Anthony Whitelands, an English art historian, is invited to Madrid to value an aristocrat’s collection. At a welcome lunch he encounters José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder and leader of the Falange, a nationalist party whose antics are bringing the country ever closer to civil war.
The paintings turn out to be worthless, but before Whitelands can leave for London the duque’s daughter Paquita reveals a secret and genuine treasure, held for years in the cellars of her ancestral home. Afraid that the duque will cash in his wealth to finance the Falange, the Spanish authorities resolve to keep a close eye on the Englishman, who is also being watched by his own embassy.
As Whitelands – ever the fool for a pretty face – vies with Primo de Rivera for Paquita’s affections, he learns of a final interested party: Madrid is crawling with Soviet spies, and Moscow will stop at nothing to secure the hidden prize.
An Englishman in Madrid has been in my reading pile since it was released two years ago. When I posted on Twitter last week about starting to read, I expected (at least those interested in Spain) to scoff that I was last to read it. But it seems not. Perhaps they had the same hesitations that I did – an ageing academic goes abroad and bound to have an unlikely affair with some girl a third of his age. We’ve read that before, more times than we care to remember. Was this book the same? Actually, it was combo I have never read before.
Anthony Whitelands, the ‘hero’ of the story, is fresh from Cambridge university, an art nerd of undetermined age, but with the usual male middle-aged thoughts of life and his career. An ex-wife in the distance, Anthony is busy dispatching with his married lover, Catherine. Perhaps she has made a lucky escape. From the beginning, the police are tracking him, only he is too thick to notice.
Anthony is an art specialist, who loves to compare literally anything – paintings, conversations, people, probably shrubs, to Velazquez (who was a painter in Spain in the 1600’s, if painting isn’t your thing). Anthony is no stranger to Madrid, but in the spring of 1936, shiz is going down all over the place, the prelude to the civil war, which broke out in July that same year. Our hapless character knows all is not well as soon as he arrives, but he is fairly dim, so it takes him a long time to figure out the realities of wandering into an-almost war zone.
The book covers everything, from toffs of the upper class, to the poverty of the times and the social and political realities everyone is facing. The prelude to war is described brilliantly by an author who has taken the time to get things right. Between protests, street killings and strikes, Spain is preparing for implosion and bumbling Anthony has wandered into the eye of the storm.
Our self-confessed art genius finds himself at the beck and call of the Duke of La Igualada, who wants to offload his Spanish art collection, to pay to get his family out of Spain. Selling off the family silver (literal and proverbial) isn’t something particularly legal, but the Duke is a chatty dude, and has Anthony dancing to his tune soon enough. If Anthony’s description is ever written, I have already forgotten it. But he must have been one hell of a looker, because the Duke’s teenage daughters are taken with him in a heartbeat, ready to profess their love before dinner’s first course is even served. Anthony wouldn’t win them over with charm, let’s just say. As an author, I realise how convenient ‘love at first sight’ is for moving a story along, but this group is a crazy set-up, with minimal interactions, yet pounding hearts (real or imagined, anyway). Between the charming Duke, his dim-witted duchess (sticking to stereotype here), the two daughters and the up-and-coming wannabe fascist son, and heir to the money, Anthony accidentally walks into the history books.
The Duke’s paintings are duds, and also a cover-up. Because Paquita, the eldest daughter (with wandering thoughts and as cold as a fish) lures Anthony to see the real treasure – an undiscovered Velazquez in the basement of the palace. Anthony sees his name in lights with the discovery, but knows he simply can’t steal a 300-year-old treasure. He is so blinded by the thought of fame and his never-that-apparent love for the girl he met five minutes ago, Anthony makes mistake after mistake.
The author of this book moves the story on Spain-time, but no matter what others think, this book blows away many similar books written by British authors. I would take on stories with this buffoon-style protagonist before many I’ve read before him. The author wanders into chit-chat about Velazquez so often he is almost holding an art class, and I admit to skipping pages because of it. This is not a criticism, because I admire the author’s research. When it comes to the realities of Spain, Madrid in particular, in that dangerous spring of 1936, the quality is excellent. It can’t be faulted. It is this setting that kept me going.
I like to think I’ve eaten pretty much anything Spain can throw at a stomach, but Anthony, our so-called gent, has weird things like beer and squid in the morning. Um, eww, bit early, my gentleman colleague. He is ethically clueless at times, like giving his passport and wallet to a stranger, who took him to an underage prostitute, whom he bones at her mother’s place. WTH, Anthony? You have no class sometimes. He parties with the hooker and her family, he parties with the Duke (snore-fest), his daughters, and also José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falange fascist party, who will eventually align with Franco and be with the rebels (read: baddies of the civil war). The Duke won’t let all-talk, no-action José Antonio marry Paquita, but she loves him while dancing around Anthony (maybe, she doesn’t know herself half the time). She has as little sense as everyone else. Don’t get me started on the little sister, Lilí.
Running with the fascists, the elite, the working class, the police, and hanging with the Prime Minister himself, and pretty much everyone in the mess called Madrid, Anthony nearly gets his head blown off, sees others suffer the fate, and generally can’t figure out who the Communist Russian spy trying to kill him really is. But all because he wants to the art historian who found a Velazquez, he finds himself vying for an item that could invoke an entire civil war.
This book is part art history, part Madrid history teller, part war correspondent, all laced with fictional and not-so fictional characters who make you shake your head (or hope they get theirs blown off). I love the author’s use to detail to set the scene for war, and his use of French-farce type characters lost in world completely screwed in a mess of its own making, makes for something better than the usual old academic/hero and young duchess/whore/idiot that graces these types of books. Sometimes you want Anthony to escape, sometimes you wish someone would just pull the trigger. Will the end satisfy you? Is this book a thriller, a history lesson, or a comedy? The whole lot. Definitely recommended.