Eduardo Mendoza's award-winning international bestseller, The City of Marvels, is an extraordinary tale of a fabulous city on the sea. Originally published in Spanish in 1986, it was later translated into English by Bernard Molloy for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. in 1988. In this adventurous novel, the young protagonist, Onofre Bouvila, begins his lonely journey to Barcelona, a city with its own lifestyle, language and hierarchy. He goes to the city to find wealth. Throughout his life, Bouvila discovers how much corruption there is in Barcelona. He also meets people who help him fulfill his purpose in Barcelona.
The novel begins with Bouvila searching for a place to stay. As he wanders through the streets of Barcelona, he comes across Señor Braulio, a homeowner who rents out rooms. Bouvila decides to move into Braulio's boardinghouse. In order to pay his rent, Bouvila finds work distributing anarchist pamphlets, a job arranged by Delfina, Señor Braulio's daughter. Delfina is a frail and raggedy girl for whom Onofre develops an unhealthy obsession. Despite his attractions, love does not interfere with his main objective: To be an affluent and powerful man. Bouvila is sent to distribute the anarchist pamphlets at the 1888 World Fair construction site. By working at the World Fair, he is able to establish connections with people who later further his career. Initially, Bouvila is earning a very low pay by distributing the pamphlets. Later, he sells stolen merchandise from the world fair site and then joins a mob that virtually runs the city, and eventually becomes its leader. Through his innate sense of Catalan industrialism, manipulation and determination, he becomes a rich and important man who tricks and uses people. Two of the major themes of Bouvila's tale are place construction and the problems of urbanization in Barcelona.
Place construction is the term used to describe the attempt that Barcelona makes to portray itself to the rest of Spain and the rest of the world that it is important and a global city. To do this, Barcelona hosts two World Fairs which result in the selling of its history, culture, architecture, and people. Interestingly, the publication of this novel coincides historically with another era of place construction, the preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
The second theme is the problems of urbanization which have made Barcelona an uncomfortable and expensive place to live. Only a few areas were developed. This happened with the reality speculation and selective renovation which has occurred throughout Barcelona's history. Although Barcelona developed over time, it became congested and costly. Corruption led to construction of low quality housing. Instead of developing social classes, the poor were displaced. As a result, the rich became more rich and the poor became more poor with no middle class.
Even though the novel is fictional, it is based on historical fact, making it a dazzling piece of literature. The reader will learn about Barcelona, and still be entertained. I recommend The City of Marvels to anyone visiting Barcelona, because it contains everything one needs to know about it.