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Monday 7 December 2009

The Seas South of Gaudi

When, on his way back home from Australia in 2003, Manuel Vazquez Montalbán died at the age of 64, at least half (the left-wing half) of Spain went into mourning. Television and newspapers went into overdrive. Spain had just lost a prolific journalist and writer who had provided frequently waspish and funny, always acute commentary, up to, through and beyond what is called the Transition – the movement out of dictatorship and into democracy.

Vazquez Montalbán was from Barcelona, born in the poor Barrio Chino (the Chinese Quarter, Chinese in Franco’s Spanish meaning Red Light), which was subsequently flattened for the '92 Olympics. Mediterranean, Catalan, he grew up as a Left-wing, gourmet workaholic, who said the only slavery he could countenance was his own. Articles, essays, poems and books in many genres poured out of him.

Amongst all his other activities Vazquez Montalbán was one of the very first crime writers in Spain.

You may think this an odd thing to remark on.

But when I first went to Spain I was struck by how popular English crime writers like Agatha Christie were. On asking for Spanish writers in this genre I learnt there were indeed a few thriller writers – they wrote macho adventures, usually set abroad. It soon got through to me that ‘perfect societies’ – also known as societies with censors –have no place for crime novels because they involve investigations and uncovering truths. Spain at that time did not need that.

The Pepe Carvalho novels actually began in 1972 (Franco had three years to go). It is difficult now to understand the limitations imposed on Spanish writers at that time. For example, the newspaper El País could not have started while Franco was alive. The name was regarded as insulting by the old guard. El Pais means, simply, The Country. Not nearly grand enough. Where was the Fatherland, the grandeur of Spain?

Likewise the censors would not allow ‘bad Spaniards’ in fiction unless they met an exemplary end. But they looked superficially: Is Carvalho a Spanish surname? No, it is Portugese. So it was passed.

‘Biscuter’ is the nickname of Carvalho”s sidekick. I saw people howling with laughter at this. Apart from being a description of the character’s sexual orientation(s), the name refers to the Biscuter (Bi-Scooter), a tiny vehicle with a two stroke engine and drive to one wheel, that was produced when Spain was excluded from the UN and licensing agreements. It became a byword for ugliness, the tatty pretensions of the dictatorship, and the diminutive size of the dictator.

Does this matter now? Probably only in the sense that things date, and names, expressions and attitudes are left alone, looking orphaned, long after a dictatorship has gone.

Freed from forty years of Franco, the Spanish leapt to ‘join Europe again.’ There were some odd conjunctures. Political and sexual liberation came together in what was called the destape' (uncovering). One of my favourite memories is being handed a magazine, a garish buffet of naked women, to find the centerfold was a long, closely argued article by the man called ‘the old professor’ - Enrique Tierno Galván, a mild-mannered, very serious, somewhat self-conscious intellectual who would become Mayor of Madrid.

The Spanish sum up this climate now by pointing to a photograph of the amiable old professor, quite unaware that a porn actress is flashing beside him.

The sexual revolution at that time in Spain, certainly in print in magazines and in S cinemas now long gone, was decidedly male orientated. The word ‘macho’ is after all a Spanish export. Yes, I think there was definitely an element of women as food, probably best expressed by the Jack Lemmon character in Some Like it Hot when, surrounded by the members of the female band, he recounts to Tony Curtis his dream of being locked in a cake shop - though most of the stuff was not as charming or as funny.

My point here? Manuel Vazquez Montalbán was what the Spanish call ‘extremely well prepared’ – that is, he was very intelligent, highly educated and well-read. Un hombre culto – a cultured man – meant a lot in Spanish politics then. He represented the left in this respect, could take on the right-wing intellectuals as a man who had had academic success and knew about Schrödinger’s cat, Philip Glass or Ubu Roi.

But he was not as innocent as the old professor, and some of his writing reflects the greasy nature of some ‘cake shops’, and an appetite that does not think much, if at all, about the cake herself. I suspect this is why he is popular in Italy.

One more thing. There is a ritual in Spain. Every year since 1952, on October 15, the winner of the Premio Planeta is announced. Though books are submitted under pseudonyms ,the winner tends to be well known already. The list of winners is a veritable roll call of Spanish cultural life. The money is so big that one winner, Juan Marsé I think it was (he has also written crime novels) called it ‘la casa’ – the house. He meant that the money was big enough to buy one and, after years of scraping a living, it meant security. Juan Marsé, a recent recipient of the Cervantes prize and the prize in honour of the wonderful Juan Rulfo, won the Planeta in 1978 with his La Muchacha de las Bragas de Oro – literally The girl with the gold knickers - published in English with the title Girl with Golden Panties. It is not actually a prize but an advance and is currently 601,000 euros.

The Planeta is now a tradition, like cologne and socks at Christmas, a popular present and in some ways the book of the year, ie the one book bought, usually for Papa or Dad. Sales are enormous, the marketing at saturation level. It is very tempting. And to win it, the writer is asked to be accessible --- and to reflect society.

The Southern Seas (Los Mares del Sur) won the Planeta in 1979.

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