Alacranes en su tinta

23 March 2010

Today I want to tell you about Alacranes en su tinta, which I started over Christmas & then left on my bookshelf for a while & then finally finished a week or two ago. I wrote in January, ‘I’m about halfway through, and haven’t gotten to the plot yet,’ and the reason why is, it turns out, because the novel consists of a few different pieces patched together, like a lurid quilt.

The first is a shaggy gastronomical tour of Bilbao, in which our narrator, Pacho Murga, embarks on an endless cab ride on New Year’s Eve, 2000, for undisclosed but apparently urgent reasons that have to do with (poisoned? we’re not sure) oysters. The narrative immediately grinds to a halt. We flash back to some months previous — he’s been cut off by his rich, hotel-dwelling father, and is lurching around having expensive taste in wine. Eventually he meets Antón Astigarraga, an eccentric alcoholic (with, we already know from the back cover, a tormented past) who whips up elaborate & delicious pintxos — deconstructed tortilla con patatas, a cup of foie-gras in a wine gelée and caramelized pear, a gazpacho of cockles & frozen cream in virgin olive oil, deboned quail thighs in a puff pastry sarcophagus . . . —  in a hole-in-the-wall in Casco Viejo. Also a pair of twins who own a bar — called Twins, in English — that specializes in dry martinis. They no longer speak to each other, for reasons that may or may not have to do with an infamous sexual substitution enacted on Ava Gardner in New York in the 70s.

When I left off, the Twins had just been found dead in an apparent dual murder, the present tense of the narrative was still in that damn cab, and the atormentada venganza promised by the back cover (which anticipates the plot by at least 150 pages) was nowhere to be seen.

At this point, a lengthy confession signed by Astigarraga is found, entitled Confessiones de un catador de Franco, and the bulk of the novel is taken up in relating this story, back in the late 60s, with a whole new narrator (there are occasional interjections from our poor, benighted Pacho Murga, who we’re realizing is a little dimwitted), and it’s a doozy, all sex-and-death and monstrous improbabilities.

In brief: catador (not in my dictionary, but I figured it out) means food-taster, which is to say that Astigarra’s father, and later Astigarra himself, taste Franco’s food before he eats it. Astigarra becomes the point man in an ETA plot to poison Franco, masterminded by his uncle Patxi, and things, of course, go horribly awry — Franco decides at the last minute that he’s a little carsick and not hungry, the food, already poisoned, is eaten as leftovers by Astigarra’s loyal father, who dies instantly, and Astigarra himself, who’d been promised an antidote, discovers it was a placebo,  & is sent into a years-long coma in which is is completely conscious, but unable to move, see, or communicate, for years, with nothing to think about other than the fact that his father is dead & his own death was part of his uncle’s plan all along.

While he’s under, he devises elaborate plans of revenge for the five architects of the plot, one of whom is a Jesuit who is sexually molesting him the entire time he’s in the hospital. The others, apart from tío Patxi, have become a famous opera singer, the coach for Bilbao Athletic, and ‘an important Basque politican.’

Well, now we’re in a narrative that is somehow tedious & overwrought at the same time — he becomes the priest’s lover just so that he can kill him, does the same thing to the opera singer, eventually joins ETA (to get closer to tío Patxi) & takes refuge in France (picture France in the 80s, ETA guys crowding the Basque bars just across the border, the French police not doing a thing . . . ), falls in love with a French girl whose father is a chef, learns how to cook, and then — just as things were getting back to normal, right? — she’s killed, tragically!, by a GAL assassination squad.

I’ll say this, at least I learned something. Because who or what, you ask, is the GAL? Well: turns out that during the 80s, a far-reaching conspiracy in the Spanish government siphoned public money to fund a deniable splinter group of French & Portuguese mercenaries & moonlighting Spanish national police called the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), whose purpose was to range up & about French & Spanish Basque country kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating ETA members, or people associated with ETA members, or people with Basque names.

Really, you say? Yes, really. The whole thing was exposed by El Mundo in ’87, and there was a trial (well — just read the wikipedia article; I’m not pretending to know any of this). And before the GAL, there was the BVE, the Batellón Vasco Español, which did for the post-Franco UCD government in ’75-’81 the same thing the GAL did from ’81 to ’87 for the PSOE. Apparently the GAL was in large part responsible for ETA’s continuing existence post-Franco.

Incidentally, there’s more ETA in the news this week — an ETA member killed a French policeman, which used to be absolutely against the rules (France was referred to by ETA as ‘our sanctuary,’ and the deal was that they’d use it as a staging area but refrain from violence). Meanwhile, an ETA member has disappeared & then been found dead mysteriously. Red graffiti asking, in Basque, Where is Jon? has erupted all over the walls & alleyways of Bilbao.

The political graffiti is always painted over in less than 48 hours. A friend of mine is taking pictures. In one of them, a long Basque sentence, red, on the wall of the river walk on my way to the market, the only other thing I can understand is PSOE-GAL, which is clear enough, really.

Anyways. The GAL assassination launches Astigarra right back into it: he kills tío Patxi, and the Athletic coach, in feats of arson & torture that seem unlikely to say the least, and then we’re brought more or less up to the present, where he’s planned, in a huge féte at the newly-built Guggenheim catered by his pintxos restaurant (brought to prominence by our narrator, who has been used!) an assassination attempt on the last remaining conspirator, that nationalist politician, who as it turns out is none other than the lehendakari Jon Ander Txoriburu!

The lehendakari is the Basque head of state. In a novel set in Bilbao, this reveal — killing the lehendakari in the Guggenheim — is the rough equivalent of staging your American novel’s climax as, I don’t know, a death struggle featuring the President of the United States on the roof of the Empire State Building.

Naturally, everything goes wrong, including a burro chase through the Richard Serra installation. It turns out, at the end, that our narrator has eaten poisoned oysters, and, in a surreal closing dialogue that reads like a college stage play, that the cab is driven by something that may or may not be God posing as a Galician, and that our protaganist died some time ago, and is being driven through a strange & desolate country that is no longer Bilbao, and then everything fades into the middle distance, punctuated by distant radio reports and broadcast Christmas carols.

It’s all entertaining enough, I suppose, even if the pacing is a little stop-and-go and the prose style reads exactly like a columnist-turned-novelist, which is to say, nice turns of phrase from time to time, lots of sex & torture, some name-dropping . . .

Here’s a nice sentence from early on, about a good wine: ‘. . . un tinto de Ribera del Duero, un Protos reserva del noventa y uno, fuerte y redondo como una buena blasfemia.’ (p. 52) — A red from Ribera del Duero, a ’91 Protos Reserve, strong & rounded like a good blasphemy.  (Obviously, good blasphemy is no substitute, rhythm-wise, for buena blasfemia, but I can’t quite finesse it.)

In the end, it more or less confirms my suspicious that mediocre fiction is a great training-ground for someone reading in a second language. There’s lots of quotations & references threaded in — you even get the entire Olentzero children’s song in Basque & Spanish — and some undigested historical references.

I’ve got a stack of Spanish books from the library on my desk now, including an historical novel set in Cadiz, 1811, and Jordi Puntí’s Maletas Perdidas (Lost Luggage?), which is his long-form followup to his widely acclaimed (and still not translated into English) story collection. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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