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Why do I keep reading, reading, reading every week and continue to publish a weekly book review in CounterPunch? One quick answer is because of the unexpected surprises—maybe a couple of times a year—when a book comes along by a writer I’ve never read before (or ever heard about) and gives me nothing more than infinite pleasure. That delight is certainly true of Eduardo Mendoza’s An Englishman in Madrid, an “historical” novel that Mendoza’s publishers describe on the cover (from a review in the Independent on Sunday) as a “A funny, gripping and perfectly balanced blend of P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.” Precisely, but many young readers have little idea who those three writers are. So I’ll provide another context. Mendoza’s novel is as engaging and accomplished as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, sharing—in fact—numerous similarities. Both focus a plot that revolves around a major piece of art, a painting, which in the course of the story begins to take on a life of its own.
Thirty-four-year-old Anthony Whitelands—a very British bachelor, who has recently broken off an affair with a married woman—travels to Madrid in 1936 to appraise the paintings the Duke of La Igualada. Whitelands is a second-rate art historian, who has written a study of the works of Velázquez, during the Spanish golden age of art. Spain is in a state of political unrest, and the Duke informs the Englishman that he’s hopeful that if his paintings can be sold, he can use the money to take his family (two sons and two daughters, who are all grown up) into exile. But, alas, the paintings are basically worthless, mostly copies. Whitelands prepares to return to London after rendering his judgment that “the paintings would not help save the family.”
But, wait, there’s more than that. The Duke’s eldest daughter, Paquita (short for “Doña Victoria Francisca Eugenia María del Valle y Martínez de Alcántra, Marquess of Cornella”) secretly takes him into the basement of the mansion where she shows him a magnificent Velázquez, unknown to the art world. What’s important is that it’s the painting of a very provocative naked woman at a time when Spanish art was not known to depict such subjects. There’s only one other similar painting by Velázquez and the woman’s face is hidden so she cannot be identified. As Whitelands will explain much later to another art historian, “In my opinion, events went like this: a libertine nobleman, married to an intelligent and unconventional woman, commissions a painting on a mythological theme, but which is basically the portrait of a sensual, uninhibited naked woman. The painting is never meant to leave Don Gaspar’s private apartments, and so his wife has no problem taking part in the game. We cannot dismiss the idea that she could be an accomplice in her husband’s licentiousness rather than a virtuous, unwilling victim. After all, the painter is Velázquez; to be painted by him not only flatters her vanity, but guarantees her a preeminent place in the history of art.”
Then Whitelands constructs an elaborate history of why the painting was kept from the general public (mostly because of prudery) and how it passed down from generation to generation, ending up in the Duke of La Igulada’s basement (basically because the painting is still shocking and likely to change everything that is known about the great Spanish painter). Obviously, the Englishman is almost drooling because of what “his discovery” and the selling of the painting will do for his reputation within the art world. But there’s another caveat, hidden for a time from Whitelands, before the painting can be brought into the open. It’s the political aspect of the Englishman’s story, even though he believes that he is apolitical and this dimension should not interest him. This is where Mendoza’s story soars.
Whitelands, for the Spanish, is every bit an English stereotype, yet his encounters with historical figures on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War is buffered with his more passionate relationships with lesser figures. There’s José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falangists, who will later be assassinated. There’s the military leader, General Franco. But there are also British and Russian spies, and three of the Duke’s four children. Mendoza takes the political situation seriously but he does not treat all of his characters equally. There are murders, assignations, and plenty of drinking, just as there are in Tartt’s The Goldfinch. More importantly, the light tone—often close to some of Charlie Chaplin’s early movies—modulates the more serious political events that Spain is undergoing. The result: a merry-go-round of shifting emotions and relationships, a bouquet of continual surprises, an utter delight to read. The translator, Nick Caistor, must have been challenged, but he got it right—especially the novel’s irreverent tone.
Enjoy. Enjoy as you enjoyed The Goldfinch. Maybe more.
Eduardo Mendoza: An Englishman in Madrid
Trans. by Nick Caistor
MacLehose Press, 354 pp., $26.99