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Authors: Manuel Vazquez Montalban

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The Angst-Ridden Executive

BOOK: The Angst-Ridden Executive
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Praise for
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s
Pepe Carvalho series

“Montalbán does for Barcelona what Chandler did for
Los Angeles

he exposes the criminal power relationships
beneath the façade of democracy.”

The Guardian

“Montalbán writes with authority and
compassion

a le Carré-like sorrow.”

Publishers Weekly

“A writer who is caustic about the
powerful and tender towards the oppressed.”

Times Literary Supplement

“Carvalho travels down the mean calles
with humor, perception, and compassion.”

The Times
(London)

“Does for modern Barcelona what
Dickens did for
1
9
th
century London.”

Total

“Carvalho is funny . . . scathingly witty about the powerful.
He is an original eccentric, burning books and cooking all
night. Like Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, he is a man of honor
walking the mean streets of a sick society.”

Independent
(London)

“I cannot wait for other Pepe Carvalho titles
to be published here. Meanwhile, make the most
of
Murder in the Central Committee
.”

New Statesman
(London)

“A sharp wit and a knowing eye.”

Sunday Times
(London)

“Splendid flavor of life in Barcelona and Madrid, a
memorable hero in Pepe, and one of the most startling
love scenes you’ll ever come across.”

Scotsman

“An excuse for a gastronomic, political,
and social tour of Barcelona.”

The Guardian

“An inventive and sexy writer. . . Warmly recommended.”

The Irish Independent

“Pepe Carvalho’s greatest concern is with his
stomach, but when not pursuing delicacies, he can
unravel the most tangled of mysteries.”

The Sunday Times

Born in Barcelona in 1939,
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
(1939–2003) was a member of
Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya
(PSUC), and was jailed by the Franco government for four years for supporting a miners’ strike. A columnist for Madrid’s
El País
, as well as a prolific poet, playwright, and essayist, Vázquez Montalbán was also a well-known gourmand who wrote often about food. The nineteen novels in his Pepe Carvalho series have won international acclaim, including the Planeta prize (1979) and the International Grand Prix de Littérature Policière (1981), both for
Southern Seas
. He died in 2003 in Hong Kong, on his way home to Barcelona.

 

In addition to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán,
Ed Emery
has translated Mohamed Choukri, Antonio Negri, and Nobel Prize-winner Dario Fo.

The Angst-ridden Executive

First published as
La Soledad del Manager
by
Editorial Planeta, Barcelona

© 1977 Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Translation © 1990 Ed Emery

This edition published by arrangement with Serpent's Tail

First Melville House printing: November 2011

Melville House Publishing

145 Plymouth Street

Brooklyn, NY 11201

www.mhpbooks.com

ISBN:
978-1-61219-039-6

Library of Congress Control Number:  2011942050

One day the member of parliament Sole Barbera asked me: ‘When are you going to write another of your cops and robbers novels?' I have taken him at his word, and would like to dedicate
The Angst-Ridden Executive
to him.

He’d not so much requested as demanded a window seat. The girl at the Western Air Lines check-in desk looked at the card he flashed, and complied, albeit with an air of puzzlement.

What reason could there possibly be for a CIA agent to insist on a window seat on a flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco? The girl had heard rumours about special training camps that were supposedly located somewhere in the Mojave Desert, but surely the CIA had their own reconnaissance planes. Carvalho sensed a battle of conflicting logics raging behind the girl’s artificially tanned forehead as she checked his ticket. Then he had to produce the card a second time, when two policemen came up to search him. They let him pass, with a gesture that represented either total subservience or total contempt.

As Carvalho settled into his seat, he felt a sense of pleasure that was on a par with that of a child awaiting a treat. A settled sort of contentment, in which your body is master of the situation but your legs want to run to meet the experience head-on. Carvalho concentrated on the takeoff, on Las Vegas as it disappeared rapidly into the distance, looking like a cardboard cut-out sticking out of the desert, and on preparing himself for the moment when they would fly over Death Valley and Zabriskie Point. Carvalho had made repeated pilgrimages to this part of the world. He was drawn by the aesthetic appeal of the blunt, white hills, which turned slowly to purple in the evening light, and he was attracted by Death Valley’s reputation for treachery, and by its sulphurized waters and the glitter of its salty crust. From the plane one could appreciate the absurd grandeur of this landscape, which may have been a geological leftover, but which had always made a profound impression on Carvalho. It would be wonderful to jump out with a parachute, together with a knapsack filled with the kind of wonders that came out of knapsacks in Hemingway: tins of beans and smoked bacon. Something, however, was preventing Carvalho from indulging his secret and solitary vice. Something in his immediate vicinity that was like radio interference. Something that was being said, or sounded like it was being said. The source of the disturbance was very close. Right next to him, in fact. The passengers in the seats next to him were talking about Spain, and one of them was speaking English with a heavy Catalan accent.

‘I find it strange that you could spend eight years at the Rota base and not learn Spanish.’

‘The bases have a life of their own. We only use local people for cleaning the place, and for . . .’

With a knowing guffaw, the American made a lewd gesture that he had probably picked up in some bar in Cadiz. The Catalan chose to ignore it and continued with the conversation as between two businessmen. The American was apparently the boss of a small sports goods factory, and was discussing his franchises. For him the world was divided between people who bought from him and people who didn’t. He even had a high opinion of communist China, because they bought his hiking gear, importing it via Hong Kong. On the other hand he couldn’t stand the Cubans, the Brazilians, or the French. As he praised the ethical and consumerist capacities of each individual nation, the American accompanied his observations with a clap of his hands and a shout of ‘Olé’, evidently intended as a linguistic homage to his traveling companion. The Spaniard, for his part, gave a brief résumé of his circumstances. He was a manager working for Petnay, one of the biggest multinationals in the world. His main area of responsibility was Spain and part of Latin America, but he often came to the US in order to talk with head office and to get an update on the latest techniques in marketing.

‘We Americans know how to sell.’

‘I don’t agree. The truth is simply that you have the political power to force your products onto large numbers of people.’

‘That’s history for you, friend! You people used to have an empire too, as I recall—and whatever became of that?! Not to mention the Romans. And what about the Apaches—they had a little empire too, didn’t they? One day maybe the whole of American civilization will disappear, and our whole country will end up looking like that out there. . .’

The American gestured towards the arid Death Valley landscape. At this point Carvalho spoke up, in Spanish.

‘Imagine the number of drink-flasks our friend would be able to sell then!’

The Catalan spun round to see where the voice was coming from. He chuckled.

The world’s a small place! It seems I’m sitting next to a Spaniard. Allow me to introduce myself —Antonio Jauma—I’m in management.’

‘Pepe Carvalho. I’m a traveling salesman.’

The Catalan introduced Carvalho to the American, who shook his hand and launched into a string of ad hoc Hispanicisms:

‘Espana. . . Bonita. . . Ole. . . Manzanilla. . . Puerta de Santa Maria. . .’

‘Si, señor.’

‘What’s your line of business?’ Jauma inquired.

He was a thin man, medium-built, with the unmistakable features of a Sephardic Jew. The nose of an Istanbul antique dealer; dark, shiny eyes that suggested a measure of ruthlessness; and a shock of thick, black hair, with a wide parting that hinted at incipient hair loss.

‘One-armed bandits. That’s what brings me to Vegas so often.’

‘Do you live in San Francisco?’

‘Berkeley. I’m doing a part-time urban studies course at the university.’

‘What part of Spain are you from?’

‘Born in Galicia, but spent most of my life in Barcelona.’

‘Well, we’re two of a kind! This gentleman and I are fellow countrymen. . .’ He conveyed this information to the American, who received it with an air of comic gravity.

Jauma gave Carvalho a potted account of himself. He had studied law at university. Then a trip to the USA, where he’d spent his time building highways and serving hot dogs in snack bars in the Bronx. He’d married a fellow student from his university days. They had come through hard times together.

‘Some nights we had to make do with an omelette and a finger of whiskey between us.’

All of a sudden—via one of his wife’s relations who was a military attaché at the Spanish embassy in Washington—Jauma had landed a job with Petnay. Within a few months he’d become their representative in Spain.

‘And, as Groucho Marx might say, that’s the way my career has gone—from absolute poverty to nothing at all.’

‘Nothing at all?’

‘Exactly. Nothing at all. A manager never makes enough money to just pack his bags and quit. What’s more, he’s always at the mercy of last year’s trading figures and people trying to stab him in the back. I’ve had enough of it. Last night I had to attend a fraternity dinner for managers from allover the world. You can imagine the scene—America in full dress. The jewelry at that gathering would have put Ali Baba to shame. Anyway, on the one hand you’ve got this rabble sitting over your head. And on the other you’ve got the pressure of the workers from below. You have no idea what it’s like trying to run a business with the present labour situation in Spain and Latin America. You need nerves of steel.’

‘How are things going?’

‘Well, for the moment. The company pays salaries that are a bit higher than the prevailing local rate, and in return it earns dollar-level profits. The only thing that worries me is the idea of a crisis looming, and my having to start behaving like a foreman. You know what I mean?’

‘You have the morality of a pinko.’

‘Does that bother you?’

‘Not at all. I used to be a bit that way myself, but all I’m left with these days is a set of bowels in rather good working order.’

‘Bravo, Carvalho—you’re a hell of a man!’

The man obviously had a histrionic streak. He waved his arms enthusiastically, thrust his sharp-featured face forward, and shouted:

‘We have to celebrate this meeting! Tonight I’m inviting you to eat out at Fisherman’s Wharf. You know the place?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m staying at the Holiday Inn on Market Street. Why don’t we arrange to meet directly at the restaurant—say at nine? Ha! Carvalho! This meeting is all the better for being unexpected. Who knows, maybe we even have friends in common, although looking at you I’d say that you’re a bit younger than me. Did you study in Barcelona?’

‘Yes. Philosophy.’

‘And now you’re a traveling rep for one-armed bandits! You’re a prophet! My friend here is a prophet!’

The American nodded agreement, gave Carvalho an approving look and leaned back to take a more thorough view of him, as if searching for external signs that might give evidence of his hidden powers.

‘Just imagine the things we might have in common. Let’s make a list of the women we’ve had, and then compare them. Who knows, maybe we have a parallel sexual history.’

‘Or convergent.’

‘That’s right—or convergent. Last night the company mobilized all the best-looking call-girls in Las Vegas, and there was a farewell party in grand style in the poolside apartments at the Sands Hotel—Sinatra’s hotel. I shut myself in a bedroom with two black girls. They were a sight to see, Carvalho! What would I do if I couldn’t go on one of these binges every once in a while? These Americans are superb at squeezing the work out of their personnel, and then, moments before they collapse from exhaustion, stimulating them so that they pick themselves up and carry on producing. That’s the fundamental principle of Taylorism and Fordism. And I prescribe it for myself. Otherwise I’d never survive the wreckage of my everyday life. The angst. The angst of a senior executive.

It was as if the smoke of ancient volcanoes had turned into a cold, wet fog. Every morning during the winter, damp vapours rise from the grey earth and envelope the big, ageing houses on the outskirts of Vich. Driven out of the town by the breath of people’s front doors opening, the fog takes it out on the whitewashed adobe houses that marked the transition between the old city and the surrounding dull, grey countryside. At this time of the morning you didn’t get a full view of the scenery of this landscape of ancient prehistoric disaster, of the limited end-of-the-world that must have happened in what today is known as the Plain of Vich, an ash-coloured terrain dotted with small chimneys of petrified lava. Nor do you see the hamlet of bare, dark stone, covered by beetle-browed roofs whose purpose is to offer protection against the rain, or to emphasize the gravity of a city which one local writer has described as ‘the city of saints’. The priests have not yet come out of their infinite lairs, fragrant with wax and marzipan. The only humans in sight are countrywomen on their way to market and workers leaving the town on their way to sausage factories, furniture factories, warehouses or artificial stone factories. Zigzagging bicycles are nervously observed by the steaming eyes of car headlights and by the enormous bulk of a lorry, like some great cuboid animal, with only its front showing through the fog.

The fog is not the only obstacle on your way to work. You have little chance of avoiding a more or less long wait at the level crossing, and regular commuters treat the red traffic light as an acceptable risk which they calculate into their working day. Those traveling on bikes or motorbikes put their feet on the ground and hold their machines between their legs like sleeping animals. Those in cars switch on the demister, or turn up the heating to clear their windscreens. One or two leave the safety of their vehicles to clean their windows or to pull up their aerials. It’s always amazing to discover that there are programmes at this time of the’ morning, with some radio announcer, his mouth full of coffee and the small hours, attempting to maintain a degree of enthusiasm sufficient to sell the latest hit single.

‘What’s the temperature like in La Coruna?’

‘Two degrees below zero.’

‘Granada? Is Granada there? Do we have Granada on the line?’

‘Bilbao?’

‘Two degrees, and a wind coming in off the Bay of Biscay.

‘That’s one for the seafarers—a storm on its way.’

‘Barcelona? How’s the temperature down there?’

‘Four degrees and a relative humidity of eighty-seven per cent.’

‘What about Vich?’ the man wonders. ‘If Barcelona is four degrees, I’ll guarantee that Vich is below zero.’ He is surprised to find himself blowing on his fingers like when he was a boy, and he chuckles to himself as a wave of nostalgia brings back to him the taste of bread soaked in milky coffee. The memory is an amazing thing! The slightest thing is capable of setting off a whole chain of fragmented images.

‘Juan, will you stop playing about and drink your milk!’

That’s what his grandfather used to tell him, in just the same tone that he now used with his own children, particularly Oriol, the lazy one.

‘Oh, one day I’m going to lose my patience, and I’ll give you a thick ear.”

He begins to laugh. The boy puts on the superior look of a person bowing to force majeure, and downs his milk with a technical perfection that also seems to express scorn. Drinking milk, in the morning, with your hands cupped round the bowl, enjoying that mysterious warmth that seems to come right from the centre of the earth. ‘No, I don’t want cups like that: he had told his wife on the day she brought home a Duralex tea-set. ‘I don’t want that kind of cup for my milk.’ ‘You’re full of nonsense.’ ‘Look, I don’t know why, but if I don’t drink my milk out of a bowl it doesn’t taste right, especially in the mornings.’ ‘I’m the one who has to wash them, and the glaze always comes off earthenware, and it’s a breeding place for germs. . . and I’m tired of waiting on you hand and foot . . .’

‘That’s enough! I’m having my milk in a bowl, and that’s an end of it.”

Every now and then you have to make a stand, because if you don’t people take advantage of you. I know it’s a bit of an obsession, but everyone’s got so many manias that one more won’t do any harm. His bowl of milk was a means of re-establishing a link with his childhood, and the distant faces that were almost beyond recall. His aunt: ‘Juan, you’ll be late for school.’ His grandfather: ‘Juan, will you stop playing about?’ The weak light of the first light bulbs in Valles—fifteen .and twenty watts apiece—which were carefully switched off as soon as the first daylight appeared, in the daily battle between the electric current and the country folk who were scared to waste the stuff. Nowadays people don’t care. They leave their lights on, ten at a time, and damn the expense. They don’t worry any more. Instead he takes it out on her because she gives him stick for wanting to drink his milk out of a bowl. His grandma used to tell them to lock the larder properly, because the radio announcers would come out at night and eat everything in sight. He began to laugh, and laughed till the tears ran. The red light was still showing through the fog, and he roused himself sufficiently to notice that he had a hard-on. He felt his cock with a degree of pride, and noticed a tickling sensation. He needed a piss. There was no sign of the train yet, and beyond the roadside verge he saw that the fog and the undergrowth were thick enough to conceal a man’s slow, steady piss from the gaze of the cars, motorbikes, bicycles and lorries that were waiting for the train to pass. The knowledge that it was cold outside, and the possibility of the train arriving at any moment, led him to one last test. He made as if to piss, and then tried holding back, to stop the hidden flow. He only just managed it, and some drops of urine emerged like beads of golden water onto the Y-front of his underpants.

BOOK: The Angst-Ridden Executive
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