TB and Roses
Shanghai Nights is a fable about dreams and frustrations which moves from an impoverished post-civil war Barcelona - where Juan Marsé spent his own childhood - into the exotic underworld of Shanghai. The narrator is 14-year-old Daniel, whose father has not returned from that war. Daniel fills in time between school and starting work (as Marsé did) as a jeweller's apprentice by taking on the care of an elderly and eccentric sea captain, Captain Blay, described as like "some decrepit domesticated Buffalo Bill". Blay was wounded in the civil war and his bandaged head is filled with the memories of his dead children and strange obsessions about gas leaks and chimney smoke.
by Juan Marsé
translated by Nick Caistor and Harvill Secker
Daniel gets to know the Chacón brothers, boys the same age as himself, who have two roles: they make money selling second-hand comics while guarding the gates of the house where 15-year-old Susana is living, bedridden with tuberculosis. Susana is a capricious girl who spends her time painting her fingernails and indulging in wild cinematic fantasies in which Scheherazade and Quasimodo appear in Wuthering Heights. Daniel finds himself attracted to the invalid girl, and Marsé handles their sentimental education with remarkable subtlety. As their love grows haltingly, the two teenagers fall under the spell of a mysterious visitor, a revolutionary who begins to entrance the two teenagers with tales from the Orient: in particular, the secret of how Susana's father travelled from Toulouse to Shanghai in order to hunt down and kill a former Nazi colonel.
From now on, the novel's setting is divided in a sometimes uneasy, sometimes magical, fashion between Spain and China. Post-war Barcelona is a harsh, poverty-stricken world where children fake epileptic fits to coax people into providing them with food, and streets have been renamed after General Franco. The Shanghai underworld, on the other hand, is a thrilling hallucination, peopled by gunslingers, cabaret artists and femmes fatales.
There are startling passages of sheer fantasy which will surprise those readers familiar with Marsé's usual meticulous realism. Forcat describes a black scorpion in Paris, like an escapee from a Buñuel film, which crawls over spotless white tiles, raising its sting, a flaming, scarlet fingernail. Back in Barcelona, Captain Blay is equally inventive: he claims Susana's tuberculosis is being treated with rose water boiled with glow worms.
Marsé told one interviewer: "There are two kinds of writers: those who discard their childhood and live in a kind of infinite present, and those who never discard their childhood. I am one of the latter. I consider that memory, of a time, of an experience, is the same as imagination, which is simply another form of memory. So childhood, memory and imagination all go together." These three are, indeed, blended in Shanghai Nights. However, the book, first published in Spanish in 1993 (when it won the Premio de la Crítica) and now well translated into English by Nick Caistor, is not among Marsé's most masterly. For that, turn to his first great novel, Últimas tardes con Teresa (1965), or to what is perhaps his best, Si te dicen que caí (1974). Nevertheless, there are enough illuminating moments of disillusioned adolescence and wounded adult idealism in this work to confirm him as among Spain's finest living authors.
This review was first published in the Guardian.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006