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Tattoo (1976)

by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Pepe Carvalho (2)

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3361269,401 (3.42)25
"One of the finest examples of European 'noir' literature."--John Harvey "Montalb#65533;n writes with authority and compassion--a Le Carr#65533;-like sorrow."--Publishers Weekly Pepe Carvalho, ex-cop, ex-Marxist, and constant gourmet, is working as a private detective in Barcelona when a body is pulled out of the sea, its face so badly destroyed that the only way of indentifying it is through a tattoo that says "Born to raise hell in hell." Manuel V#65533;zquez Montalb#65533;n was born in Barcelona in 1939. He won both the Raymond Chandler Prize and the French Grand Prix of Detective Fiction for his thrillers. He died in 2003.… (more)
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English (8)  Spanish (2)  French (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (12)
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
review of
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's Tattoo
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - October 21-22, 2018

I didn't discover Montalbán until 2014 when he became an immediate addition to my small pantheon of crime fiction writers b/c of his deep socio-political insights. The 1st thing I read by him was The Buenos Aires Quintet ( https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/382361-don-t-let-them-get-away?chapter=1 ). Every bk I've read by him since has been something I'm sure I'll like. As such, I vacillate between reading him & others that I have a similar enthusiasm for & writers whose work is more uncertain for me. In other words, reading Tattoo was almost like an avoidance of seeking new stimulation in favor of returning to the tried-&-true. No matter, as usual, I enjoyed this very much.

There was a time when I found tattoos more interesting than I do today. Witness, e.g., what little documentation there is from the 3rd part of my "Generic As-Beenism" Mad Scientist Didaction from 1987: https://youtu.be/OL1Mppt2ck4?t=1006 . There were very few tattooists around then. I had just gotten my 3D brain tattoo at the time & the 1st tattooist I went to to do it wdn't do it b/c he sd I wdn't be able to stand the pain, the 2nd one wdn't do it b/c she sd she was tired of identifying corpses for the police. SO, when this story begins w/ a corpse found w/ a tattoo as one of its few identifying marks that resonated w/ personal experience:

"The four bearers turned him on to his back on the sand. A cry of horror expanded the circle of the half-naked crowd. The body had no face. Fishes had eaten his cheeks and eyes. They quickly turned him over again. It was then that a little kid noticed there was a tattoo on his back. A hand brushed away the wet sand. Somebody read out the motto tattooed on his shoulder-blade: BORN TO RAISE HELL IN HELL." - p 3

This bk was copyrighted in 1976, a time when tattoos wd've still been primarily on the bodies of more deviant people — unlike today when every idiot feels the 'need' to put some shallow decoration on themselves:

"Don Avaristo had engraved on his buttocks: Exit only; no way in. Don Evaristo sighed as he regretted yet again not having photographed the tattooed penis of a famous pickpocket. On the foreskin he had tattooed a cat. When it was pulled back, a mouse appeared on the tip." - pp 28-29

"'I tried to create a school here. But I failed. Who was it that that used to want a tattoo? Sailors and crooks. Sailors aren't what they used to be, and the crooks don't want tattoos anymore because they can identify them. I had an apprentice by the name of del Clot who was good. But he was a queer, and in that line of business he was constantly being threatened. The only one left now is a guy from Murcia. He lives up near the park. But there aren't many more in Barcelona. Tangiers: there are still a few there. And in Morocco in general. And some of the northern ports. Not Hamburg. Hamburg's got a big reputation, but there's nothing there. Rotterdam before the war. It had good tattoists then, very good ones.'" - p 29

Things sure have changed. Heck, Lyle Tuttle even tattooed in Antarctica: http://www.forestparkreview.com/News/Articles/2-4-2014/Antarctic-tattoos:-from-i... .

There are so many writers whose descriptions succeed in being very evocative for me. But it seems that crime fiction writers excel at this:

"He woke when he was tired of sleeping. Through the shutters of the half-open window he could hear the birds chattering among themselves about how bright and hot the day was. He looked out of the window and saw that everything was where it ought to be: the sky was up, the earth down. The electric heater and the Italian coffee-making machine helped him recover a sense of self. The shower and the coffee he drank forced him to recognize the here and now, and the idea that he had work to do that would help him get through another day: not that he had any idea of what to do." - p 23

Think of how dull the above content cd be if written in a more basic way:

'He woke up. He heard birds. He looked out the window. The heater and the coffee-maker were familiar. He took a shower & drank coffee to help him wake up further. He had a job to do but didn't know where to start.'

Carvalho, Montalbán's detective, is a tough one. His girlfriend's a prostitute & he hates pimps:

"'Put your cheap jewelry away and get out of here.'

"'Why don't I stuff it in your mouth?'

"Carvalho appeared to take no notice of this, but suddenly whirled around and chopped the other man hard across the neck. He staggered backwards, and Carvalho was on him, connected with a right and a left to his face. Neither the girl's screams nor Charo's protests could stop him. Carvalho bent over the pimp, grabbed him by the hair, and beat his head against the wall. The pimp slid down until he was slumped on the floor. Carvalho went through his pockets, his waistline, under his arms, and the lining of his shoes. He took a folded switchblade from somewhere." - pp 49-50

"'How about asking prostitutes?'

"'That's pretty impossible. There are so many of them and not all are registered with the police. There are private security people now who protect them and hide them. It was easy when they were just German or Italian, but now it's gone completely haywire — there's Turkish women, Greeks... even Spaniards.'" - p 69

It's not uncommon for crime fiction writers to make reference to other crime fiction writers:

"'We've come across cases where people have been drowned for less than twenty.'


"Carvalho did not want to seem too smart, or to behave like a Chandler character facing a stupid, brutal LAPD cop. Among other things, because the inspector wasn't stupid, brutal LAPD cop and he wasn't a Chandler character." - p 106

A little philosophy:

"[']All of us fall into two groups: those who go to jail and those who might go to jail. That's the secret of success of all politicians everywhere.'" - p 130

I can't say that I agree w/ that. I think there are plenty of people who are sure, w/o even having to think about it, that they are the 'good people' who will never go to jail. &, truth be told, they're highly unlikely to ever go to jail, they're more likely to be white collar criminals. These tend to be the ones most in denial of their own crimes, they also tend to be the ones most enthusiastic about putting other people in jail. Foo on them.

"Once again he had the problem of finding paper to light the fire with. He still had a copy of Suck carefully folded in his inside pocket, but did not want to sacrifice that after all the effort he had gone to, smuggling it through Spanish customs. He preferred to burn a book, and this time he headed straight for a copy of Don Quijote. It was a work he had always detested, and he felt a thrill of pleasure at the more thought of consigning it to the flames." - p 144

Here's where Montalbán & I part ways. Just about the only bks I wdn't feel bad about burning are the Bible & the Quran — & even those I'd think twice about. Still, as a literary device for taking a quick snipe at works he dislikes it's interesting. I hope he has Carvalho burn a crime fiction novel sometime so that I can learn whose work he doesn't like. Maybe Agatha Christie?

"Carvalho had always thought that prostitutes from the Basque country, Catalonia or even Madrid pretended they were Andalusians out of pure racism. They transferred their shame about how they earned their living on to Spain's least developed region, in this way somehow preserving the ethnic purity of the Basques, the noble lineage of Castille, and Catalan industrial prowess. But Charo's friend insisted it was all down to the clients.

"'It's what they want. If you tell them you're from Bilbao they look at you disappointed. As if you're not going to give them a good time.'" - p 165

Hhmm. I wonder if there's an American equivalent. Do prostitutes pretend like they're from West Virginia instead of from Palm Beach? No, that wdn't work.

"He had inherited his father's conviction that a person's body knows exactly what it needs and what it doesn't. Whenever he found he had a craving for sweet things, he thought: 'My body needs glucose.' Whenever he suddenly felt a passion for seafood, he said to himself: 'My body needs phosphorous.' And if it was lentils he was yearning for, he knew he was low on iron. He would never dare make a theory out of this physiological wisdom, but it had helped him survive thirty-seven years without any illnesses other than the occasional cold, which triggered a need for oranges and lemons." - p 196

& I tend to agree w/ this. Unfortunately, it requires actually being aware of one's bodily wants. It seems like there are so many artificially induced wants clamouring for attn that the ones originating w/ the body may get lost. Take the above: I read mention of lentils & it triggers my remembering that I have some left over from guests of mnths ago & that I've been meaning to cook them w/ rice. SO, off to the kitchen I go to do so. Is it my body that wants them? After all, they'll probably make me fart too much. Or is it my obssessive waste-not-want-not mentality?

Montalbán is very class conscious — something I appreciate:

"Teresa once more became a daughter of the upper middle classes, her features sculptured by healthy eating and proper hygiene. She had the relaxed, self-confident look of a high-wire acrobat who knows they are working with a safety net. Charo by contrast had never had a safety net, and occasionally Carvalho caught the cruel, trapped look on her face of someone who would kill to defend herself, or was frightened of a fall." - p 197

I can relate. In retrospect, it seems to me that "Blaster" Al Ackerman was the only other person I've ever known who regularly used the expression "working without a net", an expression that's very important to me. What often passes for intelligence is just the security of wealth, the calm that often passes for wisdom is often just a deep-seated stability rooted in never being financially insecure. All therapists, in order to really do their job shd have worse problems than their patients. If they can deal w/ their own horrific problems then maybe they'll be really qualified to deal w/ other people's — but that's not the way it works. ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
Vázquez Montalbán's character Pepe Carvalho first appeared in Yo maté a Kennedy in 1972, but at that point he was still a CIA agent: it was only in this second appearance that he took on his long-term role as a Barcelona private eye. He seems to have been doing private work for some time when we first meet him — in the bed of his sex-worker girlfriend Charo — but he hasn't yet acquired an office or an assistant. He does, however, already seem to have picked up very high standards where food and drink are concerned, and it is in this book that he first hits on the scheme of selecting books from his extensive library to use as firelighters.

The messenger who drags him out of Charo's bed proves to have been sent by Ramón, owner of a local hairdressing business, who commissions Pepe to discover what he can about a dead man recently found in the sea off a bathing beach, whose only identifying feature is a distinctive tattoo. But it has to be strictly private: Ramón doesn't want Pepe to have anything to do with the police investigation.

The tattoo soon leads Pepe to the Netherlands, where he experiences the joys of hippie-era Amsterdam (rijstafel, herring sandwiches, Paradiso, an unwanted bathe in the canal...) and gives us his impressions of The Hague and Rotterdam as well. And it's not long before he knows who the tattooed man was and what he was mixed up in, but that still leaves open the more interesting question of why a backstreet hairdresser should be interested...

Fun, in a predictably dark and cynical way, with some interesting period detail of Barcelona and Holland, and a great deal of outstanding food. ( )
  thorold | Aug 16, 2021 |
Your basic noir mystery: cynical, world-weary, world-worn detective, low-life women, murder, drugs and, of course, a beating for our friend. Except he is a gourmand, a cook, a Catalan who shares recipes. And gets a blurb from a food writer.
I expected more after reading the Buenos Aires Quintet: more politics, more commentary, more life--but this book was written/published in the time of Franco, and I suspect only low life description was possible in those days. ( )
  kerns222 | May 25, 2018 |
This is an early entry in Montalban's series about Pepe Carvalho, a tough-guy private eye in Barcelona. It was written in the 1970's, and Barcelona seems to have been a grimmer and grittier place than it is today. The descriptions of food and travel are interesting, and the story eventually caught hold for me, but the hard-boiled PI -- of any nationality -- is not my favorite hero. Good of its kind, but I doubt I will read another in the series. ( )
  annbury | Aug 9, 2014 |
When I learned on LT that Camilleri named the delightful Inspector Montalbano in homage to Montalbán and his detective protagonist, Pepe Carvalho, I knew I had to read at least one book by him. And while Carvalho and Montalbán can't compare to Montalbano and Camilleri, I mostly enjoyed this book and would probably read more novels about Carvalho.

Pepe Carvalho is a freelance detective and, we learn, former CIA agent, in Franco-era Barcelona; his girlfriend is a prostitute and he carries a gun and a knife around with him. In this book, the owner of a beauty salon asks Carvalho to find out the name of a mysterious man who winds up dead in the water, a man who has a tattoo on his back saying "Born to raise hell in hell." Carvalho is suspicious because the man is paying him a lot for this information when he could go to the police, and in the aftermath of the discovery of the body the police start closing down bars and brothels. Carvalho's investigation takes him to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and then back to Barcelona, with a variety of twists and turns. There was more violence, and more graphic violence, in this novel that in the Camilleris, and some of it was a little disturbing.

Like Montalbano, Carvalho is a gourmet, and the descriptions of the meals he cooked and ate in restaurants were just as delightful as those in Camilleri. The atmospherics of Barcelona and Amsterdam were the strong point of this novel, more so than the plot, although it was ingeniously plotted. And, except for his violent streak, I enjoyed the Carvalho's character.

My edition, published by Melville House in their International Crime series, was marred by sloppy proofreading: "selef" for "self" and a line that broke in the middle of the page for no reason, for example.
  rebeccanyc | Mar 16, 2014 |
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Un cuerpo de hombre joven desnudo sobre la arena, y en la piel, un tatuaje: «He nacido para revolucionar el infierno.» Nace un enigma y nace un investigador privado, Pepe Carvalho, que a lo largo de la historia descubre la azarosa vida de superviviente de un hombre que tenía buena entrada con las mujeres. La retina de Carvalho le permite descubrir las pistas que conducen a la solución, pero también describir el entorno social y sentimental que ha hecho posible el crimen. Tatuaje, primera novela en la que Carvalho ejerce como investigador privado fue llevada al cine por Bigas Luna.
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Manuel Vázquez Montalbánprimary authorall editionscalculated
Caistor, NickTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Era bello e biondo come la birra
sul petto aveva un cuore tatuato
nella sua voce amara c'era la tristezza
addolorata e stanca della fisarmonica" Canzone di Rafael de Leon
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La ragazza dal corpo dorato si tuffò dal pattíno e l'uomo olivastro e calvo diede alcune bracciate decise per avvicinarla, osservare il suo ritorno in superficie, sorprendere il luccichio della carne umida spruzzata dall'acqua e dal sole.
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"One of the finest examples of European 'noir' literature."--John Harvey "Montalb#65533;n writes with authority and compassion--a Le Carr#65533;-like sorrow."--Publishers Weekly Pepe Carvalho, ex-cop, ex-Marxist, and constant gourmet, is working as a private detective in Barcelona when a body is pulled out of the sea, its face so badly destroyed that the only way of indentifying it is through a tattoo that says "Born to raise hell in hell." Manuel V#65533;zquez Montalb#65533;n was born in Barcelona in 1939. He won both the Raymond Chandler Prize and the French Grand Prix of Detective Fiction for his thrillers. He died in 2003.

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