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Authors: Manuel Vazquez Montalban

The Buenos Aires Quintet

BOOK: The Buenos Aires Quintet
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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

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

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


“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.”

THE Independent

“A sharp wit and a knowing eye.”

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.


Nick Caistor’s
translations from the Spanish and the Portuguese include works by José Saramago and Paulo Coelho, and he is the author of
Che Guevara: A Life


First published as
Quinteto de Buenos Aires
Editorial Planeta, S.A., Barcelona, 1997

© 1997 Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Translation © 2003 Nick Caistor

The publisher gratefully acknowledges permission to quote from the following works of Jorge Luis Borges:

“Labyrinth” from
In Praise of Darkness
, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, © 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Emcee Editores, S.A., and Norman Thomas di Giovanni. By permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

“The Poet Proclaims His Renown” © 1999 by Maria Kodama; translation © 1999 by Kenneth Krabbenhoft. “Oedipus and the Enigma” © 1999 by Maria Kodama; translation © 1999 by Alan S. Trueblood. “Unknown Street” from
Selected Poems
by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Alexander Coleman, © 1999 by Maria Kodama; translation © 1999 by Alexander Coleman. By Permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

“To the Son” from
The Self and Other
, © 1999 by Maria Kodama; translation © Alistair Reid. By permission of Alistair Reid.

“Carniceria” © 1995 by Maria Kodama; by permission of the Wylie Agency, Inc.

This edition published by arrangement with Serpent's Tail

First Melville House printing: February 2012

Melville House Publishing

145 Plymouth Street

Brooklyn, NY 11201


Library of Congress Control Number: 2012931060

For Liliana Mazure and Luis Barone

To my mind, it's just a tale that Buenos Aires began one day. I see her as eternal as water and air.

Jorge Luis Borges

The Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires

That city offered no easy destinies. It was a city that left its mark. Its vast dryness was a warning; its climate, light and blue skies were a lie.

Eduardo Mallea

The City Beside the Unmoving River

Chapter 1

The American Uncle

A pair of eyes glances furtively at the proof on the sign: ‘Behaviour Laboratory. The Spirit of New Argentina’. The man walks as though stealth has become second nature to him. Rats and chemical retorts, but on the wall the surprise of a huge poster. A cow with a beautiful young girl proudly pointing to it:


The eyes come to a halt on the poster. They’re part of a haggard face twisted with pent-up anger. The mouth mutters through its teeth: ‘A New Argentina’.

All at once the man’s rage spills over. He lashes out around him. Knocks over the retorts and test tubes, flings open the rats’ cages. The animals emerge into the larger prison of the room. Fascinated, he pauses to contemplate the results of his unleashed power. One rat seems to be seeking him out, and he picks it up carefully, almost affectionately: ‘rat, my little sister’.

He puts it into his torn jacket pocket and slips out of the laboratory just as lights start to go on and voices can be heard shouting: ‘What was that?’ ‘What’s happening?’

The loudest voice belongs to a man who’s Fat with a capital F. His face, chest and stomach are mounds of blubber and forgotten acres of flesh.

His face is theatrically old, so it seems only natural he should ask pessimistically: ‘What d’you know about Buenos Aires?’

Betraying neither pessimism nor optimism, Carvalho responds: ‘Tango, the disappeared, Maradona.’

This answer only increases the other man’s despondency: ‘Tango, the disappeared, Maradona,’ he repeats.

Carvalho looks out on to a Barcelona roof terrace. The old man is sitting in an armchair; behind him the city fills the horizon as if the more he gazed at it, the more it grew. The older man seems to be having trouble finding the words he’s looking for. Beyond the window blinds, two middle-aged women are whispering and glancing surreptitiously at them. Carvalho is stuck in a cane chair like something from an
film, although it looks as if it were left behind by a being from outer space rather than a Filipino.

‘For the sake of your father’s memory, nephew, go to Buenos Aires. Try to find my son, Raúl.’

He points to the two women spying on them from the roof terrace.

‘My nieces have got me in their clutches. I don’t want them to end up with what by rights belongs to my son. Who knows where he might be. I thought he’d got over the death of his wife, Berta, and his daughter’s disappearance. That all happened in the years of the guerrilla. He went crazy. He was caught as well. Though I’ve been a Republican all my life, I wrote to the King. For my boy’s sake, I asked for things I’ve never asked for in my life. I made deals I would never have made. And finally I got him here to Spain. Time is a great healer, they say. Time doesn’t heal a thing. It just adds more weight. You’re the only one who can find him. You know how to: you’re a cop, aren’t you?’

‘A private detective.’

‘Isn’t it the same thing?’

‘The cops guarantee order. All I do is uncover disorder.’

Carvalho gets up, walks out on to the terrace and looks down at the city. Its jumbled roofs offer him a proposed merger of the old and new Olympic Barcelonas, the last stores in Pueblo Nuevo, and Icaria, the Catalan Manchester, just waiting to be demolished, then the outskirts of the eclectic architecture of the Olympic Village, and beyond it, the sea. When his uncle’s voice drifts out to him, Carvalho can’t help but smile.

‘Buenos Aires is a beautiful city hell-bent on self-destruction.’

Carvalho’s father had always told him his American uncle had a way with words.

‘I like cities that destroy themselves. Triumphant cities smell of disinfectant.’

He goes back inside to face the old man.

‘So, will you do it? I don’t really understand what you meant about private detectives, but will you go?’

‘Welcome to Buenos Aires. We know you come here because Argentina is up for sale to foreigners. But it’s not only the Japanese who are buying us: even the Spaniards are here, although Spain itself is for sale as well. It’s being bought by the Japanese.’

He unstraps the watch from his wrist and starts to auction it. ‘I’m not asking a million pesos for it, not even a thousand, not even a hundred, not one.’

He falls to his knees, sobbing. ‘Take it from me, I beg you, just take it. We Argentines love people to take our watches, our sweethearts, our islands. So we can write tangos about it afterwards!’

The presenter rushes round the room compulsively offering his wristwatch to different members of the public, who react either with hollow laughter or dismay at this face dripping with make-up and eyeliner. The spotlight follows the presenter until it paralyses him, as if he suddenly felt there were no point trying to give away the watch any more. The presenter looks down at it as though it has become a viscous, strange object, then all at once apparently realizes he’s in the middle of an audience, and nonchalantly asks them: ‘By the way, what d’you know about Buenos Aires?’

Outside his window he can see the Ramblas, looking even darker than usual. The statue to Pitarra he’s finally got used to. Pitarra, my old friend. His face twists in a grimace of disgust as he stubbornly asks himself who he is, where he came from, where he’s going to. The Llompart file is on the desk in front of him, and in his mind’s eye he can see the scene from two days earlier. He signals to the doorman, and the Moroccan understands perfectly, even though he’s probably not all that intelligent and knows there may be only five thousand pesetas in it for him. Hands over a key. The stairs and the corridor bring back the memory of every stinking rotten boarding house he’s visited here in the armpit of the city. By the top step he’s out of breath. He puts it down to the mixture of tension and disgust that is the only way he can keep up this crotch-sniffing role of his. But it’s too late to back out now. Here’s the door. The number in chipped porcelain.

‘Better get it over with.’

He thrusts the key into the lock and, as if a curtain is torn in front of him, a terrified woman of an age to know better covers her flabby nakedness with the bedcover. A red light on the wall. A wardrobe door ajar. Carvalho switches on the main light. He’s carrying a camera. He opens the wardrobe door. A nude, bald man. One hand covering his sex. Carvalho takes a picture.

Someone knocks at his door and the memory fades. That will be Llompart, come to sniff the crotch of his wife’s lover. Carvalho sits behind the typical desk of a typical private detective; on the far side of the desk sits a man with the look of a typical deceived husband, depending of course on how deceived husbands look around the world. What could a deceived husband in New Zealand look like? Carvalho spreads the photos out in front of him. Photos taken when he burst into the room: the half-naked woman, the wardrobe, the ridiculous lover trying to hide. Señor Llompart’s face crumples as though he’s about to cry. But he doesn’t. Instead he spits: ‘Whore!’

By now his face is contorted with laughter, not tears. The more he studies the photos, the louder he laughs. ‘My wife’s a whore, but a stupid one. Now I’ve got these photos she won’t get a cent out of me when we divorce.’

As if by magic he brandishes a chequebook, and a MontBlanc fountain pen probably given to him by his wife on Father’s Day. ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘Two hundred thousand pesetas.’

He doesn’t like the price. He doesn’t like Carvalho. He doesn’t like the photos. He frowns. He pauses in mid-flourish of his pen. He looks down at the photos, then at Carvalho, as if weighing their worth.


‘Regaining your honour is an expensive business.’

‘What honour are you talking about? You’re not giving me back my honour; on the contrary, you’re showing me what an asshole I am.’

‘But you’re doing well out of it. You pay me two hundred thousand pesetas, but your wife’ll be left without a bean when you get the divorce.’

‘That’s true.’

So he signs contentedly, and hands over the cheque with a smug feeling of self-satisfaction. Then he leaves, thanking Carvalho profusely for his professional expertise. Standing by the window again, Carvalho is on the point of wallowing in his nausea once more, but Biscuter interrupts him. When he pulls back the sliding curtain separating the office from the kitchen, his look of a superannuated foetus only serves to increase Carvalho’s sense of melancholy. Biscuter’s reedy eunuch voice grates on his ears, and he’s annoyed by the way he wipes his hands on a dishcloth that’s begging to be put out to pasture.

‘Has he gone?’

‘He thought it was expensive. He wanted to avoid paying anything to his wife, and paying me as little as possible.’

‘There are a lot of cheapskates in this world, boss.’

‘Cheap’s the word. All he’s interested in is leading the old cow off to the slaughterhouse, and he’s managed to catch her out. Now he’ll hitch up with a young heifer who’ll bleed him dry. Nobody believes in anything in this society of ours. Everything is corrupt. When there’s no morality left in society, what can we private detectives do? Take it from me, Biscuter.’

‘This is dreadful, boss. We haven’t got a single customer. No work at all.’

‘I’ve got work.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since this morning. But not here. In Argentina. Buenos Aires.’

‘So we’re going to travel, boss!’


going to travel, Biscuter. If I take you I won’t make anything on the deal.’

Carvalho looks through some papers. Finds his passport in a drawer. Biscuter can’t believe his eyes. ‘Just like that you tell me? Without sorting things out with Charo? Before you even try what I’ve cooked for you?’

‘Charo. Did she phone?’

‘No. But she sent you a radio as a present, d’you remember? And you didn’t even respond. Maybe you should make the first move.’

‘I prefer the second one.’

But his eighth sense, his guilt complex, tells him he’s going too far with Biscuter. He softens his voice and his gestures, and goes over to the little foetus, stiff as a board from hurt pride. ‘Let’s see what you’ve made.’

‘Aubergines with anchovies, a seafood hollandaise sauce, and to top that culinary monument a poached egg with a spoonful of caviar.’

‘A real crisis menu.’

‘It’s lumpfish caviar.’

‘Lead on, Biscuter. Argentina can wait.’

One of the advantages of living in Vallvidrera is that you can say goodbye to a whole city with a single glance, as if it were someone forced to attend a ceremony. In the days when he still did so, he had read, possibly in a book by Bowles, that the difference between a tourist and a traveller is that the one knows the limits of his journey, while the other yields to the open-ended logic of the voyage. Buenos Aires. For now, a one-way journey with the return vaguer than ever, just like in the days when travel was more important to him than life. His landscapes and his characters all destroyed. Bromide dead, Charo in voluntary exile, Biscuter left as his only connection with what had once been the fragile ecosystem of his close friendships. Above all, Barcelona after the Olympics, open to the sea, scored with expressways, the Barrio Chino being pulled down with indecent haste, the aeroplanes of political correctness circling the city, spraying it to kill off its bacteria, its historic viruses, its social struggles, its lumpen, a city without armpits, robbed of its armpits, a city turned into a theatre in which to stage the farce of modernity.

‘I’ll see everything more clearly from Buenos Aires.’

He pushes aside the things on the kitchen table, carefully lays down some sheets of writing paper, tries out his ballpoint. He sets himself to write, then hesitates. Time and again. Finally he screws up the courage: ‘Dear Charo: I’m just about to leave for Buenos Aires on a job, but don’t want to go without first trying to clear up our misunderstanding...’ He lifts his head. Sniffs. Abandons the writing paper and runs towards his food, urged on by a smell of burning oxtail. He stirs his oxtail stew in a sauce. He’s in the nick of time, and takes it off the stove for it to cool down a little. He separates the flesh from the bone adroitly, then puts the meat back in the sauce. He doesn’t allow himself the luxury of setting the table, but settles for eating on a free corner, slightly disturbed by this total disrespect for his usual liturgy. Perhaps that’s why he bolts his food, as if embarrassed at his own lack of consideration, and drinks no more than half a bottle of Mauro. Full but not satisfied. The sight of the half-finished letter keeps him from clearing up the plates or straightening out the mess on his table. He goes back to the letter, picks up his ballpoint, is about to write something more, then changes his mind. He feels like burning a book, and his hands stray towards
Buenos Aires
by Horacio Vázquez Rial, a personal guide he has almost finished. But he still feels indebted to what he’s read, and it might be useful to him in the future. Instead he goes over to the bookcase. Chooses a book. One of the volumes of
by Hugh Thomas. He starts to tear it up, and builds up the fire as it should be: first the book pages, then on top the covers. It begins to burn, then the whole hearth lights up the face of a thoughtful Carvalho, who glances over his shoulder in response to the call from the letter and the mess on the table. Finally he clears the table and the letter he’s begun recovers all its presence on the polished surface. He picks it up, takes it with him to the bedroom where his suitcase is open to receive any last-minute additions. The letter falls gently on to his crumpled clothes. He reconsiders. Picks it up again. Puts it in his hand luggage. And it’s from there that he recovers it a few hours later, on board an Aerolineas Argentinas jet, his nostalgia blunted by four whiskies and a bottle of Navarro Correa red wine, a Pinot Noir with a hint of burgundy. ‘Things weren’t the way you imagined, Charo...’ He grows weary of it. Lets it drop. Picks up a paper. Glances casually at the front page of an Argentine newspaper: anodyne stuff, unimportant, second-hand, corruption Argentine-style in a world where all the hidden filth is busy exploding, Maradona playing he loves me, he loves me not with the latest football club he’s chosen to complete the destruction of his legend with. The man in the seat next to him offers a cigarette, which Carvalho refuses with a friendly gesture. ‘No, thanks. I only smoke cigars, and they’re not permitted here.’

BOOK: The Buenos Aires Quintet
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