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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


An Englishman in Madrid

Eduardo Mendoza

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To purchase An Englishman in Madrid

Title: An Englishman in Madrid
Author: Eduardo Mendoza
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 354 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: An Englishman in Madrid - US
Riña de gatos - US
An Englishman in Madrid - UK
An Englishman in Madrid - Canada
An Englishman in Madrid - India
Bataille de chats - France
Katzenkrieg - Deutschland
Riña de gatos - España

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable political romp set in 1936 Madrid

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday . 12/5/2013 Christian House
Irish Times B 17/10/2013 Eileen Battersby
The Spectator . 29/6/2013 Miles Johnson
TLS . 29/7/2011 Michael Kerrigan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Through Anthony's bemused view, Mendoza has highlighted the surreal nature of the rising tensions and the myriad factions at play. The result is a funny, gripping and perfectly balanced blend of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene." - Christian House , Independent on Sunday

  • "This is a rambling, fast-moving, rather claustrophobic novel sustained by a zany hysteria all of its own, as well as a great deal of information, ranging from art history to politics. (...) The humour is heavy-handed and predictable." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "An Englishman in Madrid is no political novel; it is a highly enjoyable read that -- despite occasionally verging on the slapstick -- elegantly evokes the eccentricities of Spain’s capital city." - Miles Johnson, The Spectator

  • "Who looks where and who sees what are central questions in Riña de gatos. The title translates literally as "Cat Fight" -- a reference to the deepening (and essentially undignified) conflict that will end in civil war. Yet "Cat’s Cradle" might do just as well, so complex is the crisscrossing of sightlines -- and opposing personal and ideological perspectives -- in what otherwise appears a straightforward, fast-moving adventure novel. (...) If his novel is a comic confection, it is deadly serious in its import; this Englishman’s excursion takes us to the very heart of Spain." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The English translation of this novel takes a very different title from the original Spanish (and most of the other translations); it's understandable that a literal translation of Riña de gatos -- 'Cat Fight' -- wouldn't do, but An Englishman in Madrid suggests an entirely different focus. The novel does feature an Englishman in Madrid -- Anthony Whitelands is very much the central character, and the story focuses almost entirely on him -- but he is less player than played, a pawn in a variety of agendas in 1936 Madrid headed towards civil war.
       Whitelands is an art historian, an expert in Spanish art who is at his happiest in the Museo del Prado. He travels to Madrid on a sensitive mission, commissioned by an aristocratic family to evaluate their collection, as they hope to smuggle an appropriate piece abroad, providing the funds for them to live on when they flee increasingly dangerous Spain -- that's what Whitelands has been told, anyway; in fact, any capital raised by the Duke of La Igualada may be destined for other purposes.
       One of the first paintings Whitelands see when he visits the Duke, and the one that attracts his attention -- then as well as repeatedly throughout the novel (just in case readers missed the point ...) -- is a copy of Titian's The Death of Actaeon (the original of which Whitelands has surprisingly never seen, though at the time the painting apparently was at Harewood House). Here it is not the value of the painting that matters -- the copy is good, but it's still just a reproduction -- but rather the scene it depicts: the hunting Actaeon famously came across the bathing Diana who, affronted, transformed him into a deer -- leaving him to quickly be torn apart by his own (apparently poorly trained) hunting dogs. Whitelands isn't treated quite as badly, but must certainly feel at times that he's been thrown to the wolves; women also play significant roles in his (un)doings, as both of the Duke's daughters, Paquita and (the far too young) Lilí set their different seductive sights on him, while he is also set up with yet another young woman (who comes complete with infant). (For such a hapless foreigner, his success with the ladies proves rather remarkable, too.)
       Whitelands doesn't recognize who the Marquis of Estella is when he meets him -- apparently Pasquita's beau -- at the Duke's home and even the Marquis' full name, José Antonio Primo de Rivera doesn't mean that much to him, but (as Spanish readers will be aware of from the start) the man is no one less than the son of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, Spain's prime minister (and dictator) until 1930. José Antonio Primo de Rivera now leads the Falange, one of several movements jostling for power in an increasing unstable Spain headed towards revolution of one sort or another -- something that makes him dangerous company to keep. Of course, in the Madrid of these times danger lurks everywhere -- and Whitelands frequently runs practically headlong into it.
       Whitelands is soon -- almost immediately -- eager to return home, especially since the Duke's collection proves unexceptional. But when he's shown the one other painting they have, one kept hidden in the basement, Whitelands can't leave so easily, entranced by a find that could make his career.
       Rather many interested parties have their eyes (and often a tail) on Whitelands, and he makes the acquaintance of everyone from the local police to the British authorities. For the most part, the various parties seem to be trying to use him -- with him more or less unaware of what role he is playing. But no one is ever quite sure about him: "He seems like a half-wit, but that can't be the case", the police think early on. Still, it's pretty clear: "The English gentleman can be a bit slow over certain things."
       That's part -- or much -- of the fun, of course: Whitelands is an Englishman/innocent abroad, a fish out of water -- trying to maintain a hold with his art-expertise but even in that regard sitting uncertainly. Throughout, he is a hapless sort of fellow who gets taken advantage of -- naïvely losing his wallet and papers, for examples -- but in his bumbling lands on his feet anyway (as it turns out, for example, he doesn't lose his papers and wallets to a thief) -- or in bed with the girl. Still, along the way he also constantly finds himself: "Caught in the crossfire in both the metaphorical and the literal sense of the word".
       Mendoza's novel is one of the unsettled situation in Madrid in 1936 -- with local readers better aware of everything that came soon after (such as José Antonio Primo de Rivera's fate). It is, on one level, a very serious novel, with even Francisco Franco lurking and involved in the background -- even as much of the action is played at near-farce level -- which doesn't entirely work, because Mendoza simply isn't that funny; the book is good-humored but not really funny. The complex, intertwined goings-on are, however, quite well organized and followed-through: Mendoza drags Whitelands through a lot, but the path he traces ultimately does make sense. And An Englishman in Madrid does provide an interesting picture of Madrid -- and the many factions jostling for power -- at this particular point in history.
       An Englishman in Madrid is enjoyable throughout, if never quite as funny -- or as serious -- as Mendoza seems to have intended it to be.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 November 2015

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An Englishman in Madrid: Reviews: Eduardo Mendoza: Other books by Eduardo Mendoza under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Eduardo Mendoza Garriga was born in 1943.

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