Reality Is Mayhem




Daniel Levine interviews Marc Pastor

Reality Is Mayhem

August 15th, 2014 reset - +

MARC PASTOR has one of the coolest day jobs a writer can have. He is a forensic detective and police sketch artist — a crime scene investigator — in the Barcelona area. In his spare time he has written four novels in Catalan: Montecristo, Barcelona Shadows, L’any de la Playa, and Bioko. Barcelona Shadows has been translated into English, a first for Pastor. It is based on the actual appalling villainies of Enriqueta Martí, the “Vampire of Barcelona,” a wicked procuress in the early 20th century who kidnapped children for prostitution and for other grislier purposes, grinding and boiling and rendering the children’s body parts into pomades and miracle cures for the well-protected upper class. Barcelona Shadows is grimy and sordid and poetic, featuring a likably hardboiled detective named Moisès Corvo and a cast of rich, seamy characters. The story is narrated by Death himself: no sickle-bearing executioner, but an observant, lurking witness to the city’s bloody history.

I interviewed Pastor in New York, in the appropriately gloomy lounge of the Hotel Stanford. He’s in his late 30s, head shaved, tight black beard, soulful brown eyes; he speaks English with quirky charm and a thick Spanish accent. We end up talking about his work in crime scene investigation more than his writing, the terrible things he has seen, human nature, and death. He has brought along his notebook that he’d created while writing Barcelona Shadows; cut-out photocopied articles from old newspapers are pasted onto curling pages, with some ink sketches in between. There is a drawing of Enriqueta Martí, her face in scratchy shadows, deep holes for eyes, a vampire’s mouth. The next page holds a grainy old photograph of what looks like a police excavation, cops digging up objects with rubberneckers looking on. When Martí’s apartment was finally searched after her arrest, nightmarish things were found: bones, body parts, objects in jars. I point to Pastor’s eerie illustration.

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DANIEL LEVINE: So at your reading last night, you said that you first heard of the case of Enriqueta Martí on the radio. You’d never heard of it before?

MARC PASTOR: Never before. It was a creepy radio show; they talked about ghosts and UFOs and vampires. That night they were talking about the “Barcelona Vampire.” Back in 2006 it was an unknown story. She was a murderer in the early years of the 20th century. She was involved in selling children to the high class, so rich people wanted it to remain silent. They didn’t want the story to spread. After she died, we had a civil war, we had 40 years of dictatorship. In our country, there’ve been so many unfortunate events that she was forgotten — everybody thought she was forgotten. Actually she wasn’t. Many people remember her, but nobody talked about her.

I wasn’t looking for this story. It was curiosity. I wanted to know more about this, and I started my research. I discovered a lot of great characters and scenarios. I discovered my own city, a city I didn’t know, so I had to write it.

When was the point where curiosity became: now I have to write about it?

It was when I discovered that Enriqueta had a husband and a lover. The characters were so literary. There was the man who teaches guitar lessons, and he is blind. It’s nothing in the story, it’s a detail, but I loved that detail, so I had to build something around that. And I saw that in the city there were a lot of great places that had disappeared. Like the casino. We had the biggest casino in Europe in 1912. It had a roller coaster, it had an amusement park, and it was in my city. I didn’t know that — I had to write about this. The casino’s in the woods now; there are some remains, some ruins. You will not find the casino; you will find some sculptures in the woods. It’s so magical, it’s like a mystery in the woods, it’s lovely. It’s a ghost city; a city that doesn’t exist, but you still can find some clues.

You must know the city very well because of your work. You work for the Barcelona Police Department?

I used to work in Barcelona. Then I left in 2008, and now I’m working in a few cities close to Barcelona. It’s less stressful. Barcelona was — I couldn’t sleep. It’s like New York. Every day there’s new shit. Every day you have a lot of stuff you cannot digest, a lot of things that you say, okay, it’s not possible it happens again. I met a lot of criminals in my own neighborhood. I knew a lot of bank robbers, rapists, because we arrest them, I take pictures of them, and take fingerprints of them …

And then they’re released?

Yes, that’s how it works in Spain. You’ve got to kill somebody, or you’ve got to make a lot of robberies to go to jail. You don’t go to jail for one robbery. There must be blood to go to jail. So these robbers lived in my neighborhood, and that wasn’t comfortable for me. I wanted to live my life without thinking, that’s the criminal we arrested last week, or the rapist I sketched yesterday. There was a point when I was making sketches of rapists, and I was looking for them in my neighborhood, and it was so stressful I couldn’t sleep. I was always thinking about my job, my job. I had to leave. I left that neighborhood. Now I have my job, I have my life. I don’t want to share my life with the criminals.

Tell me more about being a sketch artist.

That’s one of the best parts of my job. Most of the victims are victims of rape. They don’t have to see me as a police detective, just as someone they can trust. I tell them, okay, I’m not going to ask you to describe the guy who raped you, I only want to ask you some questions. We’re going to erase the sketch more than we’re going to draw it. If his face were a geometrical object, what would it be? A square, a circle, a triangle? They always say a round face. The hair, it would be curled, bald? I’m drawing possibilities. I’ve seen a lot of them crying when the sketch is finished, because they recognize the guy in the sketch. I have some techniques to make them remember, and then they remember every single detail of the face. They always say the eyes are very big, and the mouth is very big. There’s a reason for that. That’s the weapon of the raper. Not the knife or the gun, but the eyes and the mouth.

Has sketching given you a better sense of faces, sharpened your ability to describe characters?

I like drawing. It gives me the plastic imagination for writing. I like drawing my characters. Here is the first drawing I did of Enriqueta. Here are her apartments. They found some holes in the walls. That’s a pit. They are taking the bones. Everybody just looking. I love that, everybody looking. It’s the same now. People like to see blood. People say, “Ah, I don’t want to see the body, I don’t want to see blood.” That’s a lie. When there is something happening in the street, people want to see.

Why do you think that is?

It’s like, you know that Nietzsche sentence: if you watch into the abyss, the abyss will watch back. We like watching into darkness. We had a murder site once. It was a Friday night, a double homicide in the street, downtown Barcelona, one of the busiest streets, in front of a disco. There were a lot of people there. We had the blood on the pavement, the knife, and we had the police line all around us. I was looking for clues. A lot of people were watching, like a live episode of CSI. And then I look and I see a guy playing limbo under the police line. Like it was a game. It’s a crime scene — people watching, playing. That’s what humans do.

Nothing’s sacred. So what are you looking for at these scenes?

I look for sperm, blood, fingerprints. Not the hair. The hair is useless, did you know that? In CSI they always use the hair. But there’s not enough information in the hair. You will know if it’s a male or a female, but that’s all.

People are really fascinated by these CSI shows. The morbid interest isn’t new, but I think the particular modern aspects — the meticulous collecting of invisible information, the scientific precision — capture a certain cultural fascination.

It comes from Conan Doyle and Poe. That fascination with the method, how science can catch something irrational. Most murderers are irrational, passionate. Hot-blooded. It’s not like in CSI, where you see the murderer that plans the crime.

I knew one. I knew a girl that took the sperm of two gigolos, and went and killed a friend of hers. She put a bag on the head of her friend and put the sperm in her vagina. It was the only time I’ve seen something so complex.

How did you catch her?

It’s easy. We look for mistakes; our job is looking for mistakes in the crime.

You refer to the classic detective stories — like Poe and Sherlock Holmes — in your novel, and I noticed that your detective Corvo is very critical and disdainful of Sherlock and his methods. Do you share this disdain, as a writer or investigator?

Sometimes I think the deduction method of Sherlock Holmes is not valid. I love Sherlock Holmes stories; they’re so funny. But they use a method that is not valid in the real world. They think if A is B, then B is C, that logical method — but men and women don’t behave in that logical way. We are not robots, we are improvising every time. You should see a lot of crime scenes. You realize that the criminal is very nervous. Maybe you see a bottle of bleach beside the corpse. That’s because the murderer tried to clean the blood, he doesn’t like blood. It’s not logical, when you’ve killed someone, trying to clean the blood or move the body — what are you doing? Sherlock and Dupin always find crime scenes that are like puzzles — every piece is clean and clear. You never find it in real life; there’s confusion and chaos, because mankind is chaos.

What’s your method, then, if not relying on deduction?

Observation: we are looking for mistakes. When a criminal breaks in somewhere, he leaves something, and takes something with him — and that’s what I gotta find. There’s always a mistake. Or not always. We have some unsolved cases. And that hurts. Because we haven’t found what the criminal did wrong.

We had a crime once — we call it the ninja case. Someone hit the victim in the chest with a sting, a little prick, the guy turned around, and he was stabbed, from here to the heart. The guy died, and the murderer ran away. The victim didn’t have any enemies, he wasn’t in trouble. Who would want to kill him? We didn’t know, and nobody saw enough. We expected he would kill again, and then we would catch him. But he didn’t kill again. So it’s a mystery.

Writing has to be cleaner than life, I find. In the plotting out of a story, it needs to be more Sherlockian in the sense that it all must connect.

Fiction has to be plausible. Reality is mayhem. Fiction cannot be chaos. Everything has to have a reason. You have to know what you want to explain and how to explain it.

When I write, I make cocktails of reality. A lot of crime scenes, corpses, dialogues of the detectives are true.

Do you feel that tracking criminals, looking at crime scenes, gives you a bleak sense of life? Has it influenced the way you view human nature?

Fortunately I’m not cynical. I’m ironical. I like sarcasm, and have a dark sense of humor. People say that the guys who work in CSI are freaks — and it’s true. A lot of cops tell me, “I couldn’t do your job.” And they’re arresting people every day, and seeing violence, and shit, every day. But they say, “I couldn’t do your work, move a body, watch an autopsy in the morgue. You’re quite a freak.” But I have a frontier. There’s Marc, and then there’s the Marc who’s working with dead bodies. And there’s the sense of humor all around this, just to protect.

One time I was hit by reality: it was 2010, there was a train accident in Catalonia, and 13 people died. It was four years ago today, in fact. It was St. John’s night; everyone was partying, drinking, fireworks, and music. I was on my shift, and had to go see the remains of all the bodies. They were run over by the train, a high-velocity train. It was dark, people were crossing the railroad tracks, and they didn’t see the train coming. Seventy people crossing the railways, and the train ran over 30 or 40 people. Thirteen died. But there were pieces of them about one kilometer from the run-over point. There was a girl who was on the platform, and was helping her boyfriend to climb to the platform, and the boy was run over, and she kept the hands. I saw eyes, testicles. I saw faces, like masks, on the floor, watching me.

I really enjoyed that night. I was working for 12 hours, from midnight to midday, identifying the victims, grabbing the corpses in bags, and I really enjoyed it. I was laughing — we were making jokes, to protect us. When I got home, I hugged my wife, and I spent 10 minutes crying. You know Heart of Darkness? It was like meeting Kurtz. The horror. I had never cried in my job. And I cried that day. And I had been laughing, having a good time. But I melted when I arrived home. I spent the next month drawing, drawing what I saw, just to burn them out. In the book I was writing I included a scene — it’s the first case of Moisès Corvo, in Africa, and I included a scene of a massacre in the forest, and it’s exactly the same as I saw in the railways.

What do you learn? What’s the lesson you take from that?

We are nothing. We are nothing. Life is quick, and dark, and nonsense, and you gotta have your family with you. I think that’s the point.

The tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury …

Yes, I think that’s the perfect description. I was dead, once. I died, in 2005. I had a heart disease, and they had to shock me. I went to the hospital, and I was lying on the bed and being monitored. My heart was going at 257 beats a minute. The doctors were like an ER episode — “We’re gonna lose him! We gotta shock him!” They were spreading the gel on my chest, and it was like, I’m dying. It’s been short, but it’s been great. I’ve loved a lot, I’ve been loved, I cannot complain. I thought about my parents, my sister, and my wife. And that’s all I thought. There was not a light at the end of the tunnel. But I thought about my family. There’s been a lot of love in my life. I’m ready to die.

Then the doctors shocked me. It doesn’t hurt. It’s like being flashed inside your body. I saw the monitor, I saw it zero, for maybe one second, two seconds — one century, two centuries. It was beeeeee — and then finally ded-ded, ded-ded. I had the feeling of having seen that line for a thousand years. I was in the hospital, lying there, and the doctor said I had a disease that couldn’t be cured, that I could die at any moment. You must know, he said, you can die at any time. You must be prepared. I was three days thinking I was gonna die. Finally, they found it could be cured, so they operated and cured me. In those three days, I met the narrator of this story [Barcelona Shadows].

I met Death. He was asking me to explain his story — he was like: I want to explain, I want to be in that book. I had the physical feeling of Death, itself, sitting beside me, on those three days. I couldn’t see him, but it was beside me, a feeling, sitting there. The end of Barcelona Shadows, when Moisès dies, and the little girl is telling him, you gotta be proud of your life, you’ve been loved and you’ve loved a lot. Those are exactly the words I thought when I was dying. And I wanted to write that catharsis in the book. I cried a lot when I finished this book — because I wasn’t talking only about Moisès Corvo, I was talking about my own death.

Death as portrayed in this book is not malignant or malicious. He collects the souls, but doesn’t steal them.

He’s an observer. It’s not evil. I think in Occidental culture, Death is bad, it takes away people we love. It’s different in Asia and Africa, where Death is something common. I agree more with the Oriental style of death than the Occidental, since my experience.

Does it make you less afraid of death?

I fear it. I’m afraid, of course. I don’t want to die, I’m happy here. I love my wife and have a nice dog. When I die, I’ll be proud. I fear the pain and the suffering, the loneliness of consumption, and getting old, and forgetting, who am I? Not the death itself. I saw my grandmother dying that way, with dementia, her personality vanishing, and there was only the body, but there was nobody inside. I’m scared about that. I think death is better than that. Not death by parts. I wouldn’t like that.

All at once …

Yeah. But a very, very old man.

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Daniel Levine teaches at the University of Colorado.

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