Book: A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson
The intense drama of A Small Death in Lisbon zigzags between the 1940’s and 1990’s and between a Nazi thriller and a police procedural, but the focus is always Portugal, and mostly Lisbon. While we read about a Portuguese cop, Zé Coelho, trying to unravel the murder of a teenage druggie in modern day Portugal, author Robert Wilson brings us another story centered on a German officer assigned to the technically neutral country during World War II. It served the dictator’s purpose, despite Salazar’s Fascist tendencies, for the country to be able to do business with both Britain and Germany.
The two stories, both with plenty of complications, kept me guessing. The main guessing game for the reader is–when and how are these two threads going to connect? The present day detective story is spiced up with the detective fighting alcoholism (a common failing among mystery novel policemen) and puzzling over his teenage daughter. He also has a new partner whose odd ways have alienated most of the department. They criss-cross Lisbon and its suburbs and we get a good picture of the city and the life of the country today.
Meanwhile, back in World War II days, the German officer with an insatiable appetite for prostitutes bonds with a rural, illiterate Portuguese wheeler-dealer with enough smarts to make him a Godfather of corruption in his rural province. An illigitimate son of the German inherits his sexual appetites and as the story moves through the years to the present day, several strands of narrative tangle in a final knot to be straightened–or maybe not–by Zé Coelho.
Real historic events not only add interest to the stories, they are essentially part of the stories. I was particularly interested in an extremely artful scene where Wilson introduces the day of the peaceful coup against Salazar in April, 1974. A husband and wife are bickering because he wants her to turn off the radio. As she fiddles with the dial, the song Grôndola, vila moreno comes on. The two people go on arguing and the husband tries to make phone calls to some of his important friends in the Salazar regime. We learn that the song triggered the uprising of the army, and the VIPS he was trying to reach on the phone, were busy trying to save the government. From reading The Portuguese: A Modern History, I learned that the scene is completely accurate. The song is still sung with emotion in Portugal as a symbol of freedom.
Here the stories begin to merge, as we see Zé as an eighteen-year-old, seeing the only deaths that happened that day. The art of Wilson’s writing is his ability to pull all that historical research seamlessly into the story. There is never a moment when the story stops for exposition, we just live the characters lives as they live through historic events.
The other endearing thing about Wilson is that he started as a travel writer. (Just like African writer Binyavanga Wainaina, remember?) Robert Wilson wanted to tell about his experiences in Africa, but a friend suggested there would be more money in setting a mystery there instead. He studied the genre, and wrote four African mysteries, before A Small Death in Lisbon the first of two books set in Portugal, this one became his break-out novel, winning awards and readers. Next he moved on to four spy novels set in Seville, Spain, the latest, The Ignorance of Blood in 2009. (Wilson, by the way, would prefer that we read these four books in order, so I’ll start with The Blind Man of Seville.)
Based on his own description of the pace of his writing , his next book is overdue. In a 2009 interview, he said that his next book would be set in London. I cannot wait. But meanwhile, you can bet I will get copies of those four set in Seville. I have a fondness for Seville that sounds very like Wilson’s own description of the magic of that city. Like him, I arrived there during Easter week and stayed up all night watching the processions, streets packed with people and cheering their favorite image of the Virgin like football fans. (Here are some pictures that capture the magic of Semana Santa (Holy Week)–although they are taken in other parts of Spain) The city is gorgeous, alluring, and somewhat mysterious…a perfect setting for a travel writer turned mystery/thriller novelist.
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Wilson admits that as a reader he is not fond of books with parallel stories. Do you have an opinion about that form? And which of his books would you start with? Portugal, Africa or Seville?