Jason Webster: writing about Spain
The problem with writing crime novels focussing on corruption and wrong-doing in Spain – and in particular the city of Valencia – is that there is an embarrassment of riches in the news which, as a writer of fiction, I sometimes find difficult to compete against.
Here are a handful of stories from the past weeks, from Valencia alone: a former leading member of the ruling party has been given an eight-year sentence for embezzling as much as €2 million of public money intended for charity projects in the developing world; the former owner of Valencia football club has been arrested for planning the kidnapping of his successor, who he accuses of owing him €85 million; and the deputy mayor of the city has been implicated in a major on-going corruption scandal centred around King Juan Carlos’s son-in-law.
Previous stories have involved a hard-drinking lesbian Mayoress, and a one-eyed provincial president responsible for building one of Spain’s now internationally notorious plane-less airports. (I was once given an award for services to local tourism there at an elaborate gala dinner – weeds were growing out of the walls and the lights went out half-way through the evening. Years after it was completed, it is still waiting for its first passengers to arrive.)
Trying to write novels in this setting, with such a wealth of material and larger-than-life – even cartoonish – characters, the age-old phrase ‘You couldn’t make it up’ flashes in my mind with almost boring regularity. How could I possibly improve on what’s already out there?
But there is more to it than unbelievable news stories. Behind all these tales of corruption and scandal lie very human tragedies – tales of ordinary folk being ill-treated by the people who are supposed to look after their interests. For all those misspent or stolen millions, people lose their jobs, hospitals and chemists run out of basic medicines, and a whole generation loses hope for the future. As a result of the economic crisis hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have voted with their feet and left the country altogether looking for work. Those that have remained grind on, hoping – and not always managing – to get by. The numbers of people relying on food banks to survive has skyrocketed in recent years: twenty per cent of the population is now living below the poverty line.
These are some of the stories I try to get across in my Max Cámara crime series, particularly in my latest novel, Blood Med, which deals directly with how the crisis in Spain has affected such a fundamental right as health care.
The problems in the country, however, are more wide-reaching and possibly explosive. Almost every institution has lost public confidence in recent years, not least the monarchy, which serves as an important glue holding the fractured nation together. King Juan Carlos has just announced his abdication – and in Blood Med I imagine a similar constitutional crisis after his health dramatically worsens. How will Spain react now? There are already loud calls for a referendum to decide on whether the country should ditch the monarchy. The previous experiment with republicanism, in the 1930s, was crushed by Franco in the bloody Civil War. The consequences of what has happened this week may take some time to play out, but I wonder if Spain will exist in the same form as it does now in, say, ten years’ time. Perhaps less.
All the novels in the Max Cámara series are based on my experiences living in Spain – the details of everyday life, the passions and concerns of ordinary people – but with Blood Med there is a subtle shift: here I am projecting forwards a little, imagining a near future where the rottenness at the heart of the political class has come fully to the fore.
But again, it is not always easy to keep up with events on the ground: far-Right thugs operating as security guards play an important role in the novel. Just after I finished writing it, the Spanish government announced it was giving policing powers to private security firms. One of the largest of these, based in Valencia, is a front for a far-Right party – who will now be able to act in an official role as auxiliary police…
The adage is that a people get the government they deserve. To me, this has always seemed harsh in Spain, where human decency and warmth are common currency. The vision in my book for its future is dark: I hope that the reality is much brighter.
A big thank you to Jason Webster for sharing with us his inspiration for his books, the very real and dramatic events taking place in Spain. With the abdication of King Juan Carlos this week it seems Jason Webster is writing about these events before they happen! We’ll be discussing on Facebook the nature of fact and fiction in crime writing so head on over and join the debate!