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A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. A stunning Spanish crime fiction novel.

May 1, 2017 23 comments

A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar (1996). French title : Comme un blues. Translated from the Spanish into French by Hélène Serrano.

Aníbal Malvar wrote A Fly’s Wing in Galician and it was then translated into Castillan. The French translation I’ve read is based upon the Castillan version.

Madrid, winter 1996. Carlos Ovelar is at home when his ex-wife’s husband calls him on the phone. His daughter Ania is missing. She’s 18 and he doesn’t want to tell his wife that their daughter disappeared. So he doesn’t want to involve the police. But why would he call his wife’s ex to investigate their daughter’s disappeance? Because of Carlos’s past life as an agent of the Spanish secret services, the House. He was hired by his father who was at the head of the House during the tricky years of transition between the Franco era and democracy. Carlos feels that he shouldn’t accept this job and keep working on this photography business. But his only encounter with Ania was memorable enough to push him into action. He accepts and goes back to his native Galicia to start digging. Ania’s father gives him the keys to Ania’s apartment, thinking Carlos would be the first to know if she came home.

Carlos hasn’t been back to Galicia for twenty years and this trip brings back memories. He soon discovers that Ania is probably involved in the local cocaine drug trafficking. He wants to find Ania, even if it means that he ruffles some feathers or needs to cash in some favors from former colleagues of the House. He keeps on investigating even if he stumbles upon the ghosts of his married life and his years at the House or if it confronts him to his unhealthy relationship with his father.

A first murder implies that Ania is deep into a highly dangerous organization. Why does Carlo’s father show up at Ania’s place out of the blue? Why is the Old Man meddling in this? What’s in it for him?

The drug dealing plot brings us to the 1996 Galicia. More than the end of the journey for pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela is a hub for drug trafficking, tobacco and arms smuggling. The place doesn’t ooze with Christian feelings. Malvar is a journalist and he’s known for his articles about the terrorist group ETA and about drug trafficking. His plot is plausible, well drawn. He might have even heard of this quote during an investigation for a paper:

Une fois, un junkie m’a affirmé que le monde n’était qu’une hallucination que Dieu se serait tapée en pleine overdose de coke. Dieu y serait resté, mais le monde aurait survécu à l’hallu, devenue éternelle. Once, a junkie told me that the world was only a hallucination that God would have had while overdosing on cocaine. God wouldn’t have made it but the world had survived and the hallucination went on forever.

Carlos reflects on his past with the House and his relationship with his father and former boss. The two are intertwined. The Old Man was the head of the House when a coup threatened the young Spanish democracy, on February 23rd, 1981. The Old Man orchestrated this putsch to prevent a real one from Franco’s old supports and rally the people around their new democracy. This was new to me and I found this part very interesting. I never considered what happened in Spain in these early years after Franco’s death and how the old guard must have clutched the armpits of their chairs to remain in place.

Carlos delves into his past and Malvar gives life to Spain in the early 1980s. Franco died in 1975. The young democracy is trying out its fragile wings. The House has to find new occupations for their agents

Au début des années 80, la Maison s’était concentrée sur les stups et le terrorisme, une fois les franquistes tardifs convaincus que les facs ne regorgeaient plus de trostkystes et de stalinistes, mais de gens occupés à étudier et à baiser. In the early 1980s, the House focused on drug traffiking and terrorim as soon as the last Franco supporters got convinced that unis weren’t full of Trotskists and Stalinists but only full of people occupied with studying and fucking.

It is the beginning of la movida and people start to breathe, to party to shrug out of the heavy clothes of Francoism.

La vraie vie reprenait ses droits chaque soir. Madrid commençait à respirer la liberté, la movida, le poing et la rose. Il y avait une révolution madrilène qui ne révolutionnait que la nuit, et c’est d’elle qu’allait naître la postmodernité. La nuit était le creuset libertaire du futur imminent. Les policiers s’efforçaient de se faire discrets et le fascime ordinaire ne gueulait plus en chemise de nuit au balcon. La rue bouillonait de futur. Real life was taking over. Madrid started to exhale freedom, la movida, the fist and the rose. There was a Madrilene revolution that only revolutioned at night and postmodernity would emerge from it. The night was the libertarian pot cooking up the imminent future. Policemen made themselves scarce and ordinary fascism was no longer yelling in pyjamas from balconies. Streets bubbled with future.

Apart from the crime plot and the reflections about the young Spanish democracy, A Fly’s Wing explores the complex relationship between Carlos and the Old Man. Carlos was hired by his father when he was the House’s commandant. The Old Man is a high powered secret agent, someone who has all the strings to make history. And in his book, making history is worth all the sacrifices, including manipulating his son and killing his chance at happiness. A Fly’s Wing is also the story of their twisted relationship. Carlos is in a love-hate relationship with his father and he can never shake his hold on him.

Le problème, avec nos aînés, c’est qu’ils seront toujours plus vieux que nous; ça leur accorde une autorité fictive, on se sent comme des mômes à côté d’eux. Mon vieux était là, en train de me faire la leçon, les pieds sur la table et la bouteille de whisky à la main, bourré comme un coing et fier comme un seigneur. Mes quarante et quelques balais me sont tombés des mains et le môme que j’étais instantanément redevenu n’a pas eu la force de les ramasser. Je supposer qu’ils étaient trop lourds. The problem with our elders is that they’ll always be older than us. It grants them some fictional authority and you feel like a kid besides them. My old man was here, lecturing me, his feet on the table, a bottle of whisky in his hand, drunk as a skunk and as proud as a king. My forty and some years fell from my hands and the kid I instantly became again wasn’t strong enough to pick them up. I suppose they were too heavy.

His father is controlling and manipulative. He shows an unhealthy interest in the women in Carlos’s life. Susanna, his ex-wife. Ofelia, his girl-friend during his years at the House. And now Ania, the missing teenager. The Old Man’s actions ruined Carlos’s life. He roped him into a career he wasn’t ready for, sabotaged his son’s love life and didn’t behave as a father. Carlos came out of these years bruised and battered. He never recovered from his years working in the secret services.

Mon passé est un cimetière bourré de gens que je n’ai pas su aider. Certains cadavres respirent encore. Ce sont eux qui me font le plus mal. Il y en a d’autres que j’ai à peine connus, mais dont les yeux s’ouvrent et me regardent dès que j’éteins la lumière. Il y a tellement de fantômes autour de moi que parfois, j’ai peur de me découvrir immortel. My past is a cemetery full of people I failed. Some bodies are still breathing. Those are the ones who hurt me the most. Some of them I barely knew but their eyes open and look at me as soon as I shut the lights out. There are so many ghosts around me that sometimes I’m afraid I might be immortal.

He carries his ghosts around, invisible balls and chains.

A Fly’s Wing is a breathtaking equilibrium between the crime plot, the portrayal of pivotal years in Spain’s recent history and Carlos’s angst and personal story. All this is written in an evocative prose. Carlos’s voice sounds like a voice over in an old movie. I think it’d go well with Ascenseur pour l’échaffaud by Miles Davis, even though the book comes with a playlist. It’s available on the publisher’s website and it’s not exactly Mile Davis.

Atmospheric is the operating word to describe Malvar’s brand of prose. It’s true in the literal sense of the word, the weather is a huge part of the book. It’s winter in Galicia and it rains all the time. Carlos drives in downpours, his stakeouts are full of humidity and it gives a dramatic twist to the burial scene of the novel. It reminded me of Marlowe in rainy LA. In fact, it’s like Chandler’s manna hover over Malvar’s pen and Marlowe is giving Carlos a friendly hug. Ania is the femme fatale of the book, even if she’s absent. She weighs on the story and reminded me of Laura by Vera Caspary. You see this is one fine specimen of classic noir.

I loved A Fly’s Wing and it will probably belong to my year-end list. It lingered on my mind. I was enveloped in its prose and I think that the French title of the book is aptly chosen as it sums up its atmosphere. The original title, Ala de mosca means A Fly’s Wing. It refers to the type of cocaine that is at the centre of the trafficking. The French title is richer, at least for a French reader. Comme un blues means Like a blues song. And Carlos is blue and he’ll always be a bit down because of his past. In French, bleu / blue has also another meaning. Un bleu is a rookie and that’s what Carlos remains compared to his father. Despite the passing years, he’s still a naïve beginner when it comes to shady dealings.

A Fly’s Wing is a fantastic piece of literature and I’m so grateful that Asphalte éditions picked this and brought it to the French public. I’m sorry to report to Anglophone crime fiction lovers that this little gem of Spanish literature is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

To end up with a merrier tone, since I’m French and we probably have a cheese for every occasion, here’s the cheese St Jacques de Compostelle that I bought when I was reading this.

The Controversy of Valladolid, by Jean-Claude Carrière

September 11, 2010 11 comments

The Controversy of Valladolid by Jean-Claude Carrière.

The Controversy of Valladolid is a novel based on historical facts. According to Wikipedia: “The Valladolid debate (1550–1551) concerned the treatment of natives of the New World. Held in the Spanish city of Valladolid, it opposed two main attitudes towards the conquests of the Americas. Dominican friar and Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas argued that the Amerindians were free men in the natural order and deserved the same treatment as others, according to Catholic theology. Opposing him was fellow Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who insisted the Indians were natural slaves, and therefore reducing them to slavery or serfdom was in accordance with Catholic theology and natural law. Las Casas and Sepúlveda each later claimed to have won the debate, but no record supporting either claim exists. The debate had no clear effect on the treatment of the natives, it did ensure that the 1542 New Laws, which were initially designed to abolish the encomienda system, were to remain in effect.”

The encomienda system consisted in giving lands with all their resources (forests, water, peasants, mines) to soldiers. Natives became slaves.

 In the foreword, Jean-Claude Carrière explains that Las Casas and Sepúlveda may not have had their argument face to face. The controversy was probably lead through letters, which were actually publicly discussed. As a novelist, Jean-Claude Carrière decided to create this physical confrontation of ideas to enforce the drama. However, the reasoning is accurate and come from historical documentation. In the novel, the verbal fight takes place in a monastery. Las Casas and Sepúlveda are there with their assistants and their documentation. The Cardinal Roncieri was sent by the Pope to act as an arbitrator and will decide of the position the Roman Catholic Church will officially have on that matter.

 There were 20 millions people in the New World. Many of them were killed by Spanish or died because of the new diseases brought from Europe. Las Casas gives details on the maltreatments of Indians. Slaughter and torture are the appropriate words for the treatment of them by Spanish conquistadores.

I will not describe here all the ideas each opponent puts forward to win the fight. The argument is interesting but it is even more fascinating to read how literally narrow-minded they are. Their thoughts are limited by certitudes. Some fixed points cannot be moved without shaking the foundations of their lives. Christianity is the Truth. There is only one God. It is more important to save the Indians’ soul than provide them with decent living conditions. Jean-Claude Carrière describes the Cardinal Roncieri thinking after he has heard the two rivals:

“As educated and trained as his mind may be, as adroit his intelligence, as alert his conscience, all these precious qualities have a limit, which is precisely the truth. On Cardinal Roncieri, this truth works as a cage where he is born and in which he grew up, without ever seeing it was a cage. Outside of it, in the darkness, are the territories of ignorance and errors, which are reluctant to enter into the cage to such a point that one must force them in. Only in the cage, hold by the benevolent hand of the Creator, prevails the peace and tranquillity of certitude. In the cage only is the world properly laid down” (sorry for the poor translation)

That passage says everything and applies both to Sepúlveda and Las Casas. The first, who has never left Europe, is certain that Indians are not human, of if they are, they can only be of lower category, which authorizes slavery. If they were men equal to Europeans, he cannot imagine that these people could refuse to become Christians. He judges them as idolatrous and sinners. God has abandoned them and he wants the Spanish to punish them, just as he wanted them to push the Moors out of Spain. Their condition is the will of God. Las Casas, who has spent most of his life in the New World, feels that Indians are humans but lacks the words to conclusively prove it. His vision of Indians, tolerant and kind, would demand a “relativity” of belief, the idea that several religions can coexist. But admitting this would go too far and oblige him to break his cage. So his demonstration has always embarrassing flaws. Their thinking evolves in a restricted playing field. Expanding it is unconceivable. When Galileo will expose his theories fifty years later, the Church will prove her incapacity to accept changes.

The idea of two worlds growing apart, ignoring one another and finally meeting struck me. Of course I knew it had happened but I had never paused for a moment or tried to visualize the scene. I realized how astonishing and unthinkable it must have been. How can we imagine that? It must have been as if we discovered the existence of other men on another planet, except that we are probably more prepared to this idea than the people of 1492 were.

In fact, the theological debate was just a pretext, religion was used for more earthly and greedy aims. Spain needed the Church to confirm that God was on her side, that she was entitled to possess these countries and all their wealth. Accepting Las Casas’ theory would have required to pay the Indians for their work. It would have reduced the profits made of the encomienda  and less gold and wealth to be sent back home.  The justification of Spanish military and economical domination on the New World was more at stake than the moral quest on humanity.

 The Controversy of Valladolid is well written. Jean-Claude Carrière succeeds in bringing serious ideas in a lively debate and in providing just the appropriate level of historical details. The theological part is easy to understand for a modern reader and the description of the historical context is really interesting. Of course, as Carrière is a scenarist, he is skilled at creating an atmosphere and bringing new developments to keep the attention of the reader. 

I had a nice time reading The Controversy of Valladolid and learnt many things.  A film adaptation was shot in 1992 and Jean-Pierre Marielle played the part of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant of Sepúlveda

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