A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson

The small death in this 1999 novel is a kind of culmination of larger deaths, as we begin in the 1990s with the rape and murder of a young girl in Lisbon and then are switched to Portugal in the 1940s and that country’s role in aiding the German cause that resulted in the deaths of millions in World War II. Indeed, for the rest of this novel, we alternate between the recent small-scale story and the earlier large-scale story. Can there be a connection between the two?

One story concerns Lisbon Inspector Ze Coelho‘s investigation of the girl’s death, and the other the adventures of Klaus Felsen, a German factory owner conscripted into the SS, and who is assigned to smuggle wolfram out of Portugal for the German war effort. Felsen later is ordered to smuggle German gold into Portugal and to set up a bank in order to preserve the gold, and we follow his fortunes postwar as the bank he helps set up reaches international prominence. And as the time frame narrows between the two stories, we do begin to wonder how, or will, these two stories ever come together.

The search for the girl’s killer is rather routine, with the inspector interviewing the girl’s family, including her powerful father, a lawyer, and various people on the fringes of society who know of the secret life that led to her murder. The wolfram adventures of Felsen are also routine for an espionage novel, as he works underground with the head of the Abrantes, a Portuguese peasant family, to set up the supply chain. In fact, his relationship with them continues after the war, as the sons use the banking gold to create a new and prosperous image for themselves with no ties to the past.

Despite what I find to be somewhat formulaic adventures in both the present and the past, this work has earned laurels from many crime critics. But for me it gradually became a disappointment. In part, because the pursuit, in one case of facts and in another case of fulfillment, seemed to be reaching no conclusion. Interest heightened only when the stories of Coelho and Felsen become personal. When they introduced sexual or family relationships, or when sudden violence was required because one’s reputation or one’s survival was threatened. This also results in a number of brutal murders that do, if only briefly, heighten the dramatic tension. As a small counterbalance, however, the author, as a resident himself, is very effective at using streets, plazas, and landmarks to ground these various adventures in a real Portugal.

One waits to learn the connection between these two tales, the girl’s murder and the earlier maneuvering with, first, the wolfram and then the gold. When the connection comes, it begins as a generational link, an obvious but arbitrary outcome that disappoints. And then come the details, which are quite complicated, as in many a mystery. The details involve teenage prostitution, obscure characters playing major roles, a major character taken out of commission, a family rape and revenge, the innocent being guilty, the truly guilty not participating in the deaths, and, finally, the irony of an illegitimate birth.

Given both the violent acts and the sexual activity of these characters, The New York Times review by Richard Bernstein speculates positively about author Wilson’s intent in writing this crime novel “It as though Mr. Wilson wants to draw a private, personal parallel to the organized breakdown of civilized behavior represented by the Nazis, the idea that mass murder engineered by a mad ideology has its microscopic counterpart in individual acts of sexual domination and cruelty.”

But Bernstein also says the novel is “not persuasive in absolutely every detail” and that the author “overdoes matters” towards the end, resulting in a kind of “lurid indiscriminateness.” Which remarks reflect my own opinion. That there is too much authorial ambition here. Too arbitrary an effort in trying to connect past and present. And there are too many complications, with too many characters, some obscure, playing too significant a role, as the author tries to make sense of their complicated relationships.

I have another Wilson novel to read, about a police inspector in Sevilla, and, while I have enjoyed the author’s work in the past, I am not sure how eagerly I should look forward to a work that appears to be similar to this Lisbon story. (December, 2018)

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