A Moment of Decision: Eduardo Mendoza on the writing of ‘An Englishman in Madrid’

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EVENT: 2016 Cervantes Prize winner Eduardo Mendoza will be in conversation with his translator Nick Caistor at the Bookshop on Thursday 15 June, discussing his life and work. Book tickets here. Below, Mendoza considers how he came to write his most recently translated novel, the literary thriller ‘An Englishman in Madrid’.

An Englishman in Madrid starts with a small mystery concerning the authorship of a painting. This leads to much bigger drama in which fiction and reality, humour and historical events all combine. So much has been written about the Spanish Civil War, and so little about the period early in 1936 leading up to it, when it was not just two opposing sides fighting each other but there still existed the possibility of dialogue and compromise. I wanted to set my characters at this moment of decision, when everything was still up in the air, and Madrid and the whole of Spain were full of plots, enigmas, ambiguities. Everyone is looking over their shoulder to see what the others are doing, and making pacts to be broken almost immediately. Everybody knows something important is in the air, but nobody can yet see what a real tragedy is unfolding.

But even though the historical moment becomes increasingly threatening, I think there is room to approach these events through humour. In Spain we have a strong theatrical tradition of the esperpento, where realism gives way to farce and the ridiculous, and that’s why at the centre of the book I put an Englishman who is completely out of his depth, politically and personally. Although he thinks he’s an expert in Spanish culture, he doesn’t really have the slightest idea of what is going on, what is real and what is fake, as with the painting he is sent to assess, or the political events he becomes caught up in despite himself.

To some extent, his situation reflects my own: I always write my books to see how they will turn out, and I’m always the most surprised by the results. As far as the Spanish Civil War is concerned, we need to overcome the idea of it as a nightmare and to see it as part of our collective history, which we each respond to in our own way.

An Englishman in Madrid’ is published by Quercus, priced at £8.99. Eduardo Mendoza will be discussing the novel, and his life and work, with his translator Nick Caistor at the Bookshop on Thursday 15 June. Book tickets here.

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