Pepe Carvalho is a small-time private detective from Barcelona who likes women and food and not much else. (Thinking about how he no longer enjoys museums: “He would give the whole of Rembrandt for a shapely woman’s arse or a decent plate of spaghetti alla carbonara.”) He is an amiable cynic who believes that there are two kinds of people: those who are in jail and those who might go to jail. He no longer believes in literature, because real life provides him with all the insight into the nasty human condition he could possibly need, and each night when he lights a fire, he lights it with a book:
He still had the copy of Suck carefully folded in his inside pocket, but he did not want to sacrifice it after all the effort he had gone to, smuggling it through Spanish customs. He preferred to burn a book, and this time he headed straight for a copy of Don Quijote. It was a work he had always detested, and he felt a thrill of pleasure at the mere thought of consigning it to the flames. His only regret, quickly pushed out of his mind, were the illustrations that accompanied the adventures of that idiot from La Mancha.
A body is pulled out of the sea, its face so badly destroyed that its only identifying mark is a tattoo on the shoulder that reads, “Born to Raise Hell in Hell.” (Manuel Vásquez Montalbán wrote this novel in 1975, when tattoos were much less common in the general population than they are now; tracking this rather mild tattoo to its source is a major plot point.) A local hairdresser asks Carvalho to find out who the man is, which leads him from Barcelona to Amsterdam, and from hippies and drug gangs to the rich and famous, and then right back home — but for what?
Teresa just did a nice Sunday Salon post on confusing plots in mystery novels. Tattoo doesn’t have a plot that’s difficult to follow, but I will say that the plot isn’t the reason to read this novel. It’s there, it’s pacy, it has all the reasonable elements you would logically want in a mystery-thriller — but the real reason to read it is the writing. Carvalho is a wonderful character, a cynical gastronome (don’t read this when you’re hungry) whose affection for women and distaste for the rest of the world is hard to resist. The descriptions of Barcelona are almost poetic:
The Rambla was like an entire universe that began at the port and ended at the disappointing mediocrity of Plaza Catalunya. Somehow it had retained the wise capriciousness of the rushing stream it had once been. It was like a river that knew where it was heading, like all the people waking up and down it all day long, who seemed unwilling to say goodbye to its plane trees, its multicoloured kiosks, the strange stalls selling parrots and monkeys, the archaeology of buildings which told the story of three hundred years’ history of a city with a history. Carvalho loved the Rambla the way he loved his life: it was irreplaceable.
Eventually, the mystery winds to a close, and it’s one that fits Carvalho’s way of looking at the world, but by that time it seems like the right way. We want to sit next to the fire Carvalho has lit, and have some of whatever he’s cooking.
Translated for Serpent’s Tail books by Nick Caistor.