Anthony Whitelands is the Englishman of the title, and he arrives in Spain as this novel opens. He has made good use of the journey, he believes, by writing a ponderous letter to his mistress, in which he ends their fraught relationship. She is the wife of his closest friend.
Whitelands, an art historian specialising in the Spanish Golden Age, has been summoned to Madrid by an aristocrat with a collection of paintings. The task suits him; he knows Spain and particularly likes Madrid. "Unlike so many other cities in Spain and Europe, Madrid's origins are not Greek or Roman. They are not even medieval, but date from the Renaissance."
This is a rambling, fast-moving, rather claustrophobic novel sustained by a zany hysteria all of its own, as well as a great deal of information, ranging from art history to politics. As it takes place in the spring of 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, the Barcelona-born Eduardo Mendoza makes effective, if ultimately hazy, use of the conflict’s well-documented chaos and intrigue.
One of the central characters is the thinly drawn but real-life José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder and leader of the right-wing Falange party. When Whitelands first sees him it is a mere glimpse, as de Rivera appears to be deep in conversation with a young woman in a garden. Whitelands seems to see life as an ongoing series of paintings. His trip to Madrid may well yield a work of art that could further his career. The Duke of La Igualada has a more practical motive: he views the family art collection as the means of funding his escape from Spain.
Mendoza, best known for City of Marvels (1988) and a wry dark romance, The Year of the Flood (1995), has a playful streak and enjoys allowing his characters to pursue their desires. Anthony Whitelands shares some of the eccentric self-absorption of the wayward Sr Consuelo in The Year of the Flood yet is far more Pooterish. Despite being caught up in a door-slamming narrative tense with murder and violence, in which many of the characters spy on each other, climb over garden walls and murder, Whitelands is a comic figure. He likes eating and does a great deal of it, even when his life is in danger.
From the moment he arrives at the duke’s house he is faced with luxury and wealth that are continually being downplayed by the calculating duke. His wife has retreated into silence, while his two daughters, the elder of whom is the girl from the garden, quickly become fixated on the English visitor. The younger son is, as expected, involved in revolution. Much of the dialogue deliberately plays off linguistic differences, although Whitelands is a scholar and able to speak Spanish. The exchanges veer between archly formal and quite slangy.
Whitelands is also consistently portrayed as an idiot, who, at a stranger’s suggestion, hands over his valuables as he bounds upstairs for a tryst with a prostitute. This error of judgment, which leaves him without a passport, brings him to the British embassy, where he meets Harry Parker, an implausibly helpful and cliched foil to the bizarre Whitelands.
The Englishman sets up temporary home in a seedy hotel where his antics are cynically noted by the male receptionist. Ironically, this farce of a novel is not as poor as it sounds; it is unexpectedly engaging, even likable – and a good thing too, as it is too daft for words. The characters are impossible to believe in. The heroine, Paquita, the duke’s daughter, does quite a comic turn as a woman who, though ill with love for Primo de Rivera, offers her virginity to Whitelands, who, having already fallen in love with her, assumes she feels the same way.
Meanwhile, various groups of bad to merely badly intentioned heavies are sneaking through the darkness of Madrid. At intervals, Whitelands, the bewildered antihero, goes into full art-historian overdrive, and a neat subplot is the arrival of an academic rival, an older curator who may be planning on beating Whitelands to the dramatic discovery of a hidden painting that could be an unknown Velázquez.
Busily scheming away in the background is a kindly communist who believes that, in the Englishman, he may have found the perfect husband for his brothel-keeper’s young daughter. The narrative evolves through a contrived grid of connections, subplots and minor set pieces. The complexity of Velázquez as both man and painter surfaces from time to time.
The humour is heavy-handed and predictable. A group of British diplomats discuss Whitelands. They have had their colleagues back in London investigate him. “Everything appears to confirm that Whitelands is what he says he is: a painting expert. He has published articles and is well respected in his field. Even though he studied at Cambridge, he is not a queer or a Communist.”
The reader may still be reeling from that limp gag when the same intelligence man makes a reference to the painting that Whitelands has been pursuing and mentions that is it “attributed to someone called Velázquez”. The same character blusters on: “Be quiet, Whitelands. I couldn’t give a damn about your opinion. I work for British intelligence, not Sotheby’s.”
Half funny, half serious, or at least serious only because of Mendoza basing this romp within the context of the Spanish Civil War, it is almost breathtaking to discover that An Englishman in Madrid was awarded Spain's richest literary prize, the Premio Planeta, worth a staggering €601,000 – an eccentric prize for an eccentric book. While the plot is crazy, racing along on misunderstandings and half-witted intrigue, the narrative also appears to exist in a parallel novel of sorts: the aristocrats the gormless Whitelands meets could as easily inhabit the paintings of Velázquez, who emerges as a reluctant artist. Equally, the lower orders, such as the young prostitute and her bundled-up, all-suffering baby, as well as Madrid's street life in general, could conceivably belong to another side of Velázquez.
Court life and street life are bounced off each other throughout. The Spanish Civil War is indeed a most unlikely backdrop. There is a clue, though: the novel’s Spanish title means cat fight. Perhaps that should be cat’s cradle, as there are so many knots and bumps along the way that only the prevailing good nature of this burlesque, instantly forgettable performance will hold a reader hoping for more cohesion.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.