Review: Eduardo Mendoza’s “Rina de gatos. Madrid, 1936” (2010)

The events and intrigues of the months leading up to Spain’s devastating Civil War of 1936-1939 have been chewed over, thoroughly digested and well … you know the rest … by historians of all hues during the last three quarters of a century. Nonetheless, Eduardo Mendoza (official webpage), one of Spain’s most established novelists, has managed in his new, prizewinning novel Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936 (Catfight. Madrid 1936) to cast the familiar narrative in an entirely new light. The title of Mendoza’s novel  may or may not have been inspired by Goya’s painting of the same name, but since this is a literary blog and I’ve thus far resisted all catblogging urges, it’s a great excuse to reproduce an image of the painting which, let’s just say, isn’t entirely unfamiliar to those living in close proximity to chez Books on Spain …

Mendoza receives the award (image from El Pais)

Riña de gatos was awarded Spain’s prestigious Premio Planeta in October, a decision that El País considered consonant with the prize’s balancing act in recent years between the political and commercial dimensions of contemporary Spanish narrative. The Premio Planeta, founded in 1952, is Spain’s most financially distinguished literary prize, with a total value of over 600,000 euros, and previous winners have included this year’s Premio Cervantes Ana Maria Matute (1954), Jorge Semprún (1977), Juan Marsé (1978), Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1979), the two Nobel Laureates Torrente Ballester (1988) and Vargas Llosa (1993), and more recently, Lucía Etxevarria (2004), Alvaro Pombo (2006) and Fernando Savater (2008). Reading around the newspaper reports and bloggers, the response to Mendoza’s win seems to run the spectrum from ‘about time too, he’s one of the best’ to ‘typical Planeta, it’s just populist drivel dressed up with politics.’

So, what did I think of it? Well, I have to admit that what drew me to the novel in the first place was less the new spin on the machinations leading up to the Civil War than the presence as witness to them of a (fictional) Englishman, the young art historian Anthony Whitelands. I was interested in how Mendoza’s use of an outsider as our eyes in the story (although it’s third-person, not first-person) would impact on the way events were portrayed, and especially interested to see how Anthony’s Englishness would come across. Mendoza is known for his witty turns of phrase, and this works to his advantage both in presenting Anthony and his interactions with people, and also in conveying a sense of Anthony’s bewilderment at the world he has tumbled into.

The story begins when Anthony is summoned to Madrid to value a painting belonging to the family of the Duque de Igualada. Anthony believes the painting to be a lost Velázquez, and the thread of Anthony’s relationship with the painter and his responses to the painting is an important one throughout the story (which makes it even stranger to me that the title should be inspired, if it is, by Goya, but that Goya doesn’t get a direct mention). I think Mendoza is trying, in his depictions of Antony’s attempts to justify his attribution of the painting, to make wider comments about the interpretation of art, and how for each of us, our own position inevitably inflects what we see in a work of art (or literature). Otherwise, the painting functions as something of a macguffin that gets Anthony to Madrid, and introduces him to the circle of people around the Duke, which includes virtually all the most prominent actors in the forthcoming tragedy, although many of them appear in a personal or at least un-stereotypical capacity.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is a brilliant novel or a paradigm-shifting one, but then that isn’t what literary prizes generally reward. It’s very readable; the style is witty, the atmosphere heady, and the pace generally fast, although there is a tendency especially in the second half of the novel towards long political digressions, which I am sorry to say I largely skipped over. I enjoyed seeing 1930s Madrid through Anthony’s eyes – although beware, because the blurb’s suggestion that he has lots of turbulent relationships with women of different classes is overselling things a little bit, and one of the relationships in particular (with the child-prostitute La Toñina) seems both unbelievable and inexplicably loaded with farcical overtones (hiding in wardrobes, etc), which in my view struck the novel’s major bum note. By the end of the novel, I felt that if the plot itself wasn’t entirely watertight, I’d got a great sense of the atmosphere and intrigues of 1930s Madrid, and seen these familiar historical events from a less familiar, oblique point of view. I’d also got a fairly good insight into some of the’quirks’ of the English, at least according to this novelist’s point of view …

Overall, I’d give this novel a 6.5 – if you want to see for yourselves how it all begins, have a look at the first chapter (PDF, in Spanish), available on Planeta’s website.

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7 comments

  1. I enjoyed your review. I have just finished reading ‘Ghosts of Spain’ by Giles Tremlett and ‘Spain – A History’ edited by Raymond Carr.

    1. Hi, Andrew, and thanks for stopping by. ‘Ghosts of Spain’ is a great read – I’ve just bought Tremlett’s biography of Catherine of Aragon, which I’m looking forward to starting. Happy travels!

  2. bythefirelight · · Reply

    Good timing on your review. I was looking at the episode list for El Publico Lee and saw he was going to be on the show promoting the book and wondered what his book was like. After reading your review, I think I just watch the episode and call it good.

    You can catch the episode here if it interests you.
    http://www.radiotelevisionandalucia.es/tvcarta/impe/web/contenido?id=5455

  3. […] Blog 1 – blog 2. Mendoza, E. (2010). Riña de gatos. Madrid 1936. Barcelona: Planeta. Geef een reactie LikeWees de eerste om post te waarderen. […]

  4. […] year.  Believe it or not, the entry that’s had the most traffic (after the homepage) is my review of Eduardo Mendoza’s Planeta-winning novel Rina de gatos. Madrid, 1936. “Rina de gatos” (even without its many variants) is also the search term that’s […]

  5. David Glazier · · Reply

    In a bookshop in Burgos in October 2011 the proprietor recommended this novel. First of all – it is a NOVEL with an historical background – the writer does not claim that all the events he describes actually took place. However, the story is credible as most of the Spanish protagonists actually existed with the exceptions of the owner of the alleged “lost” Velásquez painting and his family and the British characters.
    A very entertaining read – a pity the ending was a bit of a “damp squib”.

  6. […] Riña de gatos: Madrid 1936 won Spain’s prestigious Premio Planeta and in January 2011, I reviewed it on this blog. It’s quite a fun novel, and I rather enjoyed it, mostly thanks to Mendoza’s […]

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