The book opens with this quote, which I think is a great one. I have not had the pleasure of having received any money for any of my stories, but I have had a story published in a small scale newspaper and I have to say it was a very sweet experience.
A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.
It is a good way to hook the reader in. The narrator, we learn soon enough, is David Martín, who is 17 at the time that the story opens. He is working at The Voice of Industry, an ailing newspaper and he is summoned into the office of the deputy editor, Don Basilio. Martín thinks he did something wrong, but no, Don Basilio offers him a chance to write a story for the back of the Sunday edition as the feature that was supposed to go there fell through. The reason for Don Basilio choosing him seems to be Pedro Vidal’s recommendation, but later on in the paragraph we learn that no one else was in the office to write something up and there were only six hours left before the newspaper was supposed to be set. So Martín gets the honour. Martín gets right to it and spends the six hours productively. He tells us:
I quarrelled with every word, every phrase and expression, every image and letter as if they were the last I was ever going to write. I wrote and rewrote every line as if my life depended on it, and then I rewrote it again.
He presents the fruits of his labour to Don Basilio, who is suitably impressed and even leaves his dreaded red pencil out of the equation. Martín’s piece is published and he receives ten pesos as reward for his labours. Not only that, but Don Basilio promotes him to the crime beat. Soon management catches wind of his stories and offers him the chance to write a weekly story as long as he also keeps his editing duties. So off Martín goes, creating The Mysteries of Barcelona about two criminals, Chloé and Baltasar, Chloé being a beautiful femme fatale who kills people by kissing them with a poisoned lipstick. The Mysteries prove to be a huge success with readers, so much so that Martín’s colleagues become jealous of him and bitter about his success. Martín is convinced his time at the newspaper is limited due to this jealousy. Next paragraph, we see our narrator in his room in the pensión he lives in. It is dreary accommodation and he and his fellow tenants while away the Sunday by watching a woman in the next door building having sex with her boyfriend. To Martín’s surprise, Pedro Vidal comes to visit him that day.
‘And there was light,’ he said, coming in without waiting for an invitation.
Methinks Vidal thinks quite highly of himself. As Martín and Vidal settle themselves into Martín’s room, we get to know a little about Vidal, who is the son of a very rich man. He doesn’t need to work, but likes to keep himself occupied, which is why he is working at the newspaper. He also writes books. Unlike his father, Vidal likes to play benefactor to the lesser offs, much to his father’s disappointment, who would have liked to see Vidal married with children. The reason for Vidal’s visit becomes clear soon enough: he is bringing an envelope which had arrived at the office for Martín that day (on a Sunday?). Although this seems like a very altruistic act, I have the feeling Vidal was just curious as to who would write to Martín and he brought the letter to Martín in the hopes to find out. He is not disappointed, Martín lets him read the letter, which is from a secret admirer with the initials A.C. requesting a meeting with him that night at El Ensueño. Martín learns from Vidal that El Ensueño is a brothel and he decides not to go to the meeting. Vidal teases him a bit about his lack of sexual experience, but this doesn’t seem to convince Martín. Martín then turns to the window to see Vidal’s driver Manuel standing outside. We then learn that Vidal offered Manuel the job of driver after Manual came out of prison and was unable to find work anywhere. Manuel and his family were given a house to live in and Manuel’s daughter Cristina was educated along with other Vidal children. Interestingly, Martín questions this story:
I didn’t know whether to believe this story or to attribute it to the long string of legends woven around the image of the benevolent aristocrat that Vidal cultivates.
I am inclined to think the latter, for some reason I don’t quite trust Vidal. And I am not saying this because I have already read the book, as I remember shockingly little of the story, but there is something a bit calculating and glib about Vidal. As Martín is gazing down at Manuel, he notices Cristina in the car, of whom he notes:
Sitting on the passenger seat was his daughter, Cristina, a creature of pale skin and well-defined lips who was a couple of years older than me and had taken my breath away ever since I saw her the first time Vidal invited me to visit Villa Helius.
Vidal notices him staring at Cristina and makes fun of him. He once again urges Martín to go to the brother that night and Martín seems less sure of his decision not to go. The second chapter ends with Martín smiling and waving at Cristina, but she only looks back blankly, not having recognised him. A nice start to the book, a bit of intrigue, an interesting friend and a writer as a narrator. I remember during my first reading of this book that I had very mixed feelings about Martín and this time it is no different. I find him slightly irritating, but I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe it will become clear in the following chapters.