Review: An Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza

Don’t say a word. You Protestants always think you have to say unpleasant things. You believe that something bitter or wounding or brutal must be the truth. But things are not like that. Miracles and fairy tales are not illusions. They express a hope. Perhaps heaven is only a hope too. Even so, it helps us live. Truth cannot be an illusory hope. I’m not asking you for an explanation, I don’t reproach you for anything, I’m not demanding anything of you. But you can’t rob me of hope, Tony. Not today or tomorrow, but perhaps someday, things will be different.

Eduardo Mendoza’s Planeta Prize-winning novel, An Englishman in Madrid, set in the 1930’s, explores the tense and dangerous atmosphere of a Spain on the brink of civil war from the perspective of a foreigner.

The titular character of the novel is a slow-on-the-uptake Londoner named Anthony Whitelands. A professor and specialist of Spanish art, Anthony travels to Madrid to evaluate a collection of paintings, only to find himself caught in the crossfire between the increasingly violent fascist and communist factions that are overrunning the capital. Through a series of unlucky coincidences and drunken decisions, Anthony winds up a helpless pawn in a political struggle he barely understands. During his stay in Spain, he encounters such figures as the founder of the Spanish Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and future dictator Francisco Franco. As one exasperated Spanish policeman puts it, “nothing can happen in this country without that devil of an Englishman being mixed up in it!”

The humour in this book is subtle, but could be described as typically English. One can’t help but grin at Anthony’s fumbling and bumbling (will readers ever get tired of the clueless-Briton-abroad trope? I know I won’t), or his grasping attempts to draw himself out of the predicaments he finds himself in. I also had a good laugh at the character of Edwin Garrigaw (an unpleasant old man who is Whitelands’ professional rival), whose name is surely not a coincidence.

One aspect that could use more editing is the novel’s use of tense. A complete disregard for past/present-tense may throw readers off, and in one instance, I noticed the tense change no less than three times in a single chapter.

How Mendoza manages to convey an atmosphere that is sometimes farcical and, at other times, startlingly serious, is beyond me. His novel is a rich, satirical glimpse into the chaotic political climate of Spain at this time. For readers who aren’t interested in the politics of the Spanish Civil War, however, certain chapters will be dull.

Rating: 4/5 ★