The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Lost in a labyrinth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Barcelona, 1945. Young Daniel Sempere is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, struggling to scrape a living in a city not yet recovered from the ravages of civil war. Daniel’s mother died when he was very young, and on the day that he suddenly discovers he can no longer remember her face, his father, as a kind of distraction, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mysterious place full of labyrinthine corridors where rare and banned books are piled randomly on shelves. There, Daniel is told he should select a book and it will then be his responsibility to ensure that his chosen book survives. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a forgotten author called Julián Carax. That night he reads the book…

Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters just yet.

And that almost precisely describes my reaction to this book, with the one proviso that it took me considerably longer than one night to read! It crept up on me gradually and for a while I wasn’t sure whether I was going to love it, but right from the beginning I found the writing compelling and intensely more-ish. And then the story began to darken and deepen, and I found myself lost, wandering the gloomy streets of Barcelona, past the decaying old houses deserted by those who had lost their wealth in the war, past the walls still pock-marked by bullets, searching with Daniel for the truth about what had happened to Julián Carax…

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It transpires that there is a man – no one knows who he is – who is bent on destroying all remaining copies of Carax’s books – no one knows why. When Daniel is threatened by this man, he decides he must find out what happened to Carax, who fled Barcelona for Paris and subsequently disappeared. It is said that he returned during the confusion of the war and, like so many others, met a violent death on the streets of Barcelona. But was this random chance? Or was Carax’s death deliberate, and if so, what was the motive? As Daniel searches, he finds that his own life seems to have many parallels to Julián’s – will Julián’s tragedy become his too?

There’s a whole bunch of great characters – Daniel himself, whom we see grow from boy to man over the course of the story; his best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, a beggar whom Daniel and his father befriend, giving him a job in the bookshop, and who provides a good deal of humour along the way; the evil Fumero, now a police inspector, a man who used the war as an excuse to practice his sadism, and is still corrupt and still feared by the people of the city. There’s the mysterious man who wants to burn all Carax’s books – a man so strange and frightening that Daniel is not sure if he is human or devil. And then there’s the story within the story – Julián’s story – where we meet his friends and family, all of whom play a role in the mystery of his life. Two parallel love stories run through the book – Julián’s long-ago, passionate, forbidden love for Penélope, which is at the heart of the mystery; and Daniel’s new, equally passionate, forbidden love for Beatriz. In both cases, the girls’ families see the men as beneath their class, unsuitable for their daughters. (The female characters are not nearly as well drawn as the men, but I’m not in the mood to criticise!)

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The whole tone is Gothic, full of crumbling buildings, labyrinths, exalted love and melodramatic tragedy. And it’s wonderfully done. This is not a sunny fiesta city – this Barcelona is a place where it rains endlessly, where people are poor and afraid, where the scars of war show on the buildings, and on the bodies and in the souls of the inhabitants. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, where so many small and large tragedies have happened, and where now people must put old enmities away and find some way to live together again. Fear and death stalk the streets, with the authorities and some individuals still taking revenge against those they see as enemies. And the people who should be symbols of safety – the police – are the most vengeful and vicious of all, led by Fumero, a man who uses torture and death to further his own aims.

But in reality the war aftermath is all an aside – an interesting setting to set up the Gothic tone. First and foremost, this is simply a great story, wonderfully told. And as it slowly, very slowly, unfolds, it becomes mesmeric – every word seems perfectly designed to lead us to the next. By the halfway point I was completely absorbed in the labyrinthine plot – lost, at that stage, but with total confidence that I was in the hands of a master who would lead me eventually to the centre where the truth would be revealed. And when it was, I found it completely satisfying – both stories brought to wonderfully believable, emotive conclusions.

I avoided this book for years because it received so much hype, but for once this is one that fully deserves all the praise lavished on it. If you are one of the two remaining people in the world who haven’t read it, then I highly recommend you do! Marvellous!

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As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

Voluptuous…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Aged 19, Laurie Lee left his home in Gloucestershire to see something of the wider world. Travelling on foot and subsisting on the money he could earn by busking with his violin, he headed south, walking round the English coast till he arrived in London. There, he worked for a year on a building site, saving enough money so that when the job came to an end he could afford to buy a ticket on a ship to Spain. He would spend the next year tramping round Spain, earning enough to keep body and soul together from his violin, until his journey came to an abrupt end with the start of the Civil War. Returning to England and learning more about the wider ramifications of the war, he would then decide to return to Spain to fight for the Republican cause.

At least this is the story he tells us in the book. The truth would appear to be somewhat different. His travels were apparently funded at least in part by a wealthy older woman, a kind of patron who believed in him as a writer and poet. Lee doesn’t mention her, but her very existence makes the idea of this naive teenager setting off to see the world rather dubious, since clearly he must already have been mixing in artistic society. We do get occasional glimpses of him staying with some of the ex-pat writers living in Spain at that time, which rather throws into doubt the truth of the hand-to-mouth existence he describes. But more than that, the references to art and history which our young rural innocent throws casually into the narrative makes it clear he was either far more educated and cultured at this stage in his life than he wants us to believe, or else, as I suspect, that he was allowing his mature personality at the time of writing to intrude itself into the mind of the youthful adventurer he is trying to show himself as. For example, he compares Spanish peasants to Goya’s paintings, leaving me wondering where he had seen these paintings. If he spent time in either London or Spain visiting art galleries, he fails to mention it, and I doubt there were many Goyas hanging on the wall of the local museum in his Gloucestershire village.

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These points may appear to be nit-picking, but I mention them because all the time I was reading, these and other similar oddities left me with a strong feeling that the whole story had been so embellished it was difficult to see what was true and what was fictional – a problem when a book is presented as a memoir. It also meant that I never felt I got to know the Lee of this period – his itinerant existence, hard-drinking and living in squalid conditions alongside the local Spaniards doesn’t gel with the fact that his patron was trying to get TS Eliot interested in the poetry he was writing, since he never mentions writing poems or even a journal as he travels. I felt that older Lee (the book was published in 1969, more than thirty years later) was trying to create a character of this naive boy busking his way round Spain, rather than revealing himself as he really was. There are all kinds of serendipitous moments that simply didn’t ring true to me – like when his violin fell apart, and a complete stranger just happened to offer him another one for free. Again, this made me assume he was neither as alone or as without means as he is projecting.

Some of the descriptive stuff is beautifully written, which makes the book worth reading despite these problems, (although he often stretches too far for an original simile – “a hand was raised in salute, showing among its sun-black fingers the glittering sickle like a curved sixth nail”. Huge hands, then, or a very small sickle?). The scorching heat and the changing landscape of Spain come to life in a way that the people he meets rarely do. Having recently read Hemingway, Orwell and Brennan on the Spain of this period, I’m afraid I found Lee to be quite unperceptive about the people or the political situation. He describes the poverty, often extreme, of the places he travels through, but he doesn’t show much of the contrasting wealth – the inequality that is at the root of the Civil War. He talks about the rising anti-clericalism, but in a way that left me feeling he hadn’t really understood it. In a sense, this lack of perception ties in more with the naivety I’ve questioned, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t read so much recently about the causes of the war.

I’ll restrict myself to a mini-rant about his attitude to women, who are all either voluptuous, if he fancies them, or buxom, if he doesn’t. (Everything is voluptuous though – the heat, the sky, exhaustion, hunger, war. It’s the most over-used word in the book and made me wish he’d packed a thesaurus.) On one occasion when a drunken father attempts to rape his young daughter, Lee steps in to protect the father from the irate mother. Just as ickily, at another point he describes a girl as “black-eyed Patsy, a sexily confident child of eight” and goes on to say of her…

She’d pay another brief visit before going to bed. ‘Ma says anything else you want?’ Squirming, coy, a strip of striped pyjamas, Miss Sweater Girl of ten years later – already she knew how to stand, how to snuggle against the doorpost, how to frame her flannel-dressed limbs in the lamplight.

Times change, but was it ever acceptable to write of a child so young in such explicitly sexualised terms?

I was going to rate this as four stars, but honestly I’ve talked myself out of it as I’ve written this review. Like cheap wine, the aftertaste it has left feels synthetic and a little unpleasant, so despite the many beautifully written passages I can only bring myself to give it three.

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Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

The pragmatic dictator…

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In their preface, the authors discuss the bias inherent in most biographies and histories of the Franco period and state that they are trying to give a more balanced account, avoiding both hagiography and denunciation. Stanley G Payne is an American historian of modern Spain and European Fascism and I thoroughly enjoyed his Spanish Civil War which did seem reasonably balanced, although tending slightly to the right. Jesús Palacios, a Spanish essayist and historian, was at one time a member of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which I didn’t know when I acquired the book and which obviously set all kinds of alarm bells ringing over his likely bias. (I think this is the first time I’ve ever put money in the pocket of a neo-Nazi, however unconsciously, and it has made me far more scrupulous about googling living people before buying their books.)

The book follows a linear path through Franco’s long life, starting with his childhood as a member of a family with long ties to the armed services, although usually the Navy. Franco was an unremarkable child and a very youthful entrant to the military academy where he showed no particular outstanding talent. However, once he became an officer in Spanish Morocco he soon showed the organisational and leadership skills that would take him through a series of earned promotions until he became one of the top generals in the army. The authors suggest that he gained the respect of the men with whom he served rather than their affection – he seems to have held himself aloof from much of the social life partly because he was not wealthy at this time, but mainly because he had strong views on morality, inculcated in him by his devout Catholic mother, and which would influence him all his life.

Family man – with his wife, Carmen Polo, and only child, Maria del Carmen.

He also seems to have remained aloof from politics in these early years, despite the turmoil in the country. Although a monarchist, a Catholic and a conservative, he saw it as his duty to support the democratic government and when the Republicans took power he held back from open opposition while he felt they were staying within the constitution. As one of the younger and more prominent Generals, the conservatives felt his support would be crucial to the success of any attempt to overthrow the Republican government. Franco insisted he would only agree to a military intervention if the government broke down completely or if a Communist revolution took place. But after the assassination of a prominent figure on the Right, in which the Republican security forces were involved, he finally committed and the insurrection began.

It’s in this section that the authors begin to show their support for the Right. They are excoriating about some of the atrocities carried out by the Left against innocent people on the Right. The problem is that their bias leaves me wondering about their analysis – were these people innocent? Was the Left behaving worse than the Right? This is the fundamental question about the causes and progress of the Spanish Civil War, and the more I read, the more I feel that a truly unbiased objective account remains to be written.

The coverage of the war is not in-depth – the authors’ focus remains exclusively on Franco, as is appropriate in a biography. They discuss briefly the involvement of foreign powers but mostly in terms of Franco’s relationships with Hitler and Mussolini. During the war Franco consolidated his power, thanks to the (lucky?) deaths of a couple of people who may have rivalled him for the top job. By the end he had morphed from being the leader of the military insurrection into full-scale dictatorship, with the consent of the broad spectrum of the victorious Right.

Franco and Hitler 1940

The bulk of the book then goes into considerable detail about Franco’s post-war dictatorship. It reminded me of old history books about the Tudors or Stuarts rather than the more modern style of social history – the focus is entirely on Franco and the powerful people in his court, and I got no feeling for what was happening to the people of Spain or how they felt about Franco’s regime. The authors touch on the fact that there was famine and poverty which gradually receded as the world economies recovered from WW2, and they mention occasional attempts by separatist groups or dissidents living abroad to revive the Civil War. But, in general, they don’t give a picture of how Franco resolved (if he did) the problems that led to the war in the first place, such as land ownership, or what happened to the factories that had been taken over by the syndicalists before the war, and so on. I was left with many unanswered questions.

What they do give a better picture of is the growing acceptance by the Western powers of Franco’s regime, largely because by that time the Cold War was fully iced and the main enemy was seen to be Communism rather than Fascism. They also suggest that Franco moved away from Fascism quite early in his dictatorship, towards what they call “Catholic corporatism”. Unfortunately, I never fully understood what they meant by this term, perhaps my fault but a clearer explanation would have been helpful.

In their conclusion, they suggest that Franco’s rule provided a break between traditional and modern Spain, a long period that allowed tempers to cool and many of the old civil war combatants to die. A growing economy with wealth more fairly spread and better education created a large middle-class, ready for liberal democracy – not Franco’s plan, but a by-product of his policies. They don’t play down the executions and repressions he carried out in the early days, but they suggest that had the Republicans been victorious they’d have been worse, and they point to many other dictatorships that indeed were worse. This seems like a hollow justification to me – if I only murder three people am I morally better than someone who murders four? However, there seems no doubt that Franco’s pragmatism led him to gradually allow a significant degree of liberalisation and, according to the authors, many Spaniards were genuinely sorry when he died.

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All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of their interpretations. As I’m finding with everything I read about Spain in this period, I feel I now need to read an account with the opposite bias to rebalance the seesaw. It is interesting though that, nearly a century on, historians still appear unable to write objectively about this complex period – that in itself is one of the uniquenesses of Franco and the Spanish Civil War.

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Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The ghosts of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Last Days in Cleaver SquareFrancis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As part of my Spanish Civil War challenge I had just finished a biography of Franco (review to come), the last chapter of which detailed his long-drawn out and rather horrific final days as his body crumbled and haemorrhaged and his doctors refused to allow him to die. It is during those days that Francis, in his home in England, gradually reveals his experiences and finally the incident that has left him with a feeling of guilt all the years since. His hatred of Franco is visceral, his view entirely polarised by the atrocities he witnessed, although there are occasional hints that he is aware that there were atrocities on the Republican side too. We learn of Doc Roscoe, the doctor he worked alongside patching up the wounded under atrocious conditions. We hear the story of Dolores Lopez, now Francis’ middle-aged housekeeper, but back then a child caught up in the siege of Madrid. And we come to understand the haunting, literal and metaphorical, of Francis by his old nemesis, Franco.

Madrid, I murmured, the slurry way the madrileňos said it, the lispy first d and the fiercely clipped second one. I had once heard a flamenco guitar being so sweetly, so movingly played in Madrid, as bombs fell in the distant suburbs, then when the planes got closer the music abruptly ceased, and instead there was shouting. I saw a middle-aged man fall in the Gran Via and his wife sank to her knees beside him, weeping. He’d been shot dead. To see Madrid again before I died, this seemed suddenly of vital importance to me and I became elated and impatient and I didn’t properly understand why.

But this is not purely or even mostly a political novel. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. Did it make me cry? You betcha! But it also made me laugh, frequently, as Francis gives his often acerbic view of those around him, including his daughter and sister, both of whom he loves dearly but not uncritically. It’s also a wonderful depiction of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties. There are many parallels between Franco and Francis, not least their names, of course, but their habit in their final days of finding themselves in tears. They each have only one daughter, caring for them at the end of their lives simply as fathers regardless of their past or politics. Francis’ daughter is as well portrayed as Francis himself, as she tries to deal with this difficult, contrary, opinionated man who refuses to accept his increasing limitations. She ranges through patience, worry, irritation, bossiness, and all the other emotions anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will recognise, but there is never any doubt in either the reader’s or Francis’ mind that her overriding emotion towards her father is love.

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It’s a short novel, but has so much in it – truly a case where every word counts. Francis, writing privately in his journal, reveals more to the reader than he ever has to those closest to him, especially of his feelings for Doc Roscoe and for other men he has known over the years. Again a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality – Francis has chosen the easier path at that period of outwardly leading a heterosexual life. Yet one feels his relationship with his daughter is a major compensation for his lifetime of self-denial. And he is self-aware enough to gently mock himself so that one feels his life has not been a wasteland, although it is only now, as he faces his last days and recognises that his eternal enemy Franco is facing his, that he can finally try to come to terms with his past.

Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath

Why have I never come across Patrick McGrath before? A serious omission which I will have to promptly put right. It’s certainly not necessary to know much about the Spanish Civil War or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one, but recognising the accuracy of the depiction of Franco’s final days gave it an extra depth for me. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth – this gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

The civilian war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In Diamond SquareOne evening in the early 1930s in Barcelona, young, motherless and naive Natalia dances with a young man at a fiesta in Diamond Square. They fall in love, though it seems an unequal love, more as if Natalia has fallen under Joe’s ultra-masculine power. They marry and have children, but the political situation is deteriorating and soon the nation will be plunged into civil war…

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life, before, during and after the war. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited.

The first section shows us Natalia’s marriage before the war. Initially overwhelmed by her rather bullying husband, we see her grow until they gradually become a more equal partnership, although still in a society that is very much a patriarchal one. She becomes a mother, and we see the traditions of the women around the subject of childbirth. Joe, a carpenter, decides to build a pigeon loft on the roof, and Pidgey, as he calls Natalia, soon finds her home full of pigeons who, like her children, seem to become solely her responsibility. Then war comes, and Joe – partly because he believes in it and partly because his business is failing – gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, leaving Natalia, the children and the pigeons to fend for themselves in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before.

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I don’t want to give too much of the story away, so I’ll leave you to find out what happens to Natalia and Joe for yourself (which reminds me, do NOT read the prologue before you read the book, since it’s really an introduction explaining why the author wrote it and reveals far too much about how Natalia’s story works out). The rather undramatic way the story is told works very well at allowing the tragedies inflicted on civilian populations during civil war to come through with a real feeling of truth and integrity. We see the random violence carried out by both sides, often on nothing more than suspicion – a man may have been thought to do business with the “other side” and this will be reason enough for him and his family to be terrorised and worse. We see how this gradually forces people on both sides more and more to the extremes, each seeing the other side as evil. And we see how impossible it is in this broken society for a woman to earn enough to keep her children above the starvation line. The tragedy is quiet here, but it is as devastating to the civilians as the guns and bombs are to the fighters.

We didn’t get up on Sundays so as not to be so hungry. And we took the kid to a [refugee] camp in a lorry Julie sent our way after I’d done a lot of persuading. But he knew he was being lied to. He knew better than I did that it was a lie and I was the liar. And we talked about sending him to a camp, before we actually did, and he’d look down and clam up, as if we grown-ups didn’t exist. Mrs Enriqueta promised she’d visit him. I told him I’d go every Sunday. The lorry left Barcelona with us in the back and a cardboard suitcase held together by a piece of string, and it turned down the white road that led to the lie.

And in the last section, we see the aftermath – the war over, but the impact on those involved reverberating through the following years. For some there is a future, but only when they can come to terms with what they had to do to survive.

Although, or perhaps because, Pidgey is an unremarkable woman who simply wants to be a wife and mother, I found myself fully absorbed in her story. Rodoreda shows how strong and resilient people have to be just to survive when society fractures and neighbour comes to mistrust neighbour. For little, ordinary, unheroic Pidgey, it may be too much to ask – as she nears the point of desperation, my heart broke for her and for all those civilians caught up in wars not of their own making.

Merce Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda

Well translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush, the book is quite short but packed full of power and emotion. There is no need to know anything about the Spanish Civil War in order to appreciate the book. It could, in a sense, be any civil war. However, it gives a great insight into the lives of women in Barcelona at this point in time, and adds some real depth to an aspect that is often somewhat overlooked in formal histories of the period – the impact of the war on non-aligned non-participants. Natalia didn’t care whether the Communists or the Fascists won, so long as whoever did provided bread for her children.

The sections set before and during the war are excellent but for me the final section, after the war, is a little too dragged out. It is an interesting picture, though, of the world resettling like a shaken kaleidoscope into a new pattern, not entirely dissimilar to the old, leaving unspoken the question of what it was all for – did anyone win? I will remember Natalia’s story.

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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One man’s war…

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Homage to CataloniaOrwell’s memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. I assume that’s an indication of how influential this book was on forming British opinion at the time and in the years since. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Orwell was present first when POUM were part of the force fighting Franco’s Fascists, and later during the Barcelona May Days, and gives his personal account of both. In the bulk of the memoir there are surprisingly little polemics – he saves the political analysis for the appendices. This makes it a very readable account regardless of whether one agrees with Orwell’s political standpoint or not. In fact, the book is almost entirely about the left – the Fascists are there in the background as the enemy to be beaten, but the political foreground is taken up by the factional infighting on the Republican side.

He starts his account with his experiences as an international recruit, driven by his desire to defeat Fascism. He describes the conditions the recruits faced – ill-equipped, incomplete uniforms, a shortage of guns and ammunition. He suggests that his fellow Spanish recruits were motivated like him by an idealistic belief in their cause, and of course there is truth in that. But he’s also honest enough to recognise that the shortages of necessities, including bread, in civilian life drove many to join up simply as a way of getting food. Mothers, he tells us, sent their sons into the army so that they could smuggle bread out to their families. Orwell was horrified by the youth of many of the recruits – boys as young as fourteen or fifteen, with no real idea what they were fighting for. He describes the filth and squalor within the troop quarters, where there was a basic lack of sanitation and a permanent stench of human waste, and rats – lots of rats.

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Book 4

But he contrasts this with his enthusiasm for the principles of equality that pertained at this early stage of the war. There were no Sénors, only comrades. Orders, he suggests, were obeyed because the soldiers agreed to them rather than for fear of punishment. Not so on the Fascist side, he tells us, filled with forced conscripts rather than willing volunteers and desperate to desert given the slightest opportunity. I wonder. I am old and cynical and stopped believing long ago that good and evil are ever quite so clear cut, and I had to keep reminding myself that Orwell was just thirty-three when he arrived in Spain – still young enough for his cynicism to be held at bay by his idealism. He tries to defend the left against claims that their military indiscipline led to their repeated defeats, but he failed to convince me of that.

In reality, he saw very little fighting. He was positioned in trenches, facing Fascist forces in their own trenches, but neither advancing. He doesn’t make any effort to explain the military course of the war – that’s not his aim. Rather this is a personal description of what it was like to be there. As such, it adds colour, but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. On the one occasion when he is involved in more than a skirmish, he describes very well the mix of fear and bravery that he felt, although with a little of the gung-ho hubris that often pervades British war memoirs.

When his division is sent back to Barcelona, he describes the changes in the six months since he was last there. Then it seemed to him a truly socialist city, everyone equal. Now it is already reverting to normal – the rich able to get anything, the poor living with desperate shortages. He recognises himself as one of the wealthy, eating well, able to buy smuggled American cigarettes, etc.

Then the left factions start fighting each other, over nothing much, it seems. Orwell himself seems rather disillusioned by this stage, but still believes anything will be better for the workers than a Franco win, with a return to clericalism and a class-ridden society. He makes it clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on in Barcelona at the time – newspapers were either full of propaganda or heavily censored.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Back at the front, he is shot through the neck by a sniper. This allows him to see first hand and describe the medical treatment received by the injured – rather better than I’d have expected in truth, and happily he recovers well. Finally released from hospital, he discovers POUM have been suppressed, and some of his friends have been killed or imprisoned, so again this allows him to see the inhumane conditions of prisons, and the complete lack of any pretence of rule of law. He is forced into hiding until the British Consul can arrange for him and his wife to leave Spain. He writes very well about the atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and betrayal, and I found this account of the failure of his cause and his dreams beautifully and movingly written towards the end.

George Orwell
George Orwell

The first appendix gives a good summary of the politics on the left – the split between the anarchists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, et al. He is succinct and fairly clear-eyed about the chaotic nature of the left, and also about the journalistic propaganda being used by every faction. The second appendix is a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the factional infighting in Barcelona. His analysis obviously has to be treated with the caution that any participant account should receive, especially one written long before the fog of war had had time to clear. It’s interestingly done, though, with lots of references as to how it was being reported at the time in the leftist press, especially in England.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

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The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Subtitled: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

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Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period.

My theory is that it takes at least fifty years before historians can tackle any period with the necessary objectivity to produce anything approaching “truth” – a term that will always be disputed in relation to history. Writers who lived through events are generally unable to avoid two flaws: firstly, they assume their readers are familiar with the people and events of the period and therefore often don’t explain them well enough for future generations; and, secondly, the closer to events a writer is, the harder it is to avoid personal bias and opinion from distorting the story. Having said that, Brenan does his best to avoid bias and for the most part does a good job, but sometimes it’s clear that, like most British intellectuals of the time, his sympathies were with the left, and he tends to forgive their excesses more easily than those from the right. A bigger problem for me, as a newcomer to the period, was that he often left me struggling to follow timelines, or to work out the political alignment or even nationality of a particular person – he obviously assumed his contemporary readership would know these things from reading the news.

Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. This left me with a much better understanding not only of the drivers that led to the Civil War, but also, in fact, of the current demands for independence from some regions which are still part of Spanish politics today.

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He also delves into the rise of the various factions on the left, explaining why some turned to anarchism while others adopted socialism, etc., again showing how this arose out of local rather than national factors. Syndicalism, a form of trades unionism that was effective in industrialised centres, was less well-suited to rural areas, for example. He explains the Spanish form of anarchism well, making it seem like a reasonable idea rather than the kind of extreme bogeyman philosophy it tends to be seen as now. He does the same for the right, but it wasn’t so divided and so is easier on the whole to understand, and I suspect Brenan was more fascinated by the philosophies underpinning left than right, so he writes about them more deeply and interestingly. He also explains the rise of anti-clericalism, showing how over time the Church ceased to be seen as the champion of the poor and became instead the paid instrument of the rich and powerful, helping them to maintain social control, and thus leading to the hatred that would result in so many atrocities towards clerics.

On occasion, he has a tendency to state an opinion as fact without supporting evidence, or to generalise about the “Spanish temperament” or the “Spanish psyche”, as if they were uniform things, which is a bit odd since the whole book is proving that Spain was a deeply fractured society at the time, region against region, philosophy against philosophy. And it’s easy with hindsight to scoff a little at those things he got wrong, as, for instance, when he suggests that Spaniards would never accept a dictatorship and that Franco’s regime would therefore be short-lived. As a right-wing dictator, he seems to see Franco in the same terms as Mussolini or Hitler, but future history would show distinct differences in Franco’s approach, which is probably why he survived into old age. But predicting the future is always difficult, and he doesn’t go too far down that line.

In the epilogue, Brenan explains that he is writing too soon to give an account of the war itself. He mentions the atrocities and, while accepting that the left participated too, claims the number of executions carried out by the right were far greater – a claim that I believe is now considered less clear-cut.

Gerald Brenan

Despite the small flaws I’ve mentioned, I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that has left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable. I highly recommend it – its classic status is well deserved. However, I was glad I had already read Stanley G Payne’s The Spanish Civil War first – because it is a more conventional history written much more recently, I had some prior understanding without which I may have found myself floundering too deeply at those points where Brenan assumed existing knowledge.

My thanks to José Ignacio from A Crime is Afoot, who suggested this one when I was looking for something to give me some background to the war – an excellent recommendation!

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The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne

Distilled history…

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On starting my personal challenge to get an understanding of the Spanish Civil War through history, memoirs and fiction, the first book I wanted was one which basically explained the historical background, laid out the events leading up to the war, introduced the main leaders, explained the factions and tried, at least, to avoid bias. This last point was the hardest – all the best known histories on the subject seem to be pretty overwhelmingly biased towards the Republican (left) side. After a couple of false starts, I settled on this one and feel I couldn’t have made a better decision. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. Every word in its short 286 pages counts, so that there’s far more information in here than in many a waffly 900-page tome I’ve struggled through on other historical periods.

Payne’s bias, if he has one, seems slightly to the right, though it’s quite clear he’s no more a fan of the regimes of the far-right than the far-left. He avoids any kind of romanticisation of the left – generally a recurring feature of British and American writing on the SCW, showing how much better the left were at propaganda, if nothing else. Indeed, propaganda and the role of foreign journalists and novelists in its dissemination at the time, and on public perception of the conflict even today, is one of the many subjects he addresses in the book.

Payne starts with a brief introduction, putting the SCW into the context of the many civil wars happening in Eastern Europe and around the “periphery” of Europe around that time. He notes that Spain was unique in being the only Western European country to have a civil war in the interwar years, and that, while the political upheavals in other western nations like Germany and Italy rose out of the aftermath of WW1, Spain had remained neutral in that conflict.

He continues by giving a concise and clear history of Spain, from the time of the Romans. This is done in a just a few pages, but gives the newcomer to the subject a very clear idea of the development of the social, political and economic conditions in the country just prior to the civil war. He discusses Spain’s failure to modernise at the same rate as other European countries, remaining more rural and socially backward, less literate, poorer. Out of these conditions arose the factions on left and right that would both eventually feel that a limited conflict would give power into their hands.

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Payne slows down a bit as he discusses the years from around 1930 to the outbreak of war, but it is still a very distilled account – no padding, very few anecdotes or character sketches, but everything very clearly explained. The profusion of factions on both left and right are the main reason I, and I’m sure I’m not alone, find the SCW more confusing than many other conflicts or historical events, and Payne takes the time to explain each in turn – how they arose, their affiliations to outside forces like the USSR or Mussolini’s Italy, their regional power bases within Spain, what they believed in and what kind of government they wanted to create. As he develops the history of events, Payne is excellent at constantly reminding the reader of where each faction stands whenever they are mentioned, so that I rarely found it necessary to turn to the included glossary of all those dreaded acronyms, like POUM and PCE and CEDA. In fact, by the end of the book I actually had a good idea of what all these terms actually meant – a considerable achievement, believe me!

Stanley G Payne

Alongside the narration of events, Payne includes themed chapters where he goes more deeply into one aspect of the conflict, such as religion or foreign intervention or propaganda, etc., and it’s in these chapters that he’s more analytical. He debunks some of the commonly held and somewhat romantic myths, explaining their origin, and replaces them with factual analysis, including plenty of statistics, on numbers of executions on both sides, for example, or the brutal atrocities carried out, again by both sides. He is critical of Franco’s skills as a war strategist, suggesting his failure to take decisive action at crucial moments led to a prolongation of the conflict. But his strongest criticism is directed at the shambolic chaos on the left, with faction fighting faction, and no clear plan of what they were trying to achieve. He compares the conditions in Republican and Nationalist zones, and suggests a major factor in the Nationalists’ success was their economic competence – indeed, their competence generally. The picture he paints is of idealism, factionalism and chaos on the left defeated by planning, pragmatism and organisation on the right. (Are you listening, America?)

My only caveat, and it’s a small one, would be that a basic understanding of the Russian revolution and of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini would be helpful, but I think he gives enough information on them in passing to prevent any reader from feeling too lost. So, in conclusion, great as an introduction for the newcomer, but there’s also plenty of analysis in here to interest those with an existing knowledge of events. Highly recommended – the perfect start to my quest!

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For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Love and war…

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In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.

At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)

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The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)

“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”

Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.

….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked.
….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.”
….“Yet you have killed.”
….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”
….“By whom?”
….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”

Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!

Book 1

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Reading the Spanish Civil War…

¡No pasarán!
They Shall Not Pass!

The Spanish Civil War is one of those periods of history about which I am embarrassingly ignorant despite the fact that it inspired so many writers at the time and afterwards. Sometimes ignorance becomes self-reinforcing – when I see a book about the Spanish Civil War, I avoid it because I feel I don’t know enough about the history to understand the book, and therefore I never learn about it. But having enjoyed my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge a couple of years ago, I feel inspired to finally read myself into this period of history in the same way.

I’m going for a mix of fact and fiction, and am hoping to read a selection that will show me the war through the eyes of contemporaries and also retrospectively, through history and novels. As well as books by British authors, I’ll be trying to read some Spanish writers, though unfortunately I’ll be restricted to those which are available in English. I’ll be hoping to mix some lighter, action reads in with the heavier stuff as I go along. I expect my initial list will expand and change as one book leads to another.

I’m already conscious that the books I’ve selected seem to be heavily weighted to the Republican side, so if anyone knows of any good fiction from the perspective of the Nationalists, or indeed other good books from the Republican perspective, I’ll be grateful for recommendations. It seems to have been the accepted position of most British writers of the time that we should be on the side of the Republicans, but I have no real view on the matter as yet, not being a fan of either fascists or communists as a general rule, so I’ll be starting at least with an impartial eye.

Here’s my initial list, in no particular order:

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (fiction)

High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…

The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor (history) – Abandoned.

With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war – its causes, course, and consequences.

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (fiction)

Natalia is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square in Barcelona. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand. They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence…

The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes (fiction)

Alvaro discovers an old folder with letters sent to his father in Russia, faded photos of people he never met, and a locked grey metal box. From the provincial heartlands of Spain to the battlefields of Russia, this is a mesmerizing journey through a war that tore families apart, pitting fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, and wives against husbands…

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (memoirs)

Young Laurie Lee walks to London, and makes a living labouring and playing the violin. But, deciding to travel further afield, he heads for Spain. With just a blanket to sleep under and his trusty violin, he spends a year crossing Spain, from Vigo in the north to the southern coast. Only the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War puts an end to his extraordinary peregrinations…

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (fiction)

Madrid: Sept., 1940. Enter British spy Harry Brett, sent to win the confidence of a shadowy Madrid businessman. Meanwhile, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare is engaged in a secret mission of her own—to find her former lover, whose passion for the Communist cause led him into the International Brigades and who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (memoirs)

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism…” Thus wrote Orwell following his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Here he brings to bear the force of his humanity, passion, and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the hopes and betrayals of that chaotic episode.

Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Grey (history)

Thirty-five thousand people from across the world volunteered to join the armed resistance in a war on fascism. More people, proportionately, went from Scotland than any other country, and the nation was gripped by the conflict. What drove so many ordinary Scots to volunteer in a foreign war? Here, their stories are powerfully and honestly told, often in their own words.

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Additions

The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne (history)

An excellent, concise and clearly presented introduction to the subject for the beginner, but there’s also plenty of analysis in here to interest those with an existing knowledge of events. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence.

The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan (history)

Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so.

Last Days in Cleaver SquareLast Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath (fiction)

Francis McNulty was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now, in 1975, he starts seeing visions of General Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, at first in his garden and then later inside his house, and his memories of his time in Spain are brought back afresh to his mind.

Franco by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios (biography)

A linear biography of Franco’s long life with the bulk of the focus on his post-war dictatorship. Informative about his life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less so about how the Spanish people lived under his rule. Strongly biased to the right.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (fiction)

When Andrea comes to live at her grandmother’s house in Barcelona, she finds the family sunk into poverty – the family members as Gothic as the house. A classic of both existentialism and the Spanish tremendismo schools, this evokes a slightly nightmarish atmosphere which effectively symbolises a city coming to terms with the after-effects of the war.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (fiction)

Barcelona, 1945 – a city not yet recovered from the ravages of civil war. Young Daniel Sempere’s father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mysterious place full of labyrinthine corridors where rare and banned books are piled randomly on shelves. There, Daniel must select a book and then it will be his responsibility to keep the book safe…

¡España una, grande, libre!
Spain, one, great and free!