Shanghai Nights, by Juan Marsé, trans Nick Caistor

The battles of Barcelona
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The Independent Culture

'Shanghai Nights' is one of Juan Marsé's late books, published originally in 1993 when he was 60. Short and well plotted, it condenses several of this Spanish novelist's recurring themes: defeat in war, abandoned women, absent fathers, and dreams of escape from the poverty and fear of postwar Spain. Marsé made his name in the 1960s with novels describing the meeting of young immigrant working-class men and Catalan middle-class women. The migrants, fleeing famine in southern Spain during the Franco dictatorship, settled in slums on the bare hills surrounding Barcelona. In the 1970s, Marsé moved on to portray the blighted lives of children growing up in the long shadow of the Civil War. These orphans are obsessed with violence, and fascinated by fantasies of exotic worlds.

The magnificent Shanghai Nights falls into this latter period. It tells of the ruined hopes of the anarchists whose 1936 revolution was defeated. Postwar, these broken idealists flit between Toulouse and Barcelona, unable to trust anyone and themselves no longer trustworthy. They are the shadowy parents of the novel's main characters, its adolescent children.

Marsé is a realist writer, with a direct style and no flashy metaphors. He builds up great narrative power on the basis of physical and psychological description. But Marsé's realism is not narrow, for it includes his characters' dreams and desires. The story of the relationship between the tongue-tied 14-year old Daniel and the casually cruel Susana is tender. They both deceive themselves with the glamour of Shanghai, and the yearning for Susana's father Kim to be a hero.

The novel's greatest creation is the tragi-comic Captain Blay. Beyond caring, head wrapped in bandages like the Invisible Man, Blay is the only character courageous or mad enough to denounce the fascist dictatorship. It is on remembering his time with Blay, Daniel reflects later, that he comes to see his childhood adventures as a "moral landscape".

Marsé uses all the techniques available to a modern novelist, with shifts in time and narrative within narrative, to tell his story; or rather, two equally exciting parallel stories. The main plot is told through the eyes of Daniel; the other is a Hollywood-style melodrama set in Shanghai, composed by the anarchist forger of documents, Forcat.

The tough, sordid moral landscape of Marsé is complex: in coming to terms with shattered dreams, none of his characters is simply good or bad. One of Europe's best living novelists, he has at times been compared to Faulkner, and the comparison is not so inflated as it might at first appear. Like Faulkner, Marsé creates an extremely detailed, local world, whose tragedies are splashed with sardonic humour. And Marsé's terrain, like Faulkner's, is the struggle for dignity and survival after defeat in war.

Michael Eaude's book 'Barcelona: the city that reinvented itself' will be published by Five Leaves