Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Prolific and various writer and journalist
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Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, writer: born Barcelona 27 July 1939, married Anna Sallés (one son); died Bangkok 18 October 2003.

The Catalan poet, journalist and crimewriter Manuel Vázquez Montalbán rolled into his generous personality all the traits that made him loved by cultural and political left-wingers who fought and triumphed against Francisco Franco's dictatorship.

Vázquez Montalbán was of humble birth, he was a political militant, he celebrated food and drink, and he created in the left-wing gourmet Pepe Carvalho a Spanish detective to match English and French counterparts. And, most importantly for idealists who enjoyed the prosperity and self-confidence of a new middle class in democratic Spain after the 1970s, Manolo - as fans called him - never sold out. Add to this his international literary renown, with his novels translated into 20 languages, it is hardly surprising that this laconic, hyperactive figure became a hero to those identifying themselves with progressive Spain.

When he was born in 1939, in Barcelona's proletarian red-light district, the "barrio chino", his republican father was in exile. He returned to see his son, and the authorities imprisoned him. Young Manuel was three when he went to see his father in jail.

Vázquez Montalbán was politically active in PSUC, the Catalan Communist Party, and his first writings teetered on the knife-edge of what Franco's censors permitted. He was sentenced to three years' jail in 1962 and served 18 months, and lived precariously until he joined the most daring magazine of the Franco years, Triunfo, the crucible for some of today's leading Spanish journalists.

He was just 24 when he published his first book in 1963, Informe sobre la Información ("An Information Report"), a critique of the world communications industry that became something of a handbook for aspiring journalists during the Franco years struggling to navigate the hazardous labyrinth of censorship. He published his first collection of poems, Una educación sentimental ("A Sentimental Education"), in 1967, and said his poetry was very important to him, while narrative writing brought him success. His novel Yo maté a Kennedy ("I Killed Kennedy", 1972) marked the first appearance of the bon viveur detective and former CIA agent Pepe Carvalho. Two years later Tatuaje ("Tattoo") confirmed Vázquez Montalbán as an accomplished, and hilarious, crime writer.

His novels and other books tumbled forth at breathtaking speed, sometimes three in a year. He developed the character of Carvalho, and his accomplices the down-at-heel sidekick Biscuter and his long-suffering girlfriend, the slatternly Charo. Carvalho's adventures, and his clashes with those in power, happen against the meticulously drawn background of Spain's social upheavals.

Vázquez Montalbán's works chart every changing social nuance from May 1968, hippies and the sexual revolution to the 1990s economic boom, hedonism and disenchantment. In addition to his novels, Vázquez Montalbán wrote polemics, political analyses, weekly columns in El País and books on gastronomy, with wit and irreverence but without spite. "I get up at 6.30 and, almost without realising it, I sit at the typewriter and start to type," he once said in typical downbeat manner, when asked how he achieved his astonishing output.

He wrote celebrations of his beloved Barcelona despite a spell of post-Olympic fury occasioned when the Foster telecommunications tower interfered with his television signal. He purged his spleen in a couple of Carvalho tales and even fled to Buenos Aires for a while (celebrated in another anarchic Carvalho episode) before yet another Carvalho adventure reflected the reconciliation of detective, and writer, with their home city.

His comrade from Triunfo days Edgardo Haro Tecglen once asked Vázquez Montalbán why, with all the betrayals, defeats, and twists and turns of the political left, he stayed in the Communist Party. "Not to let down the rank and file" was the reply, Tecglen recalled in yesterday's El País. None the less his 1981 mystery thriller Asesinato en el Comité Central, translated into English as Murder in the Central Committee (1984), is a devastating satire on the bureaucracy of Spanish Stalinism.

He was a passionate fan of Barcelona football club - his enthusiasm for football was as politically incorrect for the left under Franco years as was his passion for gastronomy. One of his finest thrillers, El delantero centro fue asesinado al atardecer (1988 - a merciless dissection of football power play on and off the pitch that was years ahead of its time), appeared in English as Off Side (1996).

Other successful novels translated into English include Southern Seas (1986: Los mares del Sur, 1979), The Angst-Ridden Executive (1990: La soledad del manager, 1977) and Olympic Death (1992: El laberinto griego, 1991). His 1990 novel Galíndez, set in the Basque country, was turned into the Hollywood film The Galindez Mystery starring Harvey Keitel and Saffron Burrows, about to be released.

In 1994 a quadruple bypass operation forced Montalbán to slow his frenetic pace, but not much. He died of a heart attack during a stopover in Bangkok airport as he was returning to Madrid after a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Elizabeth Nash

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