Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first novel featuring P.I. Pepe Carvalho, Barcelona’s answer to Phillip Marlowe. Two years later, Carvalho’s creator, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, was having lunch in one of his favourite restaurants, Casa Leopoldo in El Raval, when he accepted a bet to write what he described as “a cheap detective story” in just 15 days. Dusting off the private eye, he came up with Tatuaje in the designated two weeks, which became the first in the series proper. But Montalbán’s crime novels were never pulp fiction and, unlike Raymond Chandler’s, they had a hard political edge; better than anyone else, they chronicled Spain’s, and particularly Barcelona’s, transition from the hopes of pre-democracy to the disappointments of post-Francoism.
It is impossible to comprehend the Barcelona of Carvalho and Montalbán without understanding the writer’s early life. He was born to an anarchist seamstress and communist factory worker turned police officer in Carrer Botella in the Raval five months after the fall of Barcelona and a month after the end of the Spanish Civil War. When he was just 15 days old, his mother took him to La Modelo prison to appeal for his father, who had been condemned to death by a military court. The sentence was reduced to 20 years. The Raval of Montalbán’s childhood, in the Forties, was a place of the defeated. There were bombed-out buildings everywhere, almost everyone was on the losing side of the war and, in the author’s words, “carried the post-war around on their backs like a dead body”. Montalbán was describing these streets when he said “Something akin to the beauty of misery was etched on the faces of the houses”. There were few men around: instead, they were in prison or concentration camps, in exile or dead. Many women were forced into prostitution to support their families. Although his own family was not destitute, as his mother had sewing work, his later passion for cuisine can be traced to the hunger he often experienced in these years. When he was five, Montalbán met a strange man on the stairs of his tenement block. His father had returned. But despite their poverty, there were always family celebrations in the traditional restaurants of the area such as Casa Leopoldo and Can Lluís. These became central places in his geography and writing, to which he and his private eye would return again and again.
Manual Vázquez Montalbán became one of the very few people from the Raval who managed to study at university in the late Fifties, a time when, in his words, “0.01 percent of the student population was working class.” He then started working as a journalist and joined the clandestine PSUC, the Catalan communist party, before being arrested in 1962 when on an anti-Francoist demonstration. He was thrown in the cells of Via Laietana’s feared police headquarters and beaten up in front of his wife by the notorious inspector and torturer Vicente Creix. Sent to prison in Lleida, he described the experience as “his second university”. Here he found himself in the bizarre situation of watching the news of the death agonies of Pope John XXIII with his cellmates as though it were a football match. They wanted the Catholic leader to die because they knew it would lead to an amnesty, as indeed it did.
Over the next 40 years, Montalbán became one of the most prolific writers and commentators Spain has ever produced. By his death, he had written around a hundred books covering everything from Catalan folk music and gastronomy to political treatises, but it is the 20 Carvalho novels for which he is most remembered. Montalbán used Carvalho to denounce a city that was losing its signs of identity as it swept the poor under the carpet in a race to modernity. Michael Eaude, whose highly recommended Con el muerto a cuestas: Vázquez Montalbán y Barcelona was published in January, summed up the detective as such:
Like Marlowe, Carvalho is an ordinary man, who is relatively poor because otherwise he wouldn’t be a detective having to do disagreeable and dangerous jobs to earn a living. Like Marlowe again, Carvalho is the moral man walking the mean streets. He is a sceptic, because to survive the mean streets a detective has to doubt what people tell him. His scepticism is also an ethical attitude, in that it is applied to the arguments the powerful use to justify their actions. Carvalho sees his task as completing the job for his client, but he does not hand criminals over to the police: he does not trust them, as their job is to defend the ruling-class. When he pulls the thread leading to a criminal, he often finds that a leading capitalist is behind the crime. How else could it be in a criminal capitalist society?
Montalbán also left an immense body of work as a journalist and essayist, and was a renowned Barça fan and gourmet. Food and recipes feature prominently in the Carvalho novels. Each restaurant where Carvalho eats forms part of the landscape of the city. His sidekick Biscuter knows the stalls of the Boqueria intimately. Montalbán constantly evokes his childhood through tastes and smells. On several occasions, only half joking, he suggested that the city council set up a museum of these senses. Michael Eaude points out that, “Unlike Marlowe, Carvalho tries to enjoy himself: the pleasures of sex, eating and friendship are important to him. You have to look after yourself, because no-one else will.”
Through his body of work, Montalbán superbly and critically recorded the city’s and Spain’s faulty transition from dictatorship to democracy, slating the old Francoists, but also those who had undergone “plastic surgery in 1977”, miraculously turning into democrats. He was also angered by how Barcelona’s rulers—primarily the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), but also his own party the PSUC (which later became Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds)—swept away the memory of the city of his childhood in a remarkable whitewashing job, turning Barcelona into the clean city of the Olympics and design. Montalbán himself left the Raval and went to live in plush Vallvidrera. His sleuth followed him, allowing the author to look into the city from outside. But neither stopped returning to El Raval and showing solidarity with the oppressed, where everything the city authorities wanted to hide, lingered on. And, as Eaude writes in his book, although Montalbán was nostalgic for a disappeared Barcelona—the landscape of his childhood—at the same time he knew that these slums, in which it was so hard to live, would and should disappear. He also understood that the modern Olympic Barcelona was a good place to live, if you had money.
Before his death at Bangkok airport of a heart attack in 2003, Montalbán told Eaude, “Barcelona’s not a bad place to live....but there’s been an enormous operation in these 20 years to instil disenchantment, to depoliticise people.” With the current onslaught on the public sphere across Europe and the beginning of a fightback against this, Montalbán seems as relevant as ever.
A couple of his favourite restaurants
Just round the corner from Montalbán’s place of birth, at Carrer de la Cera 49, is Can Lluís. Open for more than a hundred years, in its early years it earned its nickname of Can Mosques (House of Flies) as the cod for sale outside would attract swarms of the creatures, but over the years it gained a more salubrious reputation, and became a meeting-place for good food, and artistic and left-wing political discussion. Thanks to its location in the heart of the small gypsy area of El Raval, in the Sixties it also became a focal point for rumba catalana with impromptu sessions involving El Peret, master of the genre, who married the owner’s daughter. Another story illustrates the desperate divisions of the Raval of Montalbán’s childhood. On January 26th, 1946, a man and woman, both anarchists, were eating here with their young son, when the Guardia Civil burst in demanding documents. The woman knew what would happen to them and took a grenade from her pocket and threw it. Tragically, the restaurant owner and his son were killed. To this day a small indentation in the ground can be seen where the grenade struck. A favourite of Montalbán and Carvalho, Alcoi rice and roasted goat shoulder, is now advertised in the window as the ‘MVM menu’ at €22. From Monday to Friday, a solid €9.50 menu del día is also available.
Casa Leopoldo (Sant Rafael 24) was Carvalho’s and Montalbán’s favourite restaurant, with their choice dish being mandonguilles amb sípia (meatballs and cuttlefish). It has, for many years, been a meeting-place for Barcelona’s literary elite, despite (or because of) being surrounded, until the opening of the Rambla del Raval, by some of the city’s worse slums. It is famed for its tertulias (discussions) fuelled by exquisite food, and is decorated with bullfighting motifs, de rigeur when the restaurant opened its doors for the 1929 Universal Exhibition. Be warned that prices have risen considerably since working-class families ate here in the author’s youth. A basic menu without drinks will set you back €25.
Nick Lloyd leads historical tours in Barcelona and runs the website www.iberianature.com.