Mendoza’s La aventura
del tocador de señoras:
eccentricities and moral ambiguity in
Perhaps the postmodern motto should be “Hail to the Edges!
the end of Franco’s dictatorship, several new
phenomena appear in Spanish literary culture. The emergence of genres
relatively new to the peninsula, including science fiction and crime
has invited criticism seeking to clarify the position of this
a contemporary cultural context. Critics have attempted to reconcile
changed environment that is post-Franco
a compare and contrast, “then” versus
“now” technique, critics have analyzed the emergence of science
fiction and detective fiction in
Previous investigation has analyzed Spanish crime fiction from an historical or at times Marxist perspective. In essence, to date, detective and crime fiction has been treated more as a historical novelty rather than as a unique expression of Spanish postmodern literature.
Since the mid-1970s, the novela negra, also known as the novela
policíaca, or the Spanish detective novel has experienced
success and growth in
The novela negra is an ironic subversion of the classic ‘whodunit’ novel incorporating a comic, marginalized, anti-hero as the sleuth seeking to find order in a postmodern society lacking both truth and justice. Ultimately, the Spanish detective is the victim of chance and change, rarely finding any resolution to the crimes committed in the novels. Unlike the classic detective novel, solving the crime by identifying the murderer and method of killing is never the primary theme of the novel, but merely a sub-theme of the narrative.
This paper seeks to situate Spanish novela negra or detective fiction within a poetics of postmodernism by acknowledging several characteristics of the genres’ form. The analysis examines Eduardo Mendoza’s novel La aventura del tocador de señoras (2001) in light of Linda Hutcheon’s conceptualization of the postmodern as developed in A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction and demonstrates the existence of an environment of moral ambiguity within contemporary Barcelona society. Moral ambiguity, a feature of postmodern society, destroys clear distinctions between the periphery and the center.
La aventura del tocador de señoras is Eduardo Mendoza’s third novel in the Ceferino series. In the first two novels, El misterio de la cripta embrujada (1978) and El laberinto de las aceitunas (1982), the reader meets the anonymous protagonist, often referred to as Ceferino. The first two novels relate tales of detection led by Ceferino, a patient in an asylum for the mentally ill, at the behest of the police. The supposed clarity of vision provided by the insane patient aids the authorities as they seek to resolve a mystery. In both novels, Ceferino enjoys a temporary relief from his internment while he solves the crime, however, once final conclusions are drawn, he is forced to return to the asylum.
In contrast to El
misterio de la cripta embrujada and El
laberinto de las aceitunas, La aventura del
de señoras marks
a clear break from an established pattern. As a result of the
construction of a
mega-mall complex on the current site of the asylum, Ceferino receives
permanent release in the first chapter of this latest novel. The series
significant turn as Ceferino’s circular path: asylum, society, asylum
permanently disrupted. This rupture indicates a fundamental shift in
series. While the previous novels tend towards a social critique of the
this newest novel, set in post-Olympic
In this third novel, Ceferino attempts to re-establish himself as a reliable, upright, hardworking citizen. When he is approached by the daughter of a wealthy businessman to aid in the self-inflicted robbery of corporate documents from El Caco Español, he makes every effort to avoid involvement. However, fearing that his shady past may be exposed should he not comply, he enters the corporate headquarters and removes a mysterious blue folder from the director’s office. Glancing through the newspaper the next morning, Ceferino discovers the director of the company, Manuel Pardalot, has been assassinated and found dead in his office. Faced with the possibility of being implicated in the murder, Ceferino, undertakes the role of suspect as detective, determined to solve the crime before arrested. As in the previous novels, Ceferino is thrust into survival mode to preserve his own integrity, something that is worth more to him now than ever before. The protagonist must navigate through a maze of eccentric characters in order to unwind the mystery of who killed Pardalot, and the motives behind the murder. Eduardo Mendoza’s novel takes us through a societal labyrinth in pursuit of justice in a contemporary society lacking clear distinctions between right and wrong.
Postmodern Preoccupations: The collapse of center
…the postmodernist novel puts into question that entire series of interconnected concepts that have come to be associated with what we conveniently label as liberal humanism: autonomy, transcendence, certainty, authority, unity, totalization, system, universalization, center, continuity, teleology, closure, hierarchy, homogeneity, uniqueness, origin. (Hutcheon 1988, p. 57)
While classic detective
fiction depends on a clear
distinction between moral versus immoral actions, postmodern detective
like La aventura
If traditional society
consists of a hierarchical
system with power concentrated in the center among a select group of
individuals and a majority existing as marginalized figures on the
society, then what is the nature of postmodern
The modernist concept of single and alienated otherness is challenged by the postmodern questioning of binaries that conceal hierarchies (self/other). Difference suggests multiplicity, heterogeneity, plurality, rather than binary opposition and exclusion. (Hutcheon 1988, p. 61)
The collapse does not displace and supplant the margin with the center and vice versa. It “avoids the trap of reversing and valorizing the other, of making the margin into a center”. Instead, the new class “order”, for lack of a better term, is “plural and provisional” (Hutcheon 65).
In La aventura
Movement whithin the genre
Several types of movement contribute to the devaluing of the center and its collapse in the novel. First, character movement within society exists in both directions. Those having lived on the margins of society, according to Linda Hutcheon’s terminology and adopted here, are referred to as members of “the ex-centric, off-center: ineluctably identified with the center it desires but is denied” (Hutcheon 60). Perhaps the most evident movement of an ex-centric figure is seen through Ceferino’s identity transformation. All of the eccentric characters associated with the margins in the novel experience to a greater or lesser degree a shift towards the center. The transformation or mobility of the self, according to the postmodern theorist, Francois Lyotard is indicative of our time: “a self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before (Lyotard 1984a, p. 15). Ceferino’s movement lies above all in his gaining of lawful and stable employment as a hairdresser in his brother-in-law’s salon. Despite a total lack of experience in the trade, Ceferino obtains “el primer trabajo honrado de mi vida” (60). It is this position, secured with the help of his sister, Cándida that completely alters the protagonist’s engagement with society: “Huelga decir que puse en el empeño toda la energía acumulada en tantos años de ociosidad, toda la ilusión que me infundía la perspectiva de verme finalmente integrado en la sociedad de los hombres…” (30)
Through his new job Ceferino
respetado y muy apreciado en el barrio” (34). Overtime, he
saves money, purchases new clothes and rents an apartment. Ceferino
dress in accordance to his new status and eventually, he proclaims, “me
convertí en un señor de
As a novela
negra, a crime must arise in the novel, and eventually Ceferino
between returning to his criminal past or persevering towards a
When trouble walks through the door, Ceferino is on the brink of
“Creu de San Jordi” and determined to flee any scandal, he rejects
the proposition to be involved with a seemingly minor crime despite a
monetary reward. He expresses his desire not to be involved with any
Soy un hombre honrado, un ciudadano ejemplar, y ni siquiera argumentos tan convincentes como los que usted esgrime, muestra e insinúa lograrán apartarme del recto caminar. No cuente conmigo, salvo en lo que atañe a la discreción. (46)
Whereas in previous novels, Ceferino lacks moral judgement, he now pledges himself to remain on the straight and narrow.
experiences considerable movement away from the periphery and towards
center. In the previous two novels, Cándida, a popular
In addition to character transformation, the spatial periphery undergoes an urban renewal. Cándida notes Ceferino’s shock at the renaissance of the off-center neighborhood and the ex-centric individuals that once-typified the area: “El negocio familiar va viento en popa, gozamos de una posición acomodada…Los tiempos han cambiado hombre.” (24)
Indeed, times changed and the
marginal areas around
If the eccentric ex-centric’s
movement towards the center in the novel, a counterbalancing movement
of the center
towards the margins also exists. While the traditional order associates
criminality with the marginalized subaltern, the proposition to commit
in this novel comes from a centric character, a wealthy
When the supposed daughter of
Manuel Pardalot, offers Ceferino a million pesetas in order to enter
Pardalot’s office and steal a file, thereby feigning a theft of
whose existence threatens the integrity of the business, Ceferino is
By threatening to undermine his progress towards the center, the
characters force him to act in defense of his reputation. The
Hemos removido cielo y tierra hasta dar con usted, en quien concurren las características más idóneas para este tipo de trabajo por la fama de que goza en el barrio, por el modo ejemplar con que está labrándose un futuro al frente de su magnífica peluquería, y por supuesto, por las peculiaridades de su pasado…(52)
Ceferino hopes that his good reputation will prove strong enough to exonerate him. For the first time in his life, Ceferino must rely on his reputation as an upright citizen. Pardalot mentions the vulnerability of the center whilst negotiating the crime: “Es natural: un proletario, haga lo que haga, nunca corre el riesgo de dejar de serlo. En cambio un rico, al menor descuido, se encuentra en el más absoluto desamparo.” (50) Marginal figures, or the proletariat, cannot fall from the center or move to the periphery. The wealthy, or the centric, however, fall from grace. In the words of the mayor of Barcelona: “en Barcelona la circulación es muy fluida a todas horas y en toda red viaria” (306).
In the novel, each character
typically associated with
the center of society is corrupt. The nature of their business,
in the case of the mayor of
Manuel Pardalot and his associates owned multiple businesses whose failure resulted from, “fraude fiscal, blanqueo de dinero, tráfico ilegal de personas o cosas o una mezcla de todo lo antedicho” (185). Agustín Taberner’s abominable performance in his legal studies and the shared “moral” principals of his society exemplify the corruption that characterizes the center. One learns that the motive for the crime was personal revenge. Accused of disloyalty by his associates, Taberner was forced to surrender all assets related to their businesses and to retire. According to Ivet, “mi padre quedó al margen…arruinado, enfermo” (261).
The centric figures hide their scandals in the hope that their corruption remains veiled and their authority thereby protected. In a private meeting with Abelardo Arderiu, another prominent, wealthy businessman and associate of Pardalot, Ceferino is told: “Yo soy parte de una conjura y mi mujer es parte de una conjura y tengo motivos para pensar que mi conjura y la conjura de mi mujer son dos conjuras diferentes…tengo motivos para pensar que actuamos en bandos opuestos.” (160)
The center appears caught up in a labyrinth of lawlessness in which no clear alliances are drawn and everyone is a player in a conspiratorial plot. Santi, the bodyguard and private investigator to nearly all of the centric figures is most aware of these alliances. He contributes to the unwinding of the mystery by reminding the characters of the inbred nature of their relationships, “la cuestión es saber quién pertenece a un grupo y quién a otro, y quién, al proclamar sus lealtades, dice la verdad o miente” (307).
The mayor of
What is at the root of the
collapse of center and the
resulting movement between the center and the periphery? The critic
that an overwhelming sense of moral ambiguity operates to destabilize
notions of morality, order and hierarchy within the novel. For Ceferino
succeed in society to make wise decisions that will allow him to stay
the asylum, he must first distinguish between good and evil and then
consciously choose what is right. Problematically, however, Ceferino
that his society, postmodern
Moral ambiguity acts as the compelling force behind both the collapse of an identifiable center and the movement and flux between the modern center and periphery. As Manuel Pardalot explains to the protagonist in the beginning of the novel, “vivimos en la era de la imagen, y yo quiero dar una buena imagen” (50). The visual, the illusory, the image operate as benchmarks for morality. The very nature of the crime, a self-inflicted robbery is indicative of the blurred line between right and wrong. The conspirators tell Ceferino, “…la operación es sólo una falsa operación. No del todo correcta, pero tampoco ilegal” (50).
Centric figures throughout the novel describe their society using corrupt or morally questionable characterizations. In one of his encounters with the mayor, Ceferino is told, “…una sociedad como la nuestra no funciona si no se untan de cuando en cuando los engranajes” (153). In the same scene, one of two episodes in the novel that consists of an all-character meeting to gather the accumulated evidence, Reinona, the wife of one of the corrupt associates concludes, “en una sociedad civilizada como la nuestra todos dan su aquiescencia y nadie da las órdenes” (153). The decay of the center, represented symbolically by the city itself, does not go unnoticed, however. One prominent lawyer in the novel declares, “el día menos pensado la ciudad va a colapsar” (306).
The absence of an ethical code governing their society leaves each to operate in his or her own interests. Not even reason, a fundamental measure by which one may predict the actions of others, functions within their society. In his contemplation of his electoral campaign, the mayor entertains the opposition’s assertion that they are capable of governing more effectively, “Tal vez tengan razón, pero ¿desde cuándo la razón es un argumento válido?”(133). Again, a staple of liberal humanism, the ability to employ reason to find justice, is undermined.
When Ceferino’s initially resists involvement in the crime, Manuel Pardalot and his daughter Ivet appear perplexed at his apparently strong moral compass. They attempt to ridicule the protagonist by trivializing his morality: “A juzgar por su actitud, por sus modales y sobre todo por su forma de vestir, usted debe ser de los que aún se empeñan vanamente en distinguir entre el bien y el mal. (50)
The attempt to distinguish between good and evil is characterized as a vain and naïve effort on behalf of Ceferino. The master narrative of good and evil provides fruit for humor and cynicism. Ultimately, Ceferino is mocked and told that his justification for not accepting the task is based on, “estúpidas razones éticas” (50).
The ultimate indication of
moral ambiguity is a
reaffirmation of Linda Hutcheon’s assertion postmodern order is
“plural and provisional”. Several months after the conclusion of
the crime, while working in the salon, Ceferino is interrupted by a
fellow inmate, Cañuto, whom he has not seen since the day of
release. Eager to catch up, Ceferino, inquires, “¿No has vuelto
robar bancos?” (381). Cañuto explains that due to advances in
technology and security, his profession has become more difficult. The
protagonist however reassures his friend, “Cuanta más
tecnología más sencillo debe ser dar el golpe” (381),
thereby calling into question the stability of Ceferino’s movement
towards the center. The ultimate blow is dealt in the final sentences
novel. Ceferino begins to negotiate a
joint project with Cañuto: “…desde hacía
unos días me rondaban la cabeza o por la cabeza, porque ya
invertidos en la peluquería ilusión, tiempo y esfuerzos
y si finalmente me decidía a imprimir a mi vida un sesgo
habilidades de Cañuto podían resultarme de mucha
utilidad.” (382) Was
Ceferino’s movement purely temporary or
“provisional”? Given the postmodern nature of his society, the
certainty of his commitment to the moral or, for that matter the
Movement of the genre
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