Hoy Caviar, Mañana Sardinas, by Carmen Posadas

>> Thursday, January 28, 2016

TITLE: Hoy Caviar, Mañana Sardinas (translates as Today Caviar, Tomorrow Sardines)
AUTHOR: Carmen Posadas

PAGES: 271

SETTING: 1960s-80s Spain, USSR and England
TYPE: Non-Fiction / Memoir

Cócteles, almuerzos, cenas… Para una embajada, la comida es imagen, y la imagen es particularmente importante cuando se trata de la misión diplomática en el extranjero de un país pequeño como Uruguay, donde hay que suplir la falta de medios con imaginación, encanto personal, trabajo y enormes dosis de suerte. Y en el caso de estos países, la presión del éxito o el fracaso recae en una sola persona: la mujer del embajador. Inspirándose en sus anotaciones, y rebosante de humor, este libro retrata las aventuras y desventuras de la familia Posadas en su constante trasiego por las diferentes capitales donde el padre, por su cargo diplomático, es destinado.

De la mano de dos de sus hijos, testigos de excepción de momentos interesantes, estratégicos o simplemente curiosos, y envuelto en un halo gastronómico, el libro recorre el Madrid de los sesenta, con su tardofranquismo y primeros aires de renovación, el Moscú de los setenta, con Breznev y sus desfiles militares, y el Londres de los ochenta, con la flema e idiosincrasia de los británicos y en plena euforia con Lady Di. En una original combinación de relato de viajes, jugoso anecdotario y libro de recetas, por sus páginas desfilan toreros, ministros, reyes y reinas, príncipes y princesas, adivinos, divas de la ópera, famosos y famosas en general, hablando en primera persona y como protagonistas, en ocasiones, de las más delirantes escenas. En resumen, un relato amable de la vida diplomática y su lado gastronómico, un viaje divertido y suculento.

NOTE: As far as I know, this book has not been translated into English. I should probably write my review in Spanish, but I've been away for so long now that I find writing in that language really hard, and I'm lazy ;)

In 1965 Carmen and Gervasio Posadas’ father was named Uruguayan ambassador to Spain, and the whole family moved to Madrid. They spent many years abroad, as the father was then sent to the USSR and the UK. This is a sort of collaborative memoir. The authors, writer Carmen Posadas and her younger brother, Gervasio, tell us they have taken annotations their mother, Bimba, had made for a book herself at the time and they have edited them, adding some little asides with their own impressions remembered from those times (Carmen was about 12 when they initially left for Madrid, and married a Spaniard right after the family moved to Moscow, so she doesn’t have many memories from there. Gervasio was very young on the first move, but old enough to remember lots from the Moscow years).

I found this really interesting, although I had very different feelings for each of the three sections.

The Spanish sections were a mix of really interesting and gossip about the aristocracy, which is not really my thing. I was particularly intrigued by the Carmen's comments on how different things were then in terms of relative positions, so to speak. She speaks of how she was seen as exotic and had quite a bit of cachet as a South American, because people’s thoughts instinctively turned to the “rich uncle” who had emigrated to “hacer la América” (loosely translated, “make it in America”) and always came back fabulously rich. That's certainly quite different to how Latin American immigrants in general are seen these days! The world the Posadas family move into in Madrid is one of aristocrats and military men (Franco was still alive, but apparently not in great health), and I felt a bit disturbed by how happy they all seemed to be with the status quo, and didn’t question much.

And then came the USSR sections, which I found just fabulous. First of all, it’s quite a unique perspective that the family were able to get. As diplomats, but from a tiny, unimportant country the Soviets were not particularly fussed about, they had both a degree of access to the highest reaches of the Soviet authorities and to somewhat regular people. Unlike the US embassy people, who (Bimba tells us with much envy) had their own little well-stocked supermarket to buy food in, the Posadases had to struggle to get food to run the entertainment expected of them. Gervasio was sent to a regular school and pioneer camps, and the stories from those are wonderful.

Actually, this section is just full of amazing scenes. Particular favourites include an all-female tea dance in the Kremlin, hosted by Mrs. Brezhnev for International Women Workers’s day, where I was smiling ear to ear at Bimba’s descriptions of Mrs. Brezhnev opening the dancing by inviting Bimba’s 15-year-old daughter onto the dance floor, and then Bimba dancing with a charming aerospace engineer and being harangued into dancing properly by the Bolshoi’s artistic director. Also the reception thrown on the occasion of a visit by Richard Nixon, where Bimba ended up as a human torch. I was laughing out loud at that.

The UK sections I enjoyed only mildly. Again, it’s a lot of name-dropping (we had a party and Miguel Bosé ended up playing waiter!), aristocrats and meeting the Queen and fabulous parties. I was tickled by how Bimba has a really funny sniffy attitude towards the Brits, though! It was one based on prejudices and her view of the British felt pretty off for someone who’s lived there for a while, but well, she clearly didn’t meet any people beyond the diplomatic circles.

One of the things I was curious about when I started the book, was how the authors would deal with the fact that while they were abroad representing the Uruguayan government officially, the military coup took place back home. This is addressed very briefly. It happens when they are in the USSR, and the Bimba sections make it clear that her husband, belonging to the Partido Nacional (one of the two "traditional" parties; the coup was perpetrated by the other one), is against it and very worried. We hear they are both worried about the reports coming out of Uruguay of disappearances and of people being released from jail speaking of horrific violence. But then that subject sort of disappears. We are not really party to how the decision to continue to represent such a government took place, and I really felt the lack of that.

Also, for all that I enjoyed so many of the memories, I found myself disliking Bimba herself. Mainly, it's that her attitudes are very much of her time. They visit Hong Kong at one point, and the casual racism is quite startling. She’s clearly hostile about the fact that the supposedly British wife of her butler is actually from somewhere in the Commonwealth (she “suspects” Malaysia). She fires these people because they were doing sexual fantasy role play (in their own private rooms, while they were off work - she barges in uninvited), and clearly thinks that obviously she has to do this because they’re perverts (it’s all pretty vanilla, really). Hmm...

And another thing that bothered me was that a cursory google search unearthed some worrying accusations against the ambassador. There are accusations of corruption while in the embassy in London and of an illegal prison in the basement of the Uruguayan embassy in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship while he was ambassador there. I stress that these are just accusations, as far as I know, but the whole thing just leaves a bad taste. I kind of wish I hadn't googled.

I should also add that the book is sprinkled with recipes, some of the ones Bimba made up in order to entertain properly on a budget (there’s a delirious one for fake lobster, which apparently fooled several Spanish gourmands), but also ones she picked up on the way, such as the recipe for Borscht given to her by the mayor of a far-east soviet town. The majority are for very Uruguayan food, which basically means most recipes are not my thing (as a vegetarian, I think of myself as a culinary refugee -yes, in England!). I sort of skimmed most of them.

Anyway, for all these criticisms, I did find quite a lot of value here. The USSR sections alone made it worth reading.



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