LA Review of Books: A Conversation with Carlos Zanón
DESPITE A SPATE of translations from the Melville International Crime imprint, the fictional detective Pepe Carvalho is still relatively underappreciated by English-language readers. In addition to his native Spain, Carvalho is esteemed in France, Italy, and wide swathes of South America. In fact, his quirky blend of street sense and gastronomic sophistication was sufficiently admired by Italy’s best-known crime writer, Andrea Camilleri, that Camilleri named his own fictional detective (Inspector Montalbano) after Carvalho creator, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.
As one review in the Guardian claimed: “Montalbán does for Barcelona what Chandler did for Los Angeles — he exposes the criminal power relationships beneath the façade of democracy.”
Indeed Montalbán’s writing has an acidic wit and offers keen — if subtle — social and political commentary. The dozens of Carvalho novels published between 1972 and 2004 paralleled Spain’s transition from fascist dictatorship to democracy that followed the 1975 death of General Francisco Franco. They exemplify genre fiction’s ability to capture snapshots of real life as clearly as a photograph. Later installments confronted Barcelona’s rapid development before the 1992 Olympics and the gentrification that followed.
In addition to the Carvalho series, Montalbán published poetry and regular columns for the Hispanosphere’s preeminent newspaper, El País. When he died suddenly on book tour in Bangkok in 2003 — and though the last Carvalho installment was published posthumously — it seemed Vázquez Montalban’s gourmet gumshoe had likely passed with him. But in January, the detective was revived by a new author, Carlos Zanón. His book, Carvalho: Problemas de Identidad (Problems of Identity) quickly topped both Catalan-language and Spanish best-seller lists. Italian, French, and Greek translations are already in the works, and it looks only a matter of time until an English-language version emerges as well.
Zanón has also reanimated Montalbán’s political concerns with a plot that sees Carvalho conducting an affair with a politically connected, married Madrid-based woman. The confounding relationship serves as a metaphor for political tensions in contemporary Spain, juxtaposing Catalonia — a prosperous northeastern region with Barcelona as its capital, where some are pushing for an independent country — with nationalists in the Spanish capital. All the while, Carvalho must juggle three separate cases and satiate his craving for fine dining.
Zanón was already notable for producing poems, songs, scripts, and literary criticism, as well as novels. His own gritty noir tale, The Barcelona Brothers, was published in English by the Other Press in 2012. Still, reviving the revered Carvalho character after 15 years represented a unique challenge. We spoke in Spanish about this and other issues at a café in Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood.
BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: How did this revival project come together?
CARLOS ZANÓN: The idea came from the publishing house, Planeta, and Montalbán’s heirs. They had the idea of bringing back Carvalho, as others have done with James Bond. So they were thinking and deciding who was the appropriate person, and they thought of me. They called my agent, and my agent passed on their proposal.
Were you already a fan of the previous Carvalho novels?
Yes, I read them when I was a teenager, at the end of high school and the beginning of university. I loved them. In school, we used to lend the Carvalho books to each other as if they were records or comics. We weren’t aware that it was literature. It was something popular, and I remember it with a lot of pleasure — that idea of popular literature that you lend to a friend because you love it. It was also the first time that you read a book from this genre, a crime novel, that took place in your own city. Normally all the action is in Los Angeles or New York. All of the sudden it was happening in Barcelona.
So how did you prepare? Did you reread all the books in advance?
I stayed away from reading analyses or literary criticism of Montalbán, because that was something that would paralyze me. I read all the books to capture the atmosphere, the dialogue, the humor, a little bit of the sense of things. I didn’t want to copy the style of Montalbán, but I thought if you can catch or grab the rhythm, the cynicism and tenderness of the character, you have a good chance to do something interesting.
A lot of people reading this won’t be immediately familiar with Pepe Carvalho. Who is he?
Carvalho is a private detective, and a sort of parody of hardboiled detectives from the United States. He is a little like Rick in the movie Casablanca. Carvalho is cynical. He has no love for flags. He wants to know the truth, always, even if the truth is disappointing. He is a skeptic with an ironic sense of humor. He has a walk on [Barcelona’s major pedestrian thoroughfare] La Rambla and he can sense the whole world from that walk. What defines the Mediterranean crime novel is combining skepticism and cynicism with hedonism. It’s like the world is a disaster, but I am going to eat well. The world is going to break, but first I am going to eat. That is a mix with a lot of potential and power.
Did you alter things about Carvalho’s character for your novel?
I constructed an artifice. All the previous Montalbán novels are in third person. It is a character that already exists in the real world, because real life is what inspired Montalbán. In my version, he is older and he is writing things out in the first person. This allowed me to be different. It doesn’t have the same relationship with the environment. It is like I am your friend and I know you and I write a novel where you are the character.
But what about personality? Is your Carvalho the same as Montalbán’s?
There are things that are the same and things that are different. For example, now he loves going to the cinema. He is more violent, more vulnerable — more fragile probably. Before he always controlled his emotions. There is more action in this book. It was impossible to try and replicate or do the same thing as Montalbán. It’s kind of like Sherlock Holmes on TV now. You still have a murder, but there is also more action. The changes were both about my own preferences and about bringing something in from today’s world.
Did you worry that longtime Carvalho fans would be put off by changes?
No. I believed I could do a novel with a character from another novelist. I had in mind what they do in the comic book world. They change the artists. They change writers. Again, it’s a little like what they did in the BBC with Sherlock Holmes. My son started to read Sherlock Holmes novels and he also saw the series on TV. I wasn’t afraid. I was conscious that it was something risky. If it was a bad book, it would be really, really bad. But I was confident about my skills. People fear failure a lot, but you have to take risks. If you don’t take risks, you are not being creative. You are just doing something that is comfortable. Creating has nothing to do with being comfortable.
Did you have to change your writing style?
My way of writing never changes. As in my other books, you can recognize that it is my book. I did do new things, things that I have never done. For example, I have done crime novels, but I am not used to doing political novels. For me, it was the first time. It was the first time I wrote a book that was narrated in the first person. It was the first time that I took the character from another novelist. It was the first time I had a novel that transpires in two cities at the same time. So, these were challenges.
As the title — Problems of Identity — indicates, identity is a major theme. Why?
On one hand, Carvalho is always probing the period in which he lives. Montalbán was also a powerful journalist with an interesting view on things. In fact, we can study the Spanish transition [from dictatorship to democracy] through Montalbán’s novels. I had to look at my own environment and see what was happening. Right now, we have an identity debate. We have questions about who we are, what country we live in, if we are the same as others, if we are part of a community. On the other hand, the title allows me to allude to the problems of identity presented by a different author, and an altered character. Everybody has problems with identity.
You said that Carvalho is not a man of flags. What does he think of this push for Catalonian independence?
Carvalho does not have any country. He is not a patriot. He is somewhere in the middle, like Rick from Casablanca. You don’t have any idea which side he is on. He decides in the moment based on what is happening. He would not be for independence.
Are you for independence?
It is not something I am passionate about. For me, in a conflict, the only solution is talking. What is important is that people know the truth about the consequences of leaving or staying [a part of Spain] before they make a decision.
Montalbán wrote lots of Carvalho novels. Thus far, yours is quite successful. Will you do more?
I don’t know, maybe in the more distant future. In three or four years it might be possible. The risk of writing one Carvalho after another is that it would overwhelm and obscure other things I work on. Right now, I want to do something different and write about another city, not Barcelona. I want to change the register. I like to do things people don’t expect, like Bob Dylan did, or when Frank Sinatra put out an album of Christmas carols. I like doing things that make people wonder, “What the hell is he doing?”