is also a gastronome whose cooking is legendary. He treasures his copy of Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism next to Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. Like Michael Bond’s Pamplemousse series and Andrea Camilleri’s Vigata novels, readers of the Pepe mysteries mine the books for recipes such as the caldeirada in Tattoo where he also goes into transports over the virtues of simple bread and tomatoes.
As a model for an investigator with fallen ideals, Pepe has been an influential figure in noir. The Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri paid homage to Pepe’s creator, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, by naming his detective Montalbano. Camilleri’s enigmatic and highly allusive mysteries set in Vigata, Sicily are written in a macaronic blend of Sicilian dialect and formal Italian and, much like Montalbán’s works, deal with the public issues of immigration and racism from a left perspective. And like the gastronome Pepe, Camilleri’s Montalbano enjoys regional Sicilian cuisines and even cooks an Indian q’orma in one book. However, Montalbano is more progressive than his Spanish counterpart and does not have his rough edges and penchant for violence.
The med noir novel has strong regional exponents who portray with loving care and nostalgia their decaying locales in all their complacencies and brutalities: Montalbán in Barcelona is joined by Izzo with his Marseilles, and other Italian noiristes in Bologna, Rome, Florence, Naples, Bari, and Cagliari. The violence that occurs in their books is expressed in terms of attacks on the flagging spirits of their beloved cities, no matter how decayed and corrupt they might be. The noir detective’s actions are salves, infused with nostalgia, with love of their surroundings and of local culture and with a crushing cynicism that their cities are lost without hope.
The Barcelona that Montalbán conjures up is less of the Vallvidrera neighborhood where Pepe lives than of the tarnished and surviving beauties of Las Ramblas. Not surprisingly, Pepe likes the grittier parts closer to the port. Montalbán observes with a touch of romanticism that is so unlike Pepe unless he’s discussing football or food that:
The Rambla was like an entire universe that began at the port and ended at the disappointing mediocrity of Plaza Catalunya. Somehow it had retained the wise capriciousness of the rushing stream it had once been. It was like a river that knew where it was heading, like all the people walking up and down it all day long, who seemed unwilling to say goodbye to its plane trees, its multicoloured kiosks, the strange stalls selling parrots and monkeys, the archaeology of buildings which told the story of three hundred years’ history of a city with history. Carvalho loved the Rambla the way he loved life; it was irreplaceable.
Caistor’s translation is serviceable but the book could have been better proofread to ease the reader into the oeuvre. Page 61 has “Aryan” misspelled and Dutch forms “Leidseplein” and “Sarphatistraat” and “Vijzelstraat” have been rendered as “Leidsplein,” “Sarphatastraat,” and “Vijzalstraat” for some reason.
It is hard to find consistency in the usage of other Dutch placenames: “Waterloo Plein” is the form used rather than “Waterlooplein” but “Rembrandtplein” becomes “Rembrandt Square.” There are other jarring notes: “rysttafel” is used instead of the more common “rijsttafel.” The Turkish dish of “imam bayildi” is spelled as “eman bayildi.” Are these hispanicisms, Montalbán’s mistakes, or Caistor’s typos?
Fans of Pepe Carvalho will be pleased, nonetheless. While Tattoo will not satisfy most readers, it provides a brief, if uncomfortable, introduction to a writer and his detective who ought to be better known to English readers.
Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His book Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in Canada and India in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and longlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Book Award in 2009. The book is being translated into French. He lives in Toronto.
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