Review: An Englishman in Madrid, By Eduardo Mendoz (Trs by Nick Caistor)

Halfwit at the heart of history

The Spanish Civil War has provided a compelling backdrop to some fine novels. Great fiction, from Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls to Javier Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis, has risen out of the maelstrom that engulfed Spain in the late 1930s. The conflict provides a particularly complicated – politically and militarily – arena for storytellers, one in which the dialogue swings between dictatorial doctrine and Communist mantra. However, with important novels and classic memoirs by George Orwell and Laurie Lee, among others, recording events, what fresh angle can a writer take? Well for Eduardo Mendoza the answer lies in absurdist English humour: take one clueless Oxbridge chap, throw him into this sizzling paella of intrigue and watch him hop.

In An Englishman in Madrid, Mendoza's English "halfwit" is Anthony Whitelands, an expert specialising in Spanish art, particularly Velazquez. Anthony is swiftly going to seed and is bored with his affair with a friend's wife, so when he's offered a commission to value a collection in Madrid he hotfoots it to the boat train.

He's welcomed in the city by the Duke of La Igualada, an aristocrat looking to finance his family's exodus from the troubles. His collection, however, turns out to be a selection of 19th-century duds although Anthony's appraisal of the Duke's daughter, Paquita, is more promising. Her seductive banter comes at a price, as vying for her attention is the enigmatic, and potentially deranged, leader of the local fascist party.

An Englishman abroad is, of course, another expression for fish out of water. In Anthony's case his obsessive, blinkered knowledge of Spain's cultural heritage is undermined by his naivety on the country's present predicament, a set-up which creates some wonderfully comic moments.

Through Anthony's bemused view, Mendoza has highlighted the surreal nature of the rising tensions and the myriad factions at play. The result is a funny, gripping and perfectly balanced blend of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. This, we learn, is a revolution where: "By common accord between all those concerned, the miseries that the vicissitudes of history, misrule of the nation, and conflicts between opposing groups had heaped on Spain in 1936 were momentarily suspended at the aperitif hour."