Our Man in Barcelona

AP1Anarchist terror gangs stirring things up in 1960’s Spain. A mercenary whose service in the Congo conceals a dark past. A washed-up journalist in post-war Catalonia trying to solve a murder that powerful men would prefer left alone.

Antonio Padilla is a Barcelona native with two novels under his belt. La mano del muerto hit bookshops back in 2014 and Serás imbécil arrived in the summer of 2017. Both take a deep dive into the violent underbelly of recent Spanish history and come up missing a few teeth.

When he’s not writing crime thrillers, Padilla has translated everyone from Graham Greene to Jim Thompson. We had a conversation about his influences, the Catalan scene, and what keeps him hitting the keyboard every day.

The Interview

1.How did you start as a writer?

Writing my own stuff was always an ambition, but other considerations prevailed for a long while. I began working on my first novel a few years back, at a moment when I was basically unemployed and with plenty of time in my hands.

It’s now or never‘, I told myself, etc.

In terms of what motivates me, ‘procrastination’ and ‘deadline’ tend to be the decisive factors at play.

2. What inspired you to set your books in the decades after the war?

Not too sure about it. A fascination with old sepia photographs, perhaps; with the mentalities, cultures, and styles of the Cold War years in general; with the music from that era.

3.What kind of authors have influenced you?

There’s only one Chandler, and Raymond is his prophet. Jim Thompson is another favourite. I was lucky enough to translate a fistful of Thompson DMHnovels in the past, and (I hope) this extended job gave me some further insight into JT’s astute observation:

There are 32 ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot – things are not what they seem.’

I can only dream I will one day be able to write dialogue to match early George V. Higgins novels like The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Other thriller writers I like: Chester Himes (American), Jef Geeraerts (Belgian), Don Winslow (American), early Frederick Forsyth (British), Rubem Fonseca (Brazilian), and Craig Russell (British).

Too many others to mention, really.

4. What do you think of literary scene in Spain and Catalonia?

I can live without plenty of Spanish/Catalan authors, due to their frequent fondness for verbose/’important’ style and real difficulty in building a meaningful, truly interesting plot.

Having said that, there are several good genre novelists. The prolific Andreu Martín has written some truly great books set in Barcelona. The early novels by the late Manuel Vázquez Montalbán were also excellent. I can recommend anything by the less well-known Juan Carlos Castillón. The very busy Carlos Zanón clearly deserves his success.

Finally, Damià Alou and Alberto Valle (aka Pascual Ulpiano) are two up-and-coming, obviously talented thriller writers.

5. From a technical point of view, do you think literary style is more or less important than the ability to structure material (ie. the Raymond Chandler vs Ross McDonald argument)?

First thought that comes to mind: give me Philip Marlowe over Lew Archer any day of the week.

But if you’re not a superlative stylist like Chandler – and most of us mere humans are not – you can always try crafting a decent plot that will keep the reader guessing. And please note that ‘decent’ does not necessarily equal ‘plausible’.

If you truly excel at it, this second approach to writing thrillers can result in masterpieces like Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman or The Killer Inside Me. Just remember Thompson’s comment about things not being what they seem.

In my own case, I’m increasingly interested in the possibilities of dialogue, and I think this shows in Serás imbécil, my recently published second novel.

6. Some writers are influenced by real life crimes (like Chandler and the Doheny case). Are there any Spanish events that haunt your imagination?

Plenty of those. Here’s one example:

There’s someone I know personally, a charming old geezer now residing in the outskirts of Barcelona. Let’s call him ‘Señor Víctor’. In the early 1950’s, Señor Víctor was a left-Padilla 3leaning young man who hated the Francoist regime and eventually fled to France so as not to do national service in Spain.

Live and learn! Señor Víctor eventually ended up joining the French Foreign Legion and took part in the Algerian war. He subsequently worked as a mercenary in the Congo and other African countries. Back in Europe, he tried his luck in different, ahem, ‘trades’, and eventually specialised in bank robbery. Old age and a couple of stretches in prison eventually put an end to his extraordinary career.

The paradox in this story was a partial inspiration for my first book, La Mano del Muerto. There are many other real-life cases that I find fascinating. Some of these have been exploited or alluded to in my second novel; a few others are there to be used in subsequent books.

7. We’re having this conversation in late October 2017 as things heat up in Catalonia. As our man in Barcelona, what’s your opinion about the secessionist movement?

I’m not a nationalist of any sort, but a believer in internationalism, and here I’m going to paraphrase the immortal Prince Buster: ‘I call it madness‘.

As the great Flaubert once wrote: “All flags have been so soiled by blood and shit that it is time not to have any more, at all!

If you read Spanish and like taut thrillers then Antonio Padilla’s books are a good investment. And if you want to show some love for this blog then feel free to buy my books in paperback, hardback, or ebook:

Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or amazon.com]

and

Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or amazon.com]

and

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com]

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