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The Buenos Aires Quintet (Five Star Fiction S.) Paperback – September 1, 2006
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Montalban is a writer who is caustic about the powerful and tender towards the oppressed * Times Literary Supplement * An inventive and sexy writer. Warmly recommended. * Irish Independent * This is nothing less than world-class crime fiction * Big Issue * The most metaphysical gumshoe on the streets - the plot is as concerned with exploring capitalism's malignancy as it is with corpses and femmes fatales * The Times * A crime fiction bonanza * Herald * A suitable requiem for a character and his writer * Guardian *
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Strangely enough, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán is little-known in the United States, which is a shame, because his books are excellent. Riddled with Spanish (more properly, Catalan, since Vázquez Montalbán was from Barcelona) literary, political, and, most famously, culinary references, perhaps they fail to resonate with the average American reader.
Montalbán's protagonist, Pepe Carvalho, is a man with a checkered past and a bleak present: once a communist intellectual, jailed during the Franco era, briefly a CIA operative, he has become a private detective with an ex-con assistant and a prostitute girlfriend. His superficial nihilism belies a deeply human man with a deep love for Spanish culture and a soft spot for the underdog. He is a perfect centerpiece for Montalbán's picture of a Spain still deeply scarred from the Franco years. Carvalho's one-time faith in the intellectual and the future has been shattered and replaced by deep connection with the sensual - often represented by food, for Carvalho is an obsessive gourmet -- and the immediate present.
It is the mixture of the absurdly funny, the sensual, the literary, and the touching that makes Vazquez Montalban's books successful. Carvalho may take beatings all day during an investigation, come home in middle of the night, cook up an elaborate meal, described in such vivid, almost sexual detail by Vázquez Montalbán that the reader feels that he or she could -- must! -- head to the kitchen immediately to recreate it, and pound upon his neighbor's door at 4 AM to wake him up and share the repast with a carefully-chosen bottle of wine, during which his neighbor Fuster, a Latin scholar, makes classical literature references and critiques the cuisine.
Buenos Aires Quintet is the most ambitious, funny, touching, and ultimately fulfilling, Montalbán I have read yet. Transplant Pepe to an Argentina also scarred from its years of dictatorship, where he goes in search of his missing cousin. "Tango, Maradona, the disappeared," he jokingly says on arrival when asked what he knows about Argentina. Ironically, these themes - and a parade of comic, often sympathetic and sometimes tragic characters - wind their ways through the book. I don't want to spoil the book by revealing too much. Just buy it and enjoy the romp.
In any event, Pepe Carvalho, Catalan private detective and gourmet from Barcelona, is back, and Montalban sends him to Buenos Aires, at the behest of his uncle, to locate his cousin Raul. Raul was a leftist radical during the time of state-sponsored violence (1976 - 1983) while a military junta was in control of Argentina. One night Raul and his friends were taken captive by the powers that be. To their surprise they were freed eventually, though none of them can comprehend how this happened. Raul's wife was killed in the raid and his daughter taken as one of "the disappeared" (as many as 13,000 people "disappeared" during this time). Raul's father gets him safely out of Argentina and back to Spain. As "The Buenos Aires Quintet" opens Raul has returned to Argentina for reasons of his own, and Pepe now must get him back to Spain, for reasons the father will not disclose to Pepe. This is the setting for the series of sometimes bizarre and intertwining events that occur in Argentina. As the story unfolds, Pepe Carvalho has a relatively small role, with the many unique and oddball characters taking over the action.
The plot of this book is a good one, but it gets lost in the way it is told. For starters, Montalban writes in the third person point of view in present tense, which is unusual for a mystery series, though Patricia Cornwell uses it also in some of her Scarpetta series. It makes for a very odd feeling, as though the reader is part of the story in real time. It works, though it took me awhile to get acclimated to it.
Another way the is plot gets lost is in Montalban's scattered construction of the story. Characters are veering off here and there to different parts of Buenos Aires in short segments. It is impossible to keep a timeline of what is occurring in one's head. It is best to give up and go with the flow, which keeps the reader from feeling like progress is being made in solving the main plot or any subplots. In the end, the scatteredness does come to a conclusion of interest.
Finally, the overwhelming number of characters is also atypical of a mystery story. Montalban can't seem to resist peopling his story with every odd or extraordinary character he perceives to be a product of the history of Buenos Aires. All in all, there are too many characters. Even as the end of the book approaches Montalban is introducing new characters, many of which seem superfluous to the story.
I can't decide if "The Buenos Aires Quintet" is a great novel of social commentary, a soap opera, a political polemic, or something else all together. In any event, Montalban does use this book to rail against repressive "fascist" governments, with Argentina being a perfect setting for his political views. Montalban uses tango as a metaphor for the alienation people in such a society often feel. Throughout the book Pepe visits a tango bar where the singer offers up tango songs reflecting the disenchantment that seems to be prevalent in the Argentinean people. At the same time he seems to be matching Pepe Carvalho's own estrangement from the world he lives in with that of the people he meets in Argentina.
I can recommend this book to the literary reader who wants a mystery with meaning.
For more mystery series that may entertain you, check out my website describing and reviewing many series (see my Amazon profile for the URL).
Years later, those who survived are still looking for their stolen children. Most have been brought up by the same people who killed their parents and friends. Montalban has taken this story and turned it into a comedic-tragedy. Spending almost as much time cooking, eating and listening to 'tango music' as he does trying to hunt down his cousin. His cousin had escaped to Spain, but after twenty years has gone back to look for his daughter.
As in all his books, Montalban has taken time to spread out his theories and polemics as he sees them affecting modern Spain and Argentina. For Pepe Carvalho, had started out as a communist, became a CIA spy and then a private detective. He is a gourmet who will cook just for the joy of making food and then throw it away uneaten. He burns books by authors he feels have said nothing or to much.
Like all Montalban's books, it is a incidental treasure trove of historical and literary 'bon mots' (this one has many paeans to Jorge Luis Borges). In the end the mystery is why bother with the mysteries and just turn this one into a travelogue.
(Note: for those who have read the previous translations of the Carvalho stories, you will find a different feel to this story as opposed to those by Ed Emery. I for one miss his ability to make Montalban shine.)