Book: The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson (2003)
How can such a distressing and dark mystery novel keep propelling me through its pages? Partly because it is set in the city of Seville, known for its joyous celebration of life. Robert Wilson captures the spirit of Seville throughout The Blind Man of Seville. Perhaps his best depiction comes in his description of Feria de Abril:
“…where everybody was beautiful and happy. Where the girls flounced in their figure-hugging trajes de flamenca with flowers and tortoiseshell combs in their hair while their men struck poses in grey bolero jackets and flat-brimmed hats. … The air was full of incense of enjoyment–music, food and tobacco.”
But also because Wilson is a skilled story-teller. Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, investigates the gruesome, tortured death of a prominent businessman as the man is forced to watch something on a video tape. The “something” is so terrifying that he struggles to escape the images and ends up causing his own death.
The 2001 investigation of this and a similar death leads Falcón back to a period when the powerful of Seville were jockeying to cash in on the World’s Fair, Expo ’92. The inspector expects to find his father, a famous painter, involved with the victims in some way. HIs detective work takes a double track–solving the murders and answering personal questions. The search for the truth about his father intensifies when he discovers a box of diaries the artist kept during the Spanish Civil War and then during their lives in Tangier during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both detective and artist are involved with seeing–and making other people see.
“You can’t teach people to see,” his father had said. “They will only see what they want to. The mind is always interfering with vision…If you can’t rely on your own eyes, whose can you?”
As in A Small Death in Lisbon, the book that led me to add the four Seville-based Falcón novels to my TBR pile, Wilson zigzags between the present and the past. Eventually the time periods meet in Falcón’s home, where his deceased father lived and painted in Seville. Robert Wilson populates his novels with psychologically complex and unique characters and labyrinthine plot twists that gain veracity from the grounding in history.
Falcón, while definitely having his roots in the noir detectives of Dashiell Hamett and Raymond Chandler, stands out as a true original. While it is fashionable these days for detectives to be flawed but basically decent, you rarely come across the combination of courage and quirky neurosis that make up this Spanish detective. He even goes to a shrink, for goodness sakes.
As in the Lisbon book, the city’s geography plays a major role. In an e-mail replying to a question I asked, Wilson wrote:
“Place has always been important to me. It has always been the initial inspiration to write. It is only by seeing a place and feeling its atmosphere and breathing its air and smells and watching its people that a novel starts to germinate in my mind.”
The carefully mapped out movements on real streets and across real parks, the bull fight, the activities of Semana Santa and Feria April, the meals described–all add verisimilitude and contribute to the enjoyment of a traveler and reader.
I have been told repeatedly that I will never understand Spain until I go to a bullfight, and Robert Wilson in The Blind Man of Seville takes five pages to portray a bullfight in which Falcón’s young nephew Pepe is hoping to distinguish himself.
Personally I will forever identify Spain with Semana Santa and one a.m. crowds packed along city streets to cheer for the adored La Macarena. When we visited Spain in 2002, I accidentally scheduled our stay in Seville over Easter week–during parades and crowds simultaneously pious and rowdy who were cheer an image of the Virgin Mary like they cheer their soccer teams. For all its beauty, Seville, particularly at Semana Santa can make you doubt reality. Javier Falcón gets tangled in such a crowd.
The paso bore down on their awestruck faces, the Virgin towering above them, her whole body shuddering from right to left under the straining costaleros. Earsplitting, discordant trumpets suddenly blasted out the passion. The sound in the confines of the narrow street reverberated inside Falcón’s chest and seemed to open it up. The crowd gasped at the glorious moment, at the weeping Virgin, at the height of ecstasy…and the blood drained rapidly from Falcón’s head.
We gave you an article using A Small Death in Lisbon as a guide to the Portugese City, and this book could do the same for Spanish Sevilla. BBC viewers will get to see a four-part series based on the Falcón novels in 2012 according to this Sky Atlantic site. (Fingers crossed that it will be picked up by PBS in the U.S.) And yes, I have added Wilson’s other three Falcón books to my travel library.
Today’s prize to one person who comments, subscribes, tweets or mentions us on Google+ is a copy of Margaret Coel’s mystery The Perfect Suspect
Disclaimers: The publisher gave me The Perfect Suspect to review. I purchased a used copy of Blind Man of Seville through Amazon, and you can do the same by following the links to titles. Although it costs you no more, it makes me a few cents to pay the postage when A Traveler’s Library mails prizes. Thanks. All photos here, being 10 years old, are not terrific quality, but they are my own, so please do not use them without permission.