The Man of My Life, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, trans Nick Caistor

The sleuth's last orders
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The Independent Culture

Between 1977 and 1990, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán wrote half a dozen novels that stand among the best in modern Spanish literature. Several, though not all, were detective novels, a signal of the changing status of crime writing. The use of a private eye allowed Montalbán to show all classes of society; and the crime plot was a way both to hook readers and to denounce society's criminals. Montalbán's novels have a sharp political edge: the criminals unmasked are the rich who defend their privilege with murder.

The writer, born in 1939, the year of Franco's Civil War victory, grew up in the grimmest years of dictatorship in the slums of Barcelona. Many men were absent: dead, exiled or in jail. Montalbán met his own father for the first time when, aged five, he passed a strange man on the stairs.

Women often had to choose between prostitution or their children's starvation. Just to survive, the defeated population needed basic solidarity. This background, both an open wound and an ethical touchstone, pervades The Man of My Life, as it does all Montalbán's work.

Montalbán escaped to university, where he became involved in opposition politics, was arrested, beaten up and sent to Lleida jail for 18 months - his second university. He joined the Catalan Communist Party, a commitment he maintained throughout his life. Despite his renown as a prizewinning journalist and novelist, he remained loyal to the solidarity of his childhood up to his death in October 2003.

In the mid-1970s, he started to write the detective novels featuring Pepe Carvalho; The Man of My Life is the penultimate of 18 Carvalho novels. Montalbán conceived the series as a chronicle of contemporary Barcelona, commenting on events soon after they had occurred. His 1970s novels portray sharply the contradictory transition from dictatorship to democracy. In the 1980s, they become steadily more disenchanted, as the hopes of the transition drained away to disappointment in how little things really changed.

This is Montalbán's tone: disappointed melancholy. The same people who had lost the Civil War, then fought to defeat the dictatorship, lost the democracy. Not only were they still at the bottom of the heap, but now their memories were trashed: "The bulldozers had torn down his childhood cinemas, his childhood schools, his childhood neighbours".

Do not think that Montalbán's books are just gloomy, leftist treatises on defeat and a happier past. The Carvalho mix is funny, too: the detective is scathingly witty about the powerful. He is an original eccentric, burning books and cooking all night. The novels are peppered with recipes and descriptions of feasts.

The Man of My Life is a novel of the millennium, with murder now wrapped in religious passion and Satanic cults that have replaced Communist parties. However, the real Satanists are not the weird sects of lost children, but the same crooks as ever: capitalist society that ravages its victim-members for profit. Montalbán interweaves with the public story a deeply private tale of lost youth and love, an extended meditation on ageing and loneliness.

The Man of My Life tells the story of two women who love and pursue Carvalho. One is his long-time on-off lover, the ex-prostitute Charo. The other is Jessica, the teenage beauty of Southern Seas. Her return to the detective's life leads to the novel's most beautiful scenes.

Like other late Carvalhos, The Man of My Life rambles too much. To some degree, its digressions reflect how Carvalho has become the most passive of detectives, trapped between childhood memories and fearful old age. He finally does react, though, and more fiercely than ever before. Despite his sarcasm, Carvalho is no cynic. Like Chandler's Philip Marlowe, he is the man of honour walking the mean streets of a sick society.