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Saturday, 19 September 2009

Eugenio Fuentes: Contrarreloj(Race Against Time)

Published by:  Barcelona: Editorial Tusquets, 2009.  334 pages.  18 €

Translated by Daniel Griffiths (Mantra )

It is unlikely that anyone has done as much harm to bicycle racing as Eufemiano Fuentes, a man who turned the huge admiration towards certain sportsmen, who were always seen as supermen, into suspicion.  Accused of practices such as autotransfusion and injecting growth hormones into many professional cyclists, Fuentes singlehandedly turned cycling into a kind of laboratory in which it wasn’t the best athlete who won, but the cyclists who best knew how to conceal the fact that they were cheating.As French cyclist Hinault once put it, “the donkeys were becoming race horses.”  While one Fuentes, first name Eufemiano, along with his dodgy medical practices, contributed to destroying the good image of racing, another Fuentes, first name Eugenio, seems adamant to clean it up.  A frequent touring cyclist and enthusiast, Eugenio Fuentes, who hails from Cáceres, has just had his book Contrarreloj (Race Against Time) published by Tusquets.  It is, among other things, a tribute to the cycling world.  We say among other things because there are many more sides to a story like this, sides which show the excellence of an author who, paradoxically, is more successful abroad than in his native Spain.
ImageContrarreloj forms part of the series of books featuring detective Ricardo Cupido, which is made up of titles such as El interior del bosque (Inside The Forest), La sangre de los Ángeles (Blood of Angels), Las manos del pianista (The Pianist’s Hands) and Cuerpo a Cuerpo (Body to Body).  Cupido is a solitary, sagacious man about whom the reader knows next to nothing.  During the saga of novels, we slowly find out more and more personal details about him, so the series can be seen as a constant investigation of his character.  This isn’t without reason; Fuentes has even stated on a few occasions that “If I knew everything about Cupido, I’d stop writing about him.”  Such a statement isn’t merely trivial, as the author is above all an “investigator of biographies,” a writer who is determined to present the fictional characters who star in his books in a realistic way.  They are novels in which everything seems real and in which the criminal activity that causes Cupido to come on the scene are stories that aren’t made up of gangsters or hit men, just ordinary people with whom the reader can identify.   In reality, crimes aren’t as sophisticated or gratuitous as they are portrayed in some films or novels; in reality crimes are dramatic and are often the result of weakness.  For this reason compassion is shown towards the victim and towards the criminal – they are both interesting because they are human beings, not because of the role they play in the story.
In contrast to the other books in the series, Contrarreloj is not set in the imaginary Breda, which helps to set the scene of the stories, but in France.  As much of a fan of cycling as his creator, Cupido travels to the Pyrenees for a few days break.  He is there to witness the climb to the peak of the ever-challenging Tourmalet summit and to watch the Tour de France’s convoy of cyclists make their way through the mountainous region.  In keeping with all the classic crime stories, in which criminal activity seems to follow the detective wherever they go, Cupido’s peaceful holiday is cut short and the race thrown into turmoil when someone is found murdered.  The leader of the race, a big-headed, arrogant man who always does what he wants despite the dislike his fellow cyclists express towards him, is found dead in his hotel room with signs of violence on his body.  Contracted to investigate the crime by the manager of one of the teams on the Tour, inspector Cupido must follow the group of cyclists to find the killer.
For this reason, the first half of the book concentrates on describing the bike race.  However, Fuentes does not resort to stereotyping when painting the picture of the participants or their achievements – quite the opposite.  What he does is portray, in an unusually lifelike way, the everyday world of cycling, which is quite different to how it is normally shown during the TV broadcasts.  He shows that bike racing goes beyond the fight for victory and the fight against nature the riders face.  Behind the scenes it’s a much less glamorous world, made up of the daily routine of hotels, mechanics and masseurs, even the constant harassment of fans and reporters.  We find out what happens after crossing the finishing line and the broadcasts are over.  All of these aspects of the sport, along with drug taking, are witnessed by Cupido.  In his investigation, which isn’t dissimilar to those carried out by Maigret in his cases, he has to interview the majority of the participants on the Tour.
From a content point of view, the book shows off the author’s ability to create unforgettable characters, such as “Avispa” (wasp) Panal and the Calatayud family, and for his ability to string together a believable plot filled with mystery in a sporting environment. Regarding Fuentes’ style, Contrarreloj once again reinforces his knack for writing crime novels.  His way of building tension and, above all, his hypnotic, fluid and brilliant style of writing means he’s leading the race when it comes to Spanish literature.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 17 January 2010 )
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