John Banville: April In Spain


The Gerts spent a memorable few days in San Sebastián some years ago, so John Banville’s new book in the Quirke series just had to be read.  The morose Quirke is on holiday (unwillingly) in San Sebastián with his fairly new wife Evelyn, and even he is seduced by its easeful beauty. The very good local wine doesn’t hurt, either. But Quirke doesn’t know how to relax, and when he meets a young Irish woman who stirs up some kind of memory, he worries at the memory until he realises she’s a girl who’s supposed to be dead.  What is she doing here in San Sebastián under an assumed name?

Fron this chance meeting we’re taken back into the murky waters of Irish politics (the girl is a member of a prominent political family) and into the Graham Greeneish world of the hired killer Terry Tice, who bears a strong resemblance to Pinkie in Brighton Rock – and who actually reads Brighton Rock while he’s plotting his San Sebastián hit. Banville obviously enjoys doing his Greene impersonation, and he does it very well. There’s a long and enjoyable build-up to the denouement of April In Spain: it’s a pleasure to immerse yourself in the slow rhythm of a holiday by the sea in the Basque country, and like a dash of cold rain to be thrown in and out of the narrative back in Dublin:

The Minister put a hand to his forehead. Sweat glistened on his upper lip.

“Send someone down there,” he said. “Send someone to deal with her.”

“To deal with her?” Gallagher repeated, lifting an eyebrow.

“Aye – to get her away from there, away from – whatever.” He leaned forward heavily and set his fists on the desk, his big shoulders hunched. “To send her” – he lowered his voice to a whisper – “somewhere else.” 

Ned Gallagher again echoed him.

“Somewhere else?”

“That’s right. To some other place.”

They looked at each other in silence for a long moment. Then Gallagher said, “That’s a tall order, Minister, if I understand rightly what it is you’re saying.”

Tying these two worlds together is the dangerous but slightly ridiculous figure of little Terry Tice, with his neatly-buttoned overcoat and slightly-too-short trousers:

He looked so cocksure, standing there sneering at the display of books he would never read, that her heart went out to him. It was plain he wasn’t what he imagined himself to be, and didn’t dream the rest of the world only had to look at him to know it.

The book begins with the killer Terry and ends with the two politicians who hired him. The brief idyll of San Sebastián glows between these two dark realities:

Never to be lost, the memory of that moment already receding from him, with the big-bellied curtain and the sun in the window and, beyond, the indigo-blue sea stretching off to a blurred horizon.  

This is the better side of Banville these days for me, work that is rich in visual and sensuous detail and complex characterization, without the self-conscious artistry that the Gerts have criticised in his more recent straight books. That special San Sebastián glow will stay in my memory.   

13 thoughts on “John Banville: April In Spain

  1. San Sebastian is a city I’d love to visit at some point – quite a foodie location, I believe. I’ve never read John Banville but this one does sound like a potential way in. I’ll keep it in mind.

    1. It’s a wonderful place. Excellent food, and a terrific spa complex called La Perla. They have a film festival too. This would be a good start if you haven’t read Banville, though it’s not the “high art” Banville. The other one that might interest you is The Untouchable, which has an art historian based on Anthony Blunt.

  2. We spent a memorable February in Spain once. The weather wasn’t the greatest but still better than being at home in Canada.

  3. Interesting. I’ve not liked him since I read a horrible book with a man finishing off a half-dead woman in the back of his car which I had to read for a short-lived book group I was in! But he has more fans than not, I feel!

    1. His first books (Athena, The Book Of Evidence) were unlike anything else I’ve read, but he seems to have certain themes that he goes on and on about and less and less interestingly in his “high art” work (He called it that himself, the pompous ass). The crime novels are a different branch of his work though and free from that tiresome self-regard.

      1. I think it was The Book of Evidence. But that’s from combing through his Wikipedia page. I’ve apparently read The Untouchable, too, but have no memory of that!

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