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Barcelona Shadows, by Marc Pastor, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, Pushkin Press, RRP£12.99, 272 pages
“Over time,” the narrator of Barcelona Shadows says to another character, the grisly events recounted “will become a legend told to scare children”. Since this particular character has just been immured alive, one imagines that is unlikely to be much of a consolation.
Even as these lines speed Marc Pastor’s gruesome second novel to a close, the narrator of this piece of historical Catalan noir remains in the shadows. Who is it telling us all this? Ubiquitous, lyrical, our creepy storyteller is as compelling as the murderess whose monstrous crimes he chronicles.
Marc Pastor, who writes in Catalan, is also a Barcelona copper working in the scientific department of the Catalonia police force. When, in these pages, a body is moved on the slab as if it were “a dried-out baguette”, you don’t doubt that he is writing from experience. Originally entitled La Mala Dona – The Evil Woman – Barcelona Shadows novelises the real events of 1911 to 1912, when Spain’s biggest city was thrown into turmoil by the serial disappearance of young children.
The “vampire” rumoured to be on the loose turned out to be a prostitute and former nanny in her forties, called Enriqueta Martí. Targeting the children of fellow prostitutes, Martí pimped out her victims, later eviscerating them to use their organs to make unguents for the rich, then burying what was left in various hovels dotted around the city’s Raval district. After her capture, a pressing encounter with the garrotte would have awaited her, had she not been finished off by a lynch mob in jail.
The Enriqueta Martí case has found its way into various facets of Catalan culture over the years, including – strange, but true – musical theatre. Central to Pastor’s own treatment is the report that, among Enriqueta’s belongings, was a list of rich and powerful clients: for a novelist with Pastor’s chill touch, this is the perfect factual skeleton to drape with grisly flesh.
One purely fictional invention here is the inspector himself, Moisés Corvo, who, through a mix of persistence, errors and luck, finally tracks down Martí’s lair. Corvo (which in Spanish, means “bent” or “curved”) is oafish and brutal. In one memorable scene, Corvo’s wife sniffs his clothes to detect if he has been with prostitutes, and smelling the reek of decomposing flesh, believes his excuse that he’s been working all night in the morgue (actually, he’d found time for both).
The Barcelona depicted here is one of grinding poverty, anarchist bombs and police repression. The city’s textile mills are as satanic as any in 19th-century industrial England. Its sprawling port disembarks amputees from Spain’s colonial wars, while embarking child prostitutes. Pastor makes it all breathe effortlessly, the bones of research poking through only rarely.
There are grave worms, flesh-eating flies and vampirism. But there is much worse, too. The following illustrates Pastor’s adept multi-layering of horror: a pederastic youth, known as Blackmouth, is watching Enriqueta’s little stepdaughter play with bones. The little girl explains to him that one of the bones is her daughter, the other bones are other children, and that when her “daughter” is hungry, she eats them. Listening to her, “Blackmouth is so scared that he gets an erection”.
Such penny-dreadful moments jostle with interesting ideas. Cinema, a theme across Pastor’s fiction, is depicted here in its earliest guise: illusionist skits that trump the old conjuring shows in the seedy theatres of Avinguda Parallel. Encompassing the new ideas of Freud, the “two-bit” architecture of Barcelona modernism, and even policing techniques, the illusionist’s act becomes Pastor’s overarching (and typically bleak) metaphor for an emerging modern city.
But back to the enigmatic storyteller. After some puzzlement in the early stages of the story, it emerges that he can only be the ultimate omniscient narrator: Death himself. In some nicely judged structural tricks of his own, Pastor has Death hijack the internal thoughts of the characters in jump cuts worthy of a Mario Vargas Llosa novel. This narrator is not of the unreliable variety: in a city where everyone else is shamming, Death can be expected to tell the truth, which is why he gets the best lines, and the final word.