To Spaniards, the English must appear a highly contradictory people. The stereotype of the restrained, well-dressed gentleman (Spain’s largest department store is El Corte Inglés, ‘the English cut’) must contend with the binge-drinking phalanxes of tourists occupying Spain’s beaches every summer. Though generally thought to be fairly law-abiding, the English are still, mostly affectionately, referred to as pirates in Spain — a term dating back to Drake’s raids against Philip II.
This dissonant, slippery persona is central to Eduardo Mendoza’s novel (winner of the prestigious Planeta prize), set on the eve of the Spanish civil war. Anthony Whiteland, a moderately successful authority on Spanish art, arrives in Madrid to value a noble family’s art collection ahead of the country’s collapse into war. In the course of his stay he comes upon a Velázquez locked away in the basement — which would potentially be the making of his career.
Before he is able to reveal his discovery, however, our bumbling hero is unwittingly drawn into a world of fascist street thugs and shadow-dwelling Soviet spies, and gets entangled in a love triangle involving his employer’s daughter and the young Falangist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera. ‘Without knowing how, he seemed to have become the collision point of all the forces in the history of Spain.’
As Madrid slides further into chaos, Whiteland’s main preoccupation becomes the safety of the beloved Velázquez rather than the affairs of a country to which he will never belong. He is not a particularly likeable man, but he is a decent one, despite his very English contradictions. Spineless and awkward, he can at times show courage, and he comes to feel a grudging sympathy for the less fortunate Madrileños he meets on his adventure.
While Mendoza’s sympathetic portrayal of Primo de Rivera will rankle with many readers, his treatment of the events leading up to the civil war is as detached as his hero. In any case, An Englishman in Madrid is no political novel; it is a highly enjoyable read that — despite occasionally verging on the slapstick — elegantly evokes the eccentricities of Spain’s capital city.
The civil war remains to this day a deeply divisive subject in Spain. That light-hearted thrillers such as this can now be published may be a sign that the country is moving closer to a time when the ghosts of its past can be laid to rest.