An Englishman in Madrid

Written by Eduardo Mendoza Nick Caistor (trans.)
Review by Sarah Bower

In the spring of 1936, art historian Anthony Whitelands is sent to Madrid to advise the Duke of La Igualada on the value of paintings he wishes to sell abroad in order to support his family in the event of their having to go into exile as a consequence of the political upheavals in Spain. The paintings turn out to be worthless, the Duke’s family more involved in politics than they appear to be, and the hapless Anthony finds himself drawn into intrigues both political and romantic for which he is completely unprepared. And that is before the small matter of the missing Velasquez in the Duke’s basement.

From a leisurely beginning, Mendoza’s Planeta Prize-winning novel unfolds into a black comic adventure of an Englishman abroad in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh. While delivering an astute, erudite and damning indictment of the Spanish establishment, blundering into civil war out of idleness, irresponsibility and apathy, it is a quietly hilarious farce, stuffed with double agents, enigmatic diplomats, charlatans, girls hidden in wardrobes and a convoluted sleight of hand surrounding the missing Velasquez so impossible to explain there is no danger of plot spoilers from this reviewer.

An Englishman in Madrid is not a light or easy read, although Caistor’s translation is fluent and elegant. It requires some concentration to keep abreast of the complexities of the political situation as well as the many misadventures which befall Anthony. The different plot strands sometimes seem a little awkward in their meshing, yet I was sorry to finish the book and was left with the sense of having experienced something both erudite and delightful when I closed it for the last time.