Translated by Nick Caistor
The Planeta Prize is the richest prize for a single work of fiction in the world. The prize is worth EU 601,000!!! And I cheered mightily hard when Eduardo Mendoza won it 3 years ago. Mendoza was the first Spanish novelist to be added to my completist reading list and that was due to my guffawing my way through No Word from Gurb. So it’s no surprise that I dropped everything when this little beauty dropped through the letter box.
Anthony Whitelands is the eponymous Englishman, an art historian who is looking to make a name for himself. The discovery of a lost master would do it. So when he is invited to value a Spanish aristocrat’s private collection, he accepts the assignment with more hope than certainty. Actually that’s a bit unfair. Anthony loves Spain; the Prado is his second home; Velazquez, possibly the love of his life, and with Spain on the brink of Civil War, this may be his last chance to visit for some time.
A few weeks later: Anthony had come to Madrid to value a paintng, but without knowing how seemed to have become a collision point for all the forces in the history of Spain. He has unwittingly marked himself as a Falangist sympathiser, the Spanish authorities are keeping a close eye on his movements, as indeed is his own embassy. The Communists have, for some reason, marked him for assassination.
This would be funny, if it weren’t so serious. And it would be serious, if I cared about Whitelands as a character. But I’m afraid not. He is a libertine, an opportunist and a bit slow on the uptake. He’d love to be a player, but he is played, well and truly, by all and sundry.
It’s funny how a title can change the focus of a read. The English title, legitimate given the content, is obviously designed to appeal to the English readership. The Spanish title, Riña de gatos, is literally translated Cat Fight, and places the emphasis firmly on the political shenanigans of 1936. The book is populated by historical figures of the time amongst them Antonio Primer de Rivera, leader of the Falange and, of course, Francisco Franco. If the naive Anthony Whiteland thinks he can herd these cats, then more fool him.
The tone remains ironic and good-humoured throughout what may, on the surface, appear to be a rattling good adventure. Those seeking the darker seams of history will find them, albeit hidden in the analysis of the art works that are central to the plot. For instance, there is a recurring motif of Whitelands confronted with Titian’s Death of Acteon. Never a favourite of his but as time goes by, it unsettles him more and more.
This is the moment when Diana, taking revenge on Actaeon for surprising her as she bathed naked in the woods, transforms him into a stag. Thereafter his own hounds attack and kill him. In the painting Actaeon is still visibly human but the transformation is in progress. It is the moment of no return. As a metaphor, this may apply to Whitelands, who may have observed something that is too dangerous for him to know. It also applies to Spain herself, depicted moments before she begins to rip herself to shreds. It’s just a question of which political dog is going to take the first bite.