Mystery and Politics at the Onset of the Spanish Civil War

An Englishman in Madrid, by Eduardo Mendoza, translated by Nick Caistor, (MacLehose Press, Hatchette Book Group), 376 pages, released 7 July, 2015

I love a good historical mystery that really gives me new insights into the period in which it’s set. Eduardo Mendoza’s An Englishman in Madrid is just such a volume. Set on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, An Englishman in Madrid follows the experiences of Anthony Whiltelands, a British art historian, who’s been sent to Madrid to value a nobleman’s collection of paintings—a collection the nobleman may have to liquidate quickly if the war’s onset forces him to flee the country. The collection is a disappointment, but then Whitelands discovers the nobleman own have a previously unknown Velázquez. The discovery could ignite Whiteland’s stagnant scholarly career—and give him a chance to outshine his main professional rival.

At the same time that Whitelands races to authenticate the painting, he also finds himself coming into contact with a variety of characters who will be involved in the Spanish Civil War. There’s the leader of Spain’s reactionary Falange movement; British diplomats and at least one spy; a mysterious Russian agent; Spain’s soon-to-be-deposed president; General Francisco Franco, who will become the leader of fascist Spain; and Spanish security forces. Mendoza’s novel caputres the chaos of the time, particularly the many motives—personal, altruistic, and mistaken—that drive pre-war Spanish politics.

This is a novel that’s doubly worth reading, both for its story line and for its context. The prose of Caistor’s translation is sleek, helping to propel the chaotic events of the novel forward. Mendoza writes with a mix of cynicism and insight that is both heart-breaking and, at moments, hilarious.

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