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.