The anger and ethics of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Issue: 110

Mike Eaude

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) was one of the last of the engagé writers of Southern Europe, left wing intellectuals produced by the large Communist parties of the 1960s and 1970s. Prolific journalist, essayist and novelist, he was an outstanding interpreter of Spain in its transformation from the sad, frightened country of the Franco dictatorship to its limited, but vibrant, bourgeois democracy today.

Occupied city

Montalbán, born in the year of Franco’s Spanish Civil War victory, grew up in the slums of Barcelona during the grimmest years of the dictatorship. Many men were absent—dead, exiled or in jail. Montalbán met his father for the first time when, aged five, he passed a strange man on the stairs. A few streets down from Montalbán’s home on the Calle Botella, the biggest brothel district in Europe thrived. Working class women in these post-war years often had to choose between prostitution and their children’s starvation. Mass prostitution, which the anarchists had sought to abolish during the Spanish Revolution of 1936 by closing brothels and encouraging women to take up arms against fascism, prospered under the rule of Franco and the church.

1940s Barcelona was treated by Franco and a vengeful Catalan bourgeoisie as an occupied city. For the regime, Catalans were guilty of three cardinal sins—Communism, atheism and separatism. Franco set out to extirpate all signs of Catalan and working class culture.

In the Raval, the part of Barcelona’s Old City where Montalbán grew up, particularly punished by the bombs of the Italian air force based on Mallorca during the civil war and a traditional stronghold of anarchism, 99 percent of the population was anti-Franco. Montalbán remembered women with children begging for scraps at their door, even though his mother had no income apart from what she earned by sewing. He remembered their fear of ‘fascist commandos with their heads shaved to the scalp who forced people to drink castor oil’ just for speaking Catalan. In a memorable phrase in The Pianist, a character says, ‘I know the neighbours, almost all of them have lost the war and they carry the post-war round on their backs like a dead body.’ Just to survive, the defeated and impoverished population needed basic solidarity with each other. This background, both an open wound and an ethical touchstone, pervades all Montalbán’s writing.

Montalbán was one of the few who escaped from the Raval to the university, another world only a 15-minute walk from his home. At university he became involved in opposition politics, was arrested in 1961, beaten up personally by the notorious torturer Inspector Vicente Creix and sent to Lleida jail. This was, Montalbán said, his second university. He joined the PSUC, the Catalan Communist Party, a commitment he maintained throughout his life.1 Despite his international renown as a prize-winning essayist and novelist, he remained loyal to the solidarity of his childhood right up to his fatal heart attack in October 2003.

Released from jail in 1963, in an amnesty occasioned by Pope John XXIII’s death, Vázquez Montalbán embarked on a career as a journalist. His early fame came from his skilful political analysis and acid, sarcastic turn of phrase, especially in the PCE-sponsored Triunfo. A more lasting claim to fame and the motive for this article is that, between 1977 and 1990, he wrote half a dozen novels that stand among the best in modern Spanish literature. The Pianist (1985),2 discussed below, is his masterpiece. Galíndez (1990) runs it a close second: it is a fictionalised account of the 1956 kidnapping in New York of an exiled Basque Nationalist leader and his torture and murder in the Dominican Republic by the dictator Trujillo.

Montalbán became best known, though, for crime novels, featuring his detective,
Pepe Carvalho. Of these, The Angst-Ridden Executive (1977), Southern Seas (1979) and The Rose of Alexandria (1984) fall into the half-dozen mentioned above.3 In Montalbán’s crime novels, the crooks are revealed as the rich who defend their privilege with murder. This was not new. Raymond Chandler, king of the modern ‘hard-boiled’ crime novel, explained in the 1950s:

‘The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels…where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making.’

Chandler carries on in this vein, and doubtless readers of this journal need little convincing. However, Chandler was not a man of the left. Rather, like many writers of his period, he hated the gangstercapitalists who he blamed for destroying the lives of middle class people like himself in the 1930s Depression.

Like Chandler in Los Angeles, Vázquez Montalbán tears the mask of democracy off a city—Barcelona, in his case—run by crooks, but the context is very different.
The Angst-Ridden Executive and Southern Seas were written at the time of Spain’s 1970s transition from dictatorship to bourgeois democracy. The background is not the defeat of the left in 1940s Los Angeles, but the mass struggle against the Franco dictatorship. Montalbán was not (as Chandler was) a former oil company executive, but an activist in that struggle. In his 1970s and 1980s novels, Montalbán is explaining how the change in 1970s Spain was not a ‘rupture’ with the dictatorship, but a controlled ‘transition’ to parliamentary democracy. He shows how ‘the same dogs with different collars’ continued to exercise power in the new Spain. The political structures changed, but economic power remained in the hands of not just the same class, but the same individuals.

Sceptic or cynic?

Montalbán’s experience as a campaigning journalist had taught him that, with an increasingly sophisticated mass media assimilating opposition, it was not enough for a left wing journalist just to denounce injustice. He was ambitious to reach out to an audience even wider than the big readership of his articles in Triunfo. With crime novels, Montalbán found a popular genre with down to earth language, in which he could include the songs, memories, smells and tastes common to his own and millions of others’ youth.

Montalbán conceived the Carvalho novels as a chronicle of contemporary Spanish and Catalan society, explaining events to his readers very soon after they had occurred:

‘In each book I look at different questions: in The Angst-Ridden Executive the illusions of the transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, in Murder in the Central Committee the crisis in the Communist Party, in Offside sport and the fleeting nature of media fame, in An Olympic Death entrepreneurs whose athleticism consisted in lining their own pockets as quickly as possible.’

In The Angst-Ridden Executive, for instance, Carvalho investigates the murder of Antonio Jauma, found dead with a pair of women’s knickers in his pocket. The police quickly conclude that Jauma was the victim of a sex intrigue. Unconvinced,
Carvalho finds that Jauma was killed not because he was a womaniser—though he was—but because he was honest. Jauma was silenced because he had discovered a financial hole in the multinational company he worked for. The multinational had helped finance the 1973 coup in Chile, and now money is being illegally siphoned off to fund fascist groups during Spain’s transition. As one of the characters explains, ‘[Fascist groups] probably won’t be necessary, but the ruling class likes to cover all contingencies.’

In his investigation Carvalho visits six of Jauma’s friends from their time together in the underground struggle at university 15 years before. Montalbán uses the investigation to look back into history, to note how each character has evolved, to examine who has betrayed their youthful beliefs and who has not.

He gives his narrative historical depth in another way too, throughout the Carvalho novels. The detective’s office is at the seedy end of the Ramblas and he often wanders through the Raval, where streets, bars, shops and people he meets all spark off memories. In this constant inventory of the past, Montalbán is writing an alternative working class history, a history of those excluded from official history. The detective has a sort of ‘family’—his call-girl girlfriend Charo, his ‘secretary’ and ex car thief Biscuter, and the ex-fascist boot-black Bromide. All three have their own carefully documented histories. Bromide, for example, was a volunteer with the Spanish Blue Division fighting for Hitler in 1941 against the Soviet Union. Living at the bottom of society, Bromide is a reminder that Franco didn’t even look after his own.
The detective, clearly not to be identified with the author but nevertheless sharing much of his past and his point of view, is vital to making the novels work. Carvalho loves good food, wine, sex and long rambling conversations. Quite consciously, Montalbán challenged a certain puritanism on the left by creating a hedonist detective. Given the world’s a mess, Carvalho ruminates, he has to look after himself, because no one else is likely to. For this reason, he has often been called a cynic. As if to reinforce this, the detective growls, ‘I believe only in my stomach,’ early in The Angst-Ridden Executive. But at the climax of the novel, when the murderer offers Carvalho a Nuits St George, Carvalho does not act cynically. Magnificently, he pours the exquisite wine onto the priceless carpet. He is a sceptic, as you have to be when listening to the lies of the powerful, but no cynic. He will not drink with a killer. Like Chandler’s detective Marlowe, Carvalho is the moral man on the mean streets.

The revolutionary Marxist Ernest Mandel had a related criticism in his social history of the crime novel, Delightful Murder:

‘In general all Montalban’s books are soaked in an atmosphere of spleen, scepticism and fin-de-siècle ennui, very significant as the background of a whole layer of intellectual Eurocommunists. It is a break with Stalinist dogmatism and hypocrisy, but hardly a step towards greater lucidity of what this society and this world are all about’.4

There is some truth in Mandel’s comment, for Montalbán’s tone is often one of rather bitter sarcasm. This is rooted in his appreciation of the defeat the working class suffered in the transition, and his and its subsequent disenchantment with the new ‘democratic’ Spain. Mandel, however, fails to pick up the contradictions in Montalbán. As a Communist Party member, Montalbán supported all the nefarious deals made by the PCE with the ruling class to hold back working class struggle. However, as a novelist, where he lets his imagination rip, he shows a reality which does not excuse this CP-led defeat of the working class. Similarly, in his 1990s fiction he was an outspoken critic of Barcelona’s Olympic Games and the building speculation, corruption and destruction of historic memory they brought, yet the party to which he belonged supported the games.

Mandel’s remarks also make one ask, what would a revolutionary detective novel be like? How would it be different from Southern Seas, in which the detective reveals the lies of the powerful, gives voice to the working class, expresses and practises solidarity with the poor, explains the history of the people and places he describes, shows the ruling class as imbeciles or cynics, deliberately avoids handing over criminals who are criminals because of their social oppression to the police who are portrayed as the enemy, and recognises explicitly that a detective—one person— cannot change the world, however much he wants to?

No escape

Southern Seas’ title announces its theme—the yearning to run away. Carlos Pedrell, a capitalist with artistic leanings who is terrified of ageing, wants to follow in the steps of Gauguin. But a year after leaving, supposedly for a South Pacific island, he is found dead. His exotic destination was much closer to home—the cheap estate whose construction he himself had financed in the suburbs of Barcelona. Montalbán, good materialist that he is, always explains where people’s money (or lack of it) comes from. In the 1950s Pedrell had made his fortune building blocks of flats, ‘vertical shanty-towns’, for workers who migrated from southern Spain. These were thrown up without basic services or transport on the outskirts of industrial cities like Barcelona.

The central character of Southern Seas is Ana Briongos, a Communist and car factory worker who lives on the estate built by Pedrell. Unlike the other characters, she knows there is no escape to a fantasy world, which is why she fights in union and party for a better world here and now. It is Ana who explains to Carvalho the Moncloa accords of late 1977, the pact that rounded off the transition. The Communist Party, which had already accepted the monarchy in return for its legalisation, now signed with government and bosses an agreement to restrict wage rises to a maximum 22 percent when inflation was running at 29 percent. Ana, the rank and file fighter, explains:

‘No one swallowed the Moncloa pacts, but we had to defend them with all the good faith we could muster…that in the long run they would favour the working class. In short, we spouted what they’d told us to say. Soon everyone saw it was a sell-out, like all the rest.’

With the character of Ana, Montalbán breaks with traditional ‘hard-boiled’ novels by introducing the organised working class. He also breaks with their characteristic sexism—Ana speaks with her own voice.

The defeated within the defeated

The Pianist is a non-Carvalho novel that takes the two high points in Spain’s 20th century class struggle, the revolution of pares them. The choral novel is divided into three parts. In the first, a group of anti-Franco ex-university friends, on a night out in 1983, go to a fashionable club in the Raval, with transvestite singers and an elderly pianist. Javier Solana, the new Socialist minister of culture, is holding court at one of the tables. Not even Montalbán, so politically prescient, could have realised how suitable a representative of Spain’s new rulers Solana was. This affable, smiling cultural mandarin would become NATO general secretary, and be responsible for the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 on behalf of the main imperialist powers.

Half the group of friends, now building their professional or business careers, look back on the transition as ‘a confused period’, and the other half are disoriented by how little was gained in the transition. At the end of the night Montalbán leaves the group of friends and follows the old pianist, who walks home to his dingy flat where a bedridden old woman awaits him. Lovingly, the old man talks to the invalid and washes her.

The middle part of The Pianist moves back to 1946 in the same Raval. This intense heart of the novel draws on Montalbán’s childhood memories and is one of the most deeply felt and beautiful passages in his 80-odd books. A group of young people are on the flat rooftops, the only place where they can talk freely and escape the ubiquitous spies and cops of the dictatorship. They are fascinated with stories of history, unlike the group in the first section who want to escape from their recent history. A new tenant arrives, just released from prison. It transpires that he is the old pianist of 1983. Again unlike the group in the first section, this 1946 group show solidarity with Albert, as he is called, and help him find Teresa, the invalid of the first and the third section will tell us just who he is.

This third part takes place in Paris in mid-July 1936. The pianist Albert has newly arrived on a music scholarship and goes to see a well known Catalan musician, Doria, and his girlfriend, Teresa. His career loosely based on the painter Salvador Dalí’s, Doria had appeared in the first section as a grand old glory of Spanish music, revered by Solana; in the second as someone praised by the dictatorship’s press; and in the third as an iconoclastic revolutionary. To Doria’s shock, when Franco’s uprising comes on 18 July, just four days after the massive Popular Front demonstration in Paris on Bastille Day, Teresa sees through his revolutionary posing. ‘Bla, bla, bla,’ is her reply to Doria’s empty aesthetic verbiage. She leaves him and accompanies Albert, who has decided to give up his music career and return to Barcelona to defend the revolution by fighting with the POUM.

When asked in an interview why he, a PSUC militant, made Albert a POUM member, Montlbán replied: ‘Because those of the POUM were the defeated within the defeated.’ The reply reflects the novelist’s post-transition pessimism, but also his understanding that the POUM, crushed by Stalinism, represented the defeat of the revolutionaries within the general defeat of the Republic. This recognition led Montalbán in the 1980s, alongside other PSUC militants, to insist that the PSUC should correct the murderous calumny of 1937 that Andreu Nin and the POUM were fascists. It did.

When The Pianist came out in Spain in 1985, it was widely acclaimed. It was later voted book of the 1980s in an El País readers’ poll. Almost everywhere, it was reviewed as an elegiac novel looking back to the glorious, irrecoverable time of the civil war and lamenting the sad fate of Teresa and Albert, the defeated of the defeated. Times had changed, and revolution was no longer desirable or possible.

Despite their praise, though, the critics misread the novel. In fact, they reflected the point of view of the group of friends in the first section. They overlooked the critique of the friends’ ‘aesthetic’ or ‘individualist’ abandonment of class struggle, which is implicit in the novel’s backward-moving structure, in which the 1983 present can only be understood through the 1936 and 1946 pasts. Doria and Solana represent, in their different ways, the continuity of opportunism.
Nothing can be expected of them. But the 1983 friends’ lack of interest in history and in Albert, the POUMist, underlines the failure of the anti-Franco left in the transition. Albert is left alone, with nothing but his love for Teresa and his unbroken integrity. If the lessons of solidarity and history are forgotten, Montalbán is telling us, then the tragedy of losing the civil war is repeated in the tragedy of losing the transition.

The Pianist is a stunning political novel. It is written with the sarcastic anger or ‘spleen’ of Vázquez Montalbán at his best. And it contains, too, the melancholy undercurrent of understanding that, in both civil war and transition, capitalism won out. It is true that Montalbán the Eurocommunist fails to make a balance sheet of Stalinism and thus offers no political perspective that will help us win next time. Political analysis, though, is not the function of fiction. In the novels mentioned, he creates imaginative worlds with historical depth, and insists that no change is possible without understanding of our history.

1: The PSUC, though autonomous to some degree, was part of the PCE, the Spanish Communist Party. The PSUC disintegrated in the 1980s and Montalbán ended up supporting one of its descendants, Iniciativa per Catalunya, a rather right wing ‘eco-socialist’ ex Communist Party.
2: Published in translation by Quartet in 1989, but now out of print.
3: Six of Montalbán’s 20 Carvalho novels are available in English, published by Serpent’s Tail, including The Angst-Ridden Executive and Southern Seas.
4: Out of print now, Delightful Murder was published by Pluto in 1984.