Ray Banks’ Matador is a Revenge thriller that’ll make you sweat like a pig on a roast. Your neck will prickle from the start when the protagonist Rafael wakes up in mud with excruciating pain. He’s been buried alive and the shot to his skull has damaged his memory. He breaks out, finds his way down the mountain, and begins his journey to find out who he is, what happened, and who shot him. Viewing the novel from inside his head is claustrophobic, thrilling, heartbreaking, all at once.
It’s one of the few recent books I’ve read which I have raced through, compelled to see how this plays out. Banks tells the whole thing mostly through the eyes of two men, the Dead Man – Rafael, and the English gangster trying to finish the job, Tony. When you’re with Rafael you want Tony dead. When you’re with Tony, you still want him dead, but Banks’ crafty writing makes you feel some of the crap Tony is going through. He doesn’t much like his kids, his wife annoys him, and he doesn’t have the skills to get a normal job. Killing keeps him away from grey England. Keeps him in the sunshine. If you’ve ever spent a wet February afternoon in Sheffield, then you can feel for him.
Banks pulls you into the world of bullfighting, testing your sensibilities. Rafael’s memory snatches at previous memories of his days in the bullring. His mentor Alejandro muses on the art of killing a bull. It’s about ritual, respect for the animal, putting yourself into almost equal danger. Banks contrasts this with the casual, merciless executions the gangsters make. At one point Tony wants Sancho, a minor associate, to shut up. He ponders whether he should put a bullet in his head that moment, because he’ll probably have to do it sooner or later. The matadors feel for the animal they’re about to slaughter. You could argue that ritualising the killing is merely pinning bells on what is still unnecessary and the gangsters are at least more honest.
However, the English gangsters seem to represent the last dregs of empire. They’ve colonized the coast, turning beautiful old fishing villages into English-speaking pub crawls. They demand locals speak English, because speaking the ‘native’ language is arrogant. They have bought the police, using them to keep out of trouble. The good guys, the Spaniards, can hardly say ‘the English’ without spitting contempt for how they treat their country as a playground. Their patriotism is shallow, only coming to the fore to contrast themselves with ‘dago’ Spaniards, and to celebrate the dear old Queen – their only cultural icon, apart from the pub.The Spaniards have soul. They have culture. The English are only about business, and inflate their importance by wondering how the Russian gangsters will counter their influence, when in truth, the Russians barely consider them.
Of course, this is not a thesis on imperial and cultural decline, it’s a first-rate thriller, with to-the-point, but still arresting language (“The other man was less drunk, but his face had the scarlet starburst of long-term alcoholism.”). It makes you fear Rafael’s memory slips every time he can’t remember something which happened moments ago. Scares you to death when his long-term memory filters back, endangering his present. You’ll thrill at the ending. You’ll have a six-pack stomach as tension is wound tight on every page, with hardly any respite.
A great book.