SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘City of Sorrows’ by Susan Nadathur

CITY OF SORROWS is an emotionally intense story about how relationships can get complicated, and how life is not always the way we want it to be . . . Under normal circumstances, they never would have met. Andres is a wealthy Spaniard, Diego a poor Gypsy, Rajiv an Indian immigrant. On a dark road outside the city of Seville, the lives of these three men come crashing together. One man’s anger leads to an unthinkable act, triggering another man’s obsession and forcing the third to negotiate his way through the underside of life. The choices they make ripple outward, throwing not only their lives, but an entire city, into turmoil and change. A devastating loss. A dangerous obsession. CITY OF SORROWS is an epic story of love, death, romance and rage. About what controls us . . . and the choices we must make to be free.

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As a fan of the city of Seville, I jumped at the chance to read some Spain-based fiction. This book brings together three very different men on a path that could either save or destroy them.

The main protagonist is Diego, a young Gypsy living on the edge of poverty in Seville. We meet Diego young and married, with a seventeen-year-old wife who is already six months pregnant. The naivety and youth is a mix for a fun new relationship but their tale is not a happy one. When disaster befalls the young couple, the entire city of Seville burns with rage as racism between Spaniards and Gypsies literally ignites. Diego’s life falls to awful lows filled with crime and revenge, which could end him.

Diego crosses paths with Andres, a rich young Spaniard, and not a character many could indulge or come to like. Andres’ hatred of Gypsies, born out of a cliché and unfair stereotype in his own head, leads him to make a simple yet cruel decision that costs someone their life. Andres is mean, tortured, racist and lazy, and while he tried is best to redeem himself through the guise of caring for his young sister Adela, it can be hard to not wish Andres would step in front of a bus.

A third man, Rajiv, a young Indian fresh in the city of Seville, is a wholly likable character. I live in an Indian community, all those who have emigrated for a new life, and the story of this man mimics one of so many real people in the world. He is kind, intelligent and good in the face of all that troubles him – mostly Andres, who he is forced to work with and help. Rajiv is on a different path in life to the other two men in the book, yet their stories weave together in the heartache that swirls through Seville.

Susan Nadathur has done a wonderful job at creating characters that both endear and infuriate, and it shows the divide between Spaniards and Gypsies in Spain. It shows how three different men from three different walks of life and effect, hurt and save one another, as well as explaining the inside details of Gypsy life. As chapters flip between the point of view of each man, one cannot help but want to turn the pages to see where their favourite character ends up next.

Learn more about Susan Nadathur here

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SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: The Killing of el Niño Jesús: ‘A Max Cámara Short Story’ by Jason Webster

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‘It was, thought Cámara, a uniquely Valencian affair, being both tacky and tragic at the same time. But most of all, it was surreal; nothing quite like it could happen anywhere else in Spain’

This Christmas, we are treated to Max Cámara short story from Webster, who has previously penned three full-length Cámara novels, with a fourth due in mid 2014. We find our favourite Spanish detective, hungover on Christmas morning, and with his partner and friend Torres, off to solve a murder in one of Valencia’s mind-bloggling disco-brothels.

Immersed in a mostly naked set of ‘dancers’, done up as nativity scene members, and one hungry goat, Cámara and Torres need to find who killed one of the dance orgy troupe. In true style, Cámara does his best not to raise an eyebrow as the amusing and quirky dwarf Jesus, Joseph, Mary, Father Christmas, the Camel-man and three naked angels recall a night in the brothel that is stuck in 1985 for all eternity.

For an added treat of readers, Cámara’s grandfather Hilaro makes an appearance with his ever present Spanish proverbs and no-nonsense attitudes. If you’re tired of sickly-sweet Christmas stories and events this year, read this and laugh at a far more fun reality, Spanish style.

As an added bonus, you also get the first chapter of the first in Max Cámara series, Or The Bull Kills You, which is a truly excellent read and fantastic introduction to the Cámara series.

If you have never witnessed the brothels just outside Valencia, or an all-night disco party, perhaps you haven’t really lived. I don’t want to spend Christmas with a goat high on cocaine, but it’s the best Christmas story I’ve read in a while.

Buy The Killing of el Niño Jesús here

Visit Webster’s website – jasonwebster.net

Read my reviews for both  the last two Cámara novels – A Death in Valencia and The Anarchist Detective

You can also pre-order your copy of The Spy with 29 Names: The story of the Second World War’s most audacious double agent now

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936’ by Jeremy Treglown

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An open-minded and clear-eyed reexamination of the cultural artifacts of Franco’s Spain –True, false, or both

Spain’s 1939–75 dictator, Francisco Franco, was a pioneer of water conservation and sustainable energy. Pedro Almodóvar is only the most recent in a line of great antiestablishment film directors who have worked continuously in Spain since the 1930s. As early as 1943, former Republicans and Nationalists were collaborating in Spain to promote the visual arts, irrespective of the artists’ political views.

Censorship can benefit literature. Memory is not the same thing as history.

Inside Spain as well as outside, many believe—wrongly—that under Franco’s dictatorship, nothing truthful or imaginatively worthwhile could be said or written or shown. In his groundbreaking new book, Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936, Jeremy Treglown argues that oversimplifications like these of a complicated, ambiguous actuality have contributed to a separate falsehood: that there was and continues to be a national pact to forget the evils for which Franco’s side (and, according to this version, his side alone) was responsible.

The myth that truthfulness was impossible inside Franco’s Spain may explain why foreign narratives (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Homage to Catalonia) have seemed more credible than Spanish ones. Yet La Guerra de España was, as its Spanish name asserts, Spain’s own war, and in recent years the country has begun to make a more public attempt to “reclaim” its modern history. How it is doing so, and the role played in the process by notions of historical memory, are among the subjects of this wide-ranging and challenging book.

Franco’s Crypt reveals that despite state censorship, events of the time were vividly recorded. Treglown looks at what’s actually there—monuments, paintings, public works, novels, movies, video games—and considers, in a captivating narrative, the totality of what it shows. The result is a much-needed reexamination of a history we only thought we knew.

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‘Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936’

When opening this book, a reader could easily expect to sit down an examine Franco’s effect on Spanish art during his dictatorship. Instead, this book extends far further, into many aspects of the Franco period, so much so that art ends up being only a fraction of the story.

The first part of Franco’s crypt gives a clear introduction to the Franco period. The book titles refers to Valle de los Caídos, where Franco is buried outside Madrid, and his behemoth is discussed, along with other monuments to the time period. The book talks about Spain’s left and how the crypt is a symbol for all things horrid, while also managing to be a figure for the Spanish right, their religion and their vast power under Franco. The opening of the book delves into the subject of bodies buried in unmarked mass graves throughout Spain, and goes through the reality of digging up such a grave. The section is laced with a feeling of resignation; that after  all this time, whose bodies are they and the reasoning behind digging is uncertain. It is a subject that deserves far more opinions and time placed upon it. 

The author gives a feeling that ‘memory’ is not such a simple beast; rather that the name encompasses many things. This could be certainly true, as memories and history are merely a recollection of the winners in a heated battle. With Spain being divided, by being its own enemy, all ideas, social and cultural norms, politics and attitudes are up for debate.

One chapter is dedicated to dam building in Spain under Franco. The voice of the book pulls back and forward between talking of the need to progress and the results of such ambitious, and sometimes failed, projects as well as the reality of what it did to the poorer people, who saw no benefit of the projects. This back-and-forward feeling in opinions distinguishes itself throughout the book.

What this book does do is lay out all the various elements of life under Franco, and how it is perceived in modern times. There can be no one element which accurately portrays Francoism and its effects, rather embracing that all walks of life, levels of wealth and social standing, and everyday opinion shape what is called ‘history.’ Treglown takes a (well-needed) swipe at the Spanish Biographic Dictionary, done by the Royal Academy of History in 2011. The glaring pieces of detail left out, and the additions and exclusions in this so-called encyclopaedia of Spain’s history is the perfect analogy for how Spain is viewed today.

This book does tell much of arts during Franco’s reign. To say Franco suppressed the arts could be an unfair comment. The book talks of great artists such as Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies and Antonio Saura. It talks of Spanish art making its way around the world, to be seen by overseas audiences more so than ever before. Writer Camilo José Cela won the Nobel Prize for literature. Filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Luis Buñuel were able to produce their films in Spain (though Buñuel, fresh from exile, had his work again banned). The book makes little mention of artists whose arts were not selected for greatness, and why, and a recurring theme throughout the book is that women barely managed to scrape their way into the history books. While Spain had its own share of female painters and writers, it seems fair to say women were not able to make much headway in the art houses of Spain. Treglown touches on the fact a feudal system still persisted among artists; not many artists were working class, no doubt out of the need to earn a living as best they could. While notable exceptions to this class divide are celebrated, all it does is highlight the inequality of the age.

Franco’s Crypt, page 102 – ‘Besides, while in the nineteenth century all the talent painters had to emigrate, in the Franco period they were once again living on the Peninsula. Did the unexpected development occur because of or despite the regime?’

Treglown answers that the regime did neither or both. Franco allowed Spanish artists to speak and their word spread worldwide, thus creating an image of Spain. Whether Franco liked it or not, we will never truly know. The book does not dwell much on drama or performance art, or on poetry, which is a shame.

One area of considerable divided option is the author’s chapters on the transition to democracy in the 1970’s. Opinion (or propaganda) tends to say that the left were hushed up during this period, and that the voices of the people went unheard during this period. Treglown gives examples of media accounts, historical studies and publications and documentaries which spoke out in this period against Franco, and of past crimes. He attempts to show that opinions of leftist Spain did have a voice. However,  the so-called ‘pact of forgetting’ does remain in place, and those guilty were never tried for crimes, so to what effect these limited voices had is questionable. A roll-call of those in power after the transition says a lot of the effect of leftist ideas for change.

The reality of the era is that Franco modernised his country. After war in the 30’s, the violence of the 40’s and the struggling 50’s, Spain did begin to prosper in the 60’s, by becoming a US ally, with all important tourism and through economic growth. Little mention of the early 70’s, with inflation, high increases in the cost of living, and Spaniards returning home in search of work, isn’t touched upon. The book tries to sit on the fence in the opinions of Franco and his regime, in an effort to tell truths otherwise hidden. However, it shows without doubt that Spain lacked any decent authority figures for a long period. Some argue the Catholic right-wingers lost much of their hold on Spain towards the end of Franco’s reign, but a quick look who has influenced Spain since Franco, and at the laws being created in Spain in 2013 by the PP government, suggests an evil seed has been allowed to flourish. Liberalism have have got hold for some time, but the future remains murky for Spain.

Treglown should be praised for putting together a book so laden with information. This is no summer-sun read, but if you want to learn about Spain, understand the country you have moved to, or wish to make sense of a divided nation, be aware that this book is written with a biased prose. I can’t be certain it shows that Franco wasn’t the oppressor he was made out to be, but it shows that despite the regime, creativity and the human spirit continued to fight. I am a unashamed leftie and won’t praise anything Franco achieved, and this book didn’t sit well with me for the entire length.

Buy Franco’s Crypt here

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Inside the Tortilla: A Journey in Search of Authenticity’ by Paul Read

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Cover art via speakingofspain.com

Life has a habit of throwing obstacles in your path for a good reason: They arise to challenge the undaunted, or deter the uncommitted. Either way, when you stumble into a town that the guide books have overlooked, you must choose between quickly moving on, or staying to see what the obstacles conceal.

When one man and his faithful hound turn their backs on the Mediterranean Sea and set out on a journey into the interior of the Deep South, they go in search of a town that still cooks it’s food rather than shops for it. Tired of the disposable nature of modern living and its embrace of microwaved food, this search for authentic recipes unveils not just a series of gastronomic secrets, but the rich history, culture, politics and diet of a charismatic country as it struggles out of the shadow of its past and into the searing light of its future.

Inside the Tortilla: A Journey in Search of Authenticity

I am generally suspicious of anyone using the word ‘authentic’ when it comes to Spain. There will be half a million Brits living in Spain right now, penning out their ‘new life in Spain’ book, thinking they are special. There will be legal hoops to jump through, a charming neighbour named Juan, lazy builders, translation mishaps… blah, blah, blah. I gave up reading such books a while back, after reading a memoir so bad I tossed it out a window. But when Paul Read told the story of searching for authentic tortilla in Andalucia, there was finally a ‘living in Spain’ book with reading.

Many pronounce to have found ‘the real Spain’ (as if there can be a one-size-fits-all Spain). If they do find such a beast, they pen the tale all wrong. Not so with Read – Inside the Tortilla reads like you’re in the moment, hearing the words from the author himself, who spares the clichés. Read’s words rang true about the Mediterranean coast being a mess, and the food being disappointing. Tourism is the ultimate double edged sword – it’s a huge industry, making money and providing employment, but it also poisons all it touches. Read goes where many an expat doesn’t bother – away from the packaged coast of Spain.

Enter the town nicknamed ‘La Clave’ in the hills outside Granada, and a more natural way of life. We find Read finding his way, making a new life far removed from the path many expats take. We meet Andrés, who gives rise to the nickname ‘Gazpacho Monk’ as the author is known. The book dives into everyday meetings with those in the town, the fiestas that dominate Spanish life, the annoyances of having a car towed, and throwing what is akin to a Brontosaurus hide at a dog living on a roof.

Through the story lies recipes, the classics that the Spanish enjoy eating, recipes that exist solely because of Spain’s once simple way of life. The book also tells of the town’s history, of the first Spanish Republic, and its ‘Revolution of Bread and Cheese’, and of Spain’s more recent battles, with the 2007 historical memory laws and the threat of opening old wounds. Strategies to cope with the Spanish heat are included, along tips for eating almejas (clams) – a picture of King Alfonso is required, or a suitable substitute such as Real Madrid  memorabilia or a toilet roll.

Anyone who knows Spain well will find themselves nodding in agreement at the Spanish way of life, like the old ladies gossiping at the bus stop, or the act of getting a recipe with your mortgage. Those who don’t know about living in Spain can get an introduction into what the country is really like when you step away of the microwaved version of the country found along the coast. This is no guide to moving to Spain; this book is a success story, told by someone who made a real effort to build a new life.

Buy Inside The Tortilla here

Meet Paul Read, the ‘Gazpacho Monk’

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Ernest Hemingway

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Synopsis –

The quintessential novel of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises is one of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpieces and a classic example of his spare but powerful writing style. A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation, the novel introduces two of Hemingway’s most unforgettable characters: Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions. First published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises helped to establish Hemingway as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

The protagonist of The Sun Also Rises is Jake Barnes, an American journalist (surprise, surprise) who lives in Paris. Jake is in love with an Englishwoman named Lady Brett Ashley, who has been divorced twice and has an attitude that is hard to come to grips with. Brett embodies everything the 1920’s wanted to let shine in women – sexual freedom with many love affairs, a short haircut and a party lifestyle. Jack and Brett are the epitome of ‘the Lost Generation’, those found without a sense of life or purpose in the aftermath of the first world war.

The book comes in three parts – book one opens in Paris. Jake meets with his friend Robert, before picking up a prostitute. Jake’s seemingly miserable attitude is there from the very beginning, and only seems to increase when he bumps into Brett and one of her men in a nightclub. Brett confesses she loves Jake, but they know they can never be together. Jake suffered an injury in the war and is impotent. While it is never openly discussed, the injury makes itself known very early in the story, as is Brett’s desire for sex.

Fast forward to book two, and Jake’s friend Bill arrives New York, and Brett’s fiancée Mike from Scotland.  Jake and Bill go fishing in Pamplona in northern Spain, but Robert decides to stay in Pamplona to wait for Brett and Mike, because he and Brett had a tryst weeks earlier and hates the fact she is with Mike. Jake and Bill have an enjoyable trip and come back to Pamplona to drink a lot, something that is a ‘theme supreme’ throughout the book. As the alcohol flows, the group slowly turns on Robert, who is bombarded with anti-semitic jokes.  The group do everything Pamplona can offer – eat, drink, the running of the bulls, bullfighting and generally get on each other’s nerves. Brett has another affair, with a 19-year-old bullfighter named Romero, and eventually her lovers – Romero, Jake, Robert and Mike end up all professing love and generally punching each other as much as they feel like – which is a lot.  Robert crushes young Romero in a fight, but he still manages to succeed in the fiesta bullfight.

Book Three starts with the aftermath of the disastrous trip to Pamplona. The group parts ways and Jake goes to San Sebastian, but as he prepares to leave for Paris, he gets a telegram. Brett has gone to Madrid with young Romero, and (as with all stupid love affairs) things have gone sour. Jake goes to her rescue in Madrid, but Brett decides to go home to Mike. The closing scene is Jake and Brett together, wondering how things could have been between them.

It would be easy to sympathise with the lost generation of the 20’s, after all they had endured. Sadly, with many of these characters, they are unlikable, but not unreadable. Hemingway gave Paris and Pamplona a distinct feel, Paris of general listlessness and Pamplona of fire and drama. The scenes in Paris can be tough – the cynic in me wanted to shake the sorry lot of characters – rather than lost, they came off as a bit lazy. Brett is a character I thought I could identify with – independent, dismissive of cultural norms, her own woman. Instead, when she got dumped in Madrid, I was pleased. She played with people, and while reasonably honest about her behaviour, she pitted men against one another, without thoughts of anyone but herself. Strong women can have a conscience, but Brett is sadly lacking in morality, no matter the time period she lived in. Some noble actions are timeless.

The book relies on plenty of ‘what-if’ scenarios, something all can identify with and the story moves at a good pace. Some have called it anti-semitic due to the number of times that Robert’s faith is mentioned (A lot. Too much? Perhaps). Masculinity and sexuality play their roles, consistent with the time period Hemingway wrote the book, when women were gaining some semblance of independence and free to explore sex almost as much as men (though in 2013, things still haven’t caught up completely). Some characters, such as masculine bullfighter Romero, struggle with the emergence of women’s sexuality and his perceived changes to their ‘femininity’. Love and sex are bantered back and forth with a male character who gives love but not sex, and a woman who is the reverse, something readers should appreciate.

The Sun Also Rises is an excellent novel. It deals with a yearning that strikes every person during their lifetime. While some characters are more difficult to connect with, their emotions, Jake’s in particular, are very real. Whether they are lost people in search of the meaning in life, or a bunch of lazy drunks, is up to the reader. Personally, to me they are a bit of both. Even great love doesn’t always work out, and in my opinion, Jake had a lucky escape from Brett’s clutches.

Next week – Noble prize winner  The Old Man and the Sea