27 sept. 2016

Lluís-Anton Baulenas´ Quan arribi el pirata i se m´emporti: A Review

Lluís-Anton Baulenas, Quan arribi el pirata i se m'emporti (Barcelona: RBA, 2015). 429 pages.
20th-century Spain allowed many an unsavoury character to make progress in life; Francoism was the ideal socio-political system for ruthless and callous non-entities to make their fortunes through dodgy deals, exerting their influence way beyond what the normal extent of their actual abilities and competencies should have reached. One of these people could have easily been Miquel-Deogràcies Gambús, introduced to us readers as ‘the Ogre’. The Ogre’s middle name (“thanks be to God”) is of course a finely sarcastic detail from Baulenas.

At 96, Gambús’ CV is one to be dubiously proud of: a double murderer before becoming of age (a young local shepherd and his own grandmother are his first two victims), he quickly profited from the Civil War and the Francoist regime by doing whatever it took to achieve his ends. Many years later he is the owner and President of a big international company called Prospective Business. He has everything money can buy, yet everything is never enough.

One thing he cannot have is eternal life, though. His end is nigh, as they say, and he wishes to keep his secret “treasure” in safe hands. His treasure is a little cave with the most amazing rupestrian paintings ever discovered, above which Gambús has built his mansion, appropriately named La Fortuna. The local shepherd was the first person to pay for this secret with his life, but a few more end up losing their lives throughout the years, his first wife included.

Gambús knows not what scruples are, nothing has ever stopped him, or will ever stop him for that matter. Not even his two sons, very wealthy businessmen who live in London and New York respectively, have ever been allowed to see the paintings. So why does Gambús all of a sudden summon fifty-something-year-old gay amateur photographer and Raval-based nurse Jesús Carducci to his mansion, offering him huge sums of money to photograph the paintings?

A Raval street in broad daylight. Photograph by Jeny.
Quan arribi el pirata i se m’emporti, loosely translatable as ‘When the pirate comes and takes me away’, is narrated in two parallel plotlines that eventually meet and clash at La Fortuna. While the story of Gambús’ life since his birth in 1909 to the megalomaniac project he has devised in order to make his legacy a long-lasting one is certainly an attractive one, the storyline around Carducci’s flirts with various men and his walks around the Barri del Raval are less so. The former is narrated in the third person (we later learn Carducci is the narrator), while Carducci’s adventures are a first-person narrative.

The novel, however, takes a few too many chapters to really engage the reader: there are a few too many diversions, as well as an excess of probably irrelevant details. Baulenas indulges in rather verbose descriptions where, at least in my opinion as a reader, the editor should have used the old red pen.

The Ogre’s machinations are indeed the driving force in this quirky yet at times captivating story. Carducci becomes a puppet whose strings Gambús pulls at will. Which is not too difficult a task for someone like Gambús, of course, who is known to have flown across the world to propose to his would-be second wife, French prostitute Martine, in extremely convincing terms: he more or less says, “I came here to either marry you or kill you. Choose what it will be.” Like the slogan in those T-shirts many people used to wear all over the planet not that long ago, Marta Gambús, as she will be known eventually, will choose life. A life sentence of sorts indeed.

Quan arribi el pirata i se m’emporti deals quite aptly with the allure of power and how it corrupts everyone who comes near those who exert it. Two very different worlds are confronted with each other: the world of wealth and limitless influence versus the microcosm of El Raval, the old Barcelona barrio where crime, crudity and hardship dominate people’s lives.

An old city gets a facelift - AirBnB does the rest. Photograph by Alain Rouiller.   
Unlike El nas de Mussolini, the only other Baulenas book I have read so far (a review in Spanish is available here), Quan arribi el pirata… is not as masterfully paced or skilfully structured. Still, it’s entertaining enough. 

Yet apart from the slow start to the story proper, the ending is a little long-winded, too. And to compound things, Baulenas adds an 18-page epilogue, situated three years later in 2009. Why a 400-page story would require such a lengthy epilogue is something that escapes me. Not every character needs to have their life sorted out and explained at length in a novel, methinks.

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