Walking the Lions

by Stephen Burgen

Published by Carroll & Graf

288 pages, 2002


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Barcelona Stroll

Reviewed by Caroline Cummins


On the road, the temptation to write can be irresistible. Placing pen to paper is, of course, a way of attempting to make sense of things, and a useful tool when the shock of the new feels overwhelming. But most of us never venture past the occasional travel diary, filled with notes on weird foods and strange customs, then forgotten in a drawer after the trip is over. We don't often get the chance to spend years living in exotic locations, studying the locals, learning their language, trying to understand them. For that, we need such writers as Stephen Burgen.

Burgen, a journalist, lives in Barcelona and writes about Spain for The Times of London. Walking the Lions, his first novel, is both a love letter and a character study of Barcelona, woven into a classic suspense plot. At times, it tries too hard, but the book's strong descriptions and tensions outweigh its sprawling plot and occasional cultural confusion.

The central character is Alex Nadal, a New York piano player of Cuban and Catalan descent. His father, a Catalan who fled the Iberian Peninsula in the late 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, had always told his children that his sister had died during that war from tuberculosis. So Alex is startled to learn that his Aunt Anna, far from dying young, has lived to a ripe old age and, upon her recent death, bequeathed her small Catalonian farm to him. He'd like to question his father about this confusing state of affairs, but he can't; his father threw himself from a bridge the previous year, leaving behind a suicide note referencing a mysterious Civil War tragedy. Bewildered, intrigued and anxious to uncover his family's secrets, Nadal drops everything and heads for Barcelona.

On arrival, he promptly starts meeting a dazzling and occasionally sinister array of locals. There's Miguel Montero, his aunt's attorney, a soft-spoken, gentle man with "dark sorrowing pools" for eyes. There's Montero's sister, Carmen, a journalist also blessed with "dark elliptical mirrors" for eyes and ample sex appeal. There's the elegant Montserrat Cases, another attorney, who offers Alex a large sum for his aunt's farm on behalf of an unnamed client. And lingering in the background are various unsavory and unusual characters: the fish-eyed man who stalks Alex at the airport, the junkie teenager who trails him around town, the slightly off-kilter hotel proprietor who dances an impromptu rumba for him. Best of all are the peixateras, the saleswomen at the Barcelona fish markets:

To get you to buy their fish they came on like hookers. Each wore a frilly white apron and had dyed hair -- either jet black or platinum blonde. All were in full make-up, with a pronounced penchant for bright blue and turquoise eye shadow. They called out to passing trade, men and women alike: "Hey, good looking, Over here my love, Oh, my queen, how gorgeous you are, come see what I have here." ... It was sweet and funny and sexy and shameless and at the same time curiously chaste. He loved it, he answered back and flirted with them and for a few minutes he forgot about everything else.

Alex may be the main character, followed closely by his romantic interest, Carmen, but Burgen refuses to plod around in their footsteps. His breathtakingly brief chapters -- some are less than three pages long -- play like vivid scenes in a swiftly edited movie. We follow Alex for a few pages, witnessing his struggle with local bureaucrats, then hop with Carmen to a funeral of a fellow journalist, then drop in on a powerful thug (the fish-eyed man from the airport) as he menaces a civil servant. All these unrelated events, naturally, turn out to be pieces of a larger puzzle: how Alex's family mystery from the Spanish Civil War is wrapped up in a current political and economic scheme.

Burgen keeps the reader's interest by ending nearly every chapter with a teaser, from ironic humor (Miguel asking Alex, "Ever get the feeling you're in somebody's way?") to classic cliffhanger ("Then his father told him a terrible story, so terrible Raul could hardly bear to listen"). To Burgen's credit, most of the buildup surrounding the Civil War tragedy goes toward a satisfying payoff, although the exact reasons for Alex's father's suicide are left unclear. It's the explanations of the modern-day shenanigans that fail to resolve quite so well. Enticing references to Roger de Flor, a colorful medieval adventurer, turn out to be merely code phrases for a land scheme. A political sex scandal, complete with an incriminating videotape, happens along a little too conveniently. And -- unusual in a suspense novel -- the bad guys don't all get their just desserts at the end. But that very refusal to tie up every loose end gives the book a refreshing touch of familiarity, of real lives messily lived instead of messy lives cleaned up tidily.

Given the large cast of characters in Walking the Lions, it's hard to see how Burgen expected to do them all justice in this novel of only 288 pages. Plenty of them are mere stock characters, thugs and corrupt politicians and the like, who play their roles and leave the stage without regret. But several bear the stamp of genuine personality, and they tend to drop out of this novel too soon. Miguel and Montserrat, for example, vanish just when we're getting to know them and their private lives. And it would be nice to know more of the inner workings of Salvador Oriol, the so-called "King of Catalunya," who turns out to hold the key to both Alex's family mystery and the present-day plottings. He's so outlandish a character, and at the same time so authentic, that it's a shame he doesn't earn himself a more in-depth portrait.

The rapid entrances and exits of Burgen's many vibrant characters may be an intentional homage to the weird and wonderful array of oddballs in the children's classic Alice in Wonderland. Alex overtly compares himself to Alice (he even has a similar name) when he finds himself confused by the alien culture surrounding him. (In exchange for gossip at a village store, he purchases a video copy of the Disney cartoon.) He's a familiar type from plenty of innocents-abroad novels: the determined, ignorant, trying-to-be-sensitive foreigner placing demands on a culture that doesn't want to accommodate him. Other writers living abroad have written similar novels of strangers in strange lands, including Robert Stone (Damascus Gate) and Richard Zimler (The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon). But the saga of the slightly down-and-out guy trying to redeem himself by solving a mystery is the specialty of Robert Goddard, the British author of such books as Past Caring and Out of the Blue. Alex tries to make his hard work redemptive, but nobody in Barcelona seems to care. Not even Miguel:

They stood in the street outside the bar breathing in the powerful odour of drains.

"How come they don't do something about that?" Alex said.

"Like what? Tear the city down? For centuries people have been building on top of buildings. Lots of the houses in the old city are medieval at street level but by the fifth floor you're in the early twentieth century. Some are built on Roman ruins, some even on Iron Age camps. Whenever they got a chance, people built another floor on top without really thinking about what was underneath. So now the drains can't cope. But you can't just go up to someone who's lived in one of these old houses all their life and say, 'Terribly sorry, but we're going to tear your home down because there's an appalling smell of shit coming from underneath it.'"

"This is another one of your allegories, isn't it?"

"Yes and no. It is literally true that that's how the city grew up, but I'm also trying to say that's how we live, on top of our past, layer upon layer. We can smell the shit, same as you, but we've got used to it. You have to if you want to live here. You say you want to get to the bottom of things, well, I'm telling you it's a long way down."

A bureaucrat who writes poetry in his spare time dismisses Alex's quest as "walking the lions." Confused yet again, Alex demands an explanation. Walking the lions, it turns out, was the rather hazardous duty assigned to persecuted Jews by a Spanish king with too many pet lions on his hands. In other words, a task more trouble than it's worth. And in a country only a few-score years out of a rancorous civil war, nobody wants to walk the lions. When Alex tries to convince Carmen that he's only looking for justice for his family, she brushes him off:

"No, you don't, you want vengeance. So do a lot of people, and who can blame them. The thing is, once you start down that road, there's no end to it. Look at ..."

"Don't tell me, look what happened in Sarajevo."

"Well, look at it. You think that can't happen here? They didn't think it could happen there either. Everyone says Sarajevo was a model of tolerance, live and let live. It was one of the most civilized cities on Earth."

"Evidently the cat got out of the bag. These things have to be faced."

"And they have to be lived with. What happened to your father and your aunt was terrible, a terrible injustice they had to live with. And then when he couldn't bear it any longer your father killed himself. So now that's something terrible you have to live with. But live with it, Alex. Don't get stuck."

"I've come this far, I can't just walk away."

While the book is written in English, the characters are presumed, most of the time, to be speaking in Castilian Spanish or Catalan. It's difficult to remember this fact when the characters are so fluent in English idioms, and more so when strange cultural anomalies crop up. Alex is a native New Yorker, yet he tends to use British terminology, such as "car hire office" and "spanner." It's unclear whether this cultural fluidity is a sign of modern globalization or just of Burgen's own habits of speech and cultural preference. Especially since, throughout this book, Burgen exerts himself to introduce the reader to all sorts of Catalonian details: Arabs selling butane bottles to housewives, arguments over whether the rumba is Catalan or Cuban, even lengthy meals of traditional Catalan dishes. Salvador Oriol doesn't just have a drink, he sips "a glass of orxata, an opalescent drink made from tiger nuts." Yes, at times it feels a bit like paging through a guidebook, but the colorful touches are memorable. Alex may be the reader's stand-in, the bewildered tourist, but Burgen makes us feel like we're in the know. Welcome to Barcelona. | July 2002


Caroline Cummins is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. She recently profiled historical novelist Steven Saylor for January Magazine.