“Most of us spend much of our time in spaces made and previously occupied by
other people, usually people of the more or less distant past. We might
reasonably expect our everyday surroundings to feel
haunted but, by and large, they don’t.
Haunting is still relatively unusual”
Patrick Keiller, The Robinson Institute
The London 2012 Olympic Games slotted into London’s geography like any other product of corporate British urban redevelopments of the last, say, twenty years. It wasn’t so much a creating of the Olympics as a continuation of the obsessively and mindlessly ‘new’ that so much of actual London is unnaturally being forced to co-exist alongside. But then what is actual London anyway? It’s a city that seems to carry all of its time periods on display all at once. China Miéville describes London as “walking through a broken time machine”; any street in London somehow seems to not only exhibit the architecture of the past but it also keeps it alive as if the past isn’t allowed to disappear into echoes and memory. So when you get something like the 2012 Olympic Park, something that was built a little bit too easily, a little bit too in keeping with the chuck-them-up flimsiness of much of London’s increasingly disorienting skyline, it feels as if it’s part of a city that may, one day, be in danger of not being seen in terms of its own historical context but only in terms of a perpetual ‘now’; the ‘now’ of keep looking at me. Keep looking.
Twenty years ago, Barcelona hosted the Olympics. The city’s urban redevelopment in the name of finding a foot hold on the Global Stage was a different story. Barcelona was neglected, and since the fall of Franco’s state in 1975, had gone through a series of political and industrial upheavals. The factories and the docks were all but abandoned, and with them Barcelona’s significant rebellious past was also left to rust. This is the Barcelona as presented by Detective Pepe Carvalho in An Olympic Death. Carvalho’s profession allows him to do two things; it allows him to remain intrinsically linked to his city from the subversion of crime to the higher echelons of the worlds of politics and law. It also allows him to take his clients (and by proxy, us readers) on psychogeographic odysseys into a liminal Barcelona – a Barcelona between the spectres of its past and its inevitable capitalist identity to come. Carvalho takes us everywhere – the old town, with its drugs, public homosexuality, hedonism, and all manner of other alternative lifestyles. He takes us to the wealthiest parts of the city, where the activities risks being completely alienating. He takes us into the past also, to the nocturnal world of abandoned industrial heritage:
“All those warehouses, those factories… like archeological remains fleetingly reoccupied by transient, ethereal industries of dreams… sculptors, photographers…”
In Carvalho’s Barcelona, two different forces are encroaching on the city’s identity, that of the transient hedonism of artistic expression, and the much more permanent re-location of urban development. Both offer nothing of a recognition of Barcelona of the past. And in his capacity for remembrance of the past and comparison with the present, Carvalho, the entertaining, postmodern lone sleuth, is the ultimate subversive. He is immune from Spain’s epidemic ‘Culture of Forgetting’. He remembers that Franco’s troops executed Catalan political leaders and other rebel forces on Montjuïc, the spot where the Olympic stadium could bury the past forever. He recognises the dissonance of individuals who once held political office in the rebellion against the dictatorship now working in offices to ensure the correct hospitality for world-class athletes and worldwide corporate sponsorship.
For much of the western world, 1992 was year zero for Barcelona. It was suddenly an event city, the cool place in Spain to visit, to experience authentic Catalan culture, to go to the Olympics, to see Gaudí’s architecture for yourself, and then to leave. Tourism became the city’s industry, and with it a new, ephemeral sense of identity. Carvalho embodies this sense of disorientation; the lack of familiarity that comes to one’s own city when it goes through the corporate meat grinder in the name of urban redevelopment.
Except of course London didn’t go through such an upheaval. As previously alluded, the preparation, arrival and departure of the Olympics in 2012 was all parr the course of corporate London, a place seemingly psychotically intent on sustaining the atemporality of somebody’s ideological image of the place (but who? Boris Johnson? the City? Westminster? It might be too much of a migraine to get to the bottom of that one.) London 2012 was never going to be a ‘classic’ of Olympic architecture because the Olympics are not in the business of architecture. They are in the business of business. Go further along the Thames and you can see that the plastic glitch of the Olympics soon gets swallowed up by actual London, in the depths of real history and identity.
An Olympic Death, part of Vázquez Montalbán’s series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels, is a lament on the burial of a part of Barcelona which may have been dead anyway. But it is also a portent on the faceless metamorphosis of Globalism and what is lost in the game of getting ahead on the Global scale. In times of the seeming invincibility of those pumping money into the universal re-blanding of the modern European city, like Carvalho, we must turn to memory (Romantic is it may be at times) and our own personal sense of location to retain anything of our surroundings. The place that was there before exists down the moonlit labyrinthine backstreets, not at the end of the new and well-lit highways, where home is a concept that doesn’t get included in the development stage anymore.