An Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza

For anyone who isn’t Spanish, Madrid is something of an enigma. Close your eyes and think of Paris, and you’ll probably summon up an image of the Eiffel Tower. London, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia. But close your eyes and think of Madrid, and it’s possible you can’t picture a single notable building.

Madrid is more of a feeling, an essence. It’s a thriving city where the nightlife is possibly the best on the planet. In this historical novel, set in 1936, Mendoza captures this throbbing, bubbling mass of humanity:

Wandering aimlessly through the streets, Anthony found himself outside a tavern he remembered visiting before. Inviting voices and laughter floated out through its doors. There did not seem to be room for a single person inside, but before long he managed to push his way up to the bar. Despite the tumult, a waiter served him with surprising speed and friendliness: it was as though he were the only customer in the tavern. Anthony ordered a plate of prawns and a glass of wine.

Anthony Whitelands, the protagonist of this novel, is an art expert who is also a drunken, philandering, dishonest Englishman abroad. Summoned to Madrid to value a supposedly lost painting by Velazquez, he soon finds himself hob-nobbing with the leaders of the country’s home-spun fascists, a ragged group calling themselves the Falange.

The country is on the brink of civil war, and a great foreboding hangs over everyone, when they’re not out eating, drinking and carousing into the early hours. Whitelands’s secret mission is soon discovered by the local authorities so he finds himself hounded by the Ministry of the Interior as well as the Russian secret service who have identified him as a fascist agent.

It’s all a bit chaotic and in seeking a Da Vinci Code style romp, Mendoza doesn’t quite pull it off. The novel is an enjoyable read but Whitelands is so unpleasant that it’s hard to care about what happens to him.

It is interesting however for giving another side of Madrid. Rather like the surprising heat of St Petersburg in summer in Crime and Punishment, here we see another side of Spain: the fierce winters of the country’s interior.

There is also plenty of witty commentary on the Spanish character, even in these moments of crisis:

By common accord between all those concerned, the miseries that the vicissitudes of history, misrule of the nation, and conflicts between opposing groups had heaped on Spain in 1936 were momentarily suspended in the aperitif hour. The elegant cafés of the Salamanca neighbourhood were overflowing with upper-class customers, as were the greasy bars in Lavapiés with shop assistants and workmen.

Not a classic, but elegantly written, An Englishman in Madrid makes for a pleasant holiday read for anyone with an interest in Spain, and especially her capital city, so little known beyond the Iberian peninsula.