SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 2: Fiction

Following on from yesterday’s post –SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 1: Non-fiction, here is part two, novels based around the Spanish Civil War. It is a particularly difficult task to pluck suggestions from so many books on offer, so I stuck to just a few of the books I have read, and only ones in English. I included my own book because… well, I can! Great to have a selection of female writers, as part one was sorely lacking. If you have an suggestions, let me know.

All cover art and blurbs are via their amazon links

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BLOOD IN THE VALENCIAN SOIL: LOVE AND HATE HIDDEN IN THE LEGACY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Caroline Angus Baker

Pleasure is as fragile as glass… Spain, March 1939 – the Spanish Civil War is coming to an end. Five young Republicans in the small town of Cuenca know they are on the losing side of the war. History only recognises the winners, and the group know they could die, all destined to become faceless statistics. They concoct a plan to go to Valencia in search of safety, but not all of these young men and women are going to survive? Seventy years later, bicycle mechanic Luna Montgomery, the granddaughter of a New Zealand nurse who served during the Spanish Civil War, has made Spain her home. A young widow and mother of two little boys, Luna wants to know what became of her Spanish grandfather. He is one of the ‘disappeared’, one of the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who were murdered and hidden away during and after the war. On a quick trip to Madrid, Luna forms an unlikely friendship with an intelligent and popular bullfighter, Cayetano Beltran, but as Luna presses on to delve into Spain’s history for answers, Cayetano struggles with truths he wished he had never found out. In an ever-changing society that respects and upholds family ties, betrayal by the people who Luna and Cayetano hold dear will hurt them more than they could have realised. There are old wounds that have yet to heal underneath Spain’s ‘pact of forgetting’.

This is my first book series based entirely in Spain, and this is the first book in a three part series. The first book is based during the war, the others during and at the end of Franco’s reign. See my Secrets of Spain category for all the details. 

51acqUu++xL._SY346_WINTER IN MADRID by C J Sansom

1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatised veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories. Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged on a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

In a vivid and haunting depiction of wartime Spain, Winter in Madrid is an intimate and compelling tale which offers a remarkable sense of history unfolding, and the profound impact of impossible choices.

Winter in Madrid is one of the most popular civil war novels available. I found some of the characters annoying, but I suppose that’s proof the author can make people authentic. Read my review here

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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving, and wise. “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” Maxwell Perkins wrote Hemingway after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.” Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.

THE Hemingway war novel. Just read it – why haven’t you already? Read my review here

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ALBERTO’S LOST BIRTHDAY by Diana Rosie

A little boy and his grandfather embark on a quest to find the old man’s missing birthday in Diana Rosie’s debut novel, Alberto’s Lost Birthday.

As a child, Alberto lost his birthday in the Spanish civil war. Now an old man living a simple life, he rarely thinks about his disappeared past.

But when his grandson discovers his Apu has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, and never received a single card or present, he’s determined to do something about it.

As the two set off to find Alberto’s birthday, they have no idea it will be a journey that takes them through Spain’s troubled past, to places – and people – that Alberto once knew.

But in a country that has vowed to move forward, looking back can be difficult. Will they be able to find the memories they’re searching for?

A sweet and interesting take on historical memory in Spain.

51rvAH5wS2L._SY346_GUERNICA by Dave Boling

n 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself on the wrong side of the Spanish Nationalists, so he flees to Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basque region. In the midst of this idyllic, isolated bastion of democratic values, Miguel finds more than a new life-he finds a love that not even war, tragedy or death can destroy.

The bombing of Guernica was a devastating experiment in total warfare by the German Luftwaffe in the run-up to World War II . For the Basques, it was an attack on the soul of their ancient nation. History and fiction merge seamlessly in this beautiful novel about the resilience of family, love, and tradition in the face of hardship.

Guernica is a widely loved novel based in the Basque region and its unimaginable destruction in the late 30’s. A place mostly untouched by the world became the testing ground for misery.
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SOLDIERS OF SALAMIS by Javier Cercas

In the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, fifty prominent Nationalist prisoners are executed by firing squad. Among them is the writer and fascist Rafael Sanchez Mazas.   As the guns fire, he escapes into the forest, and can hear a search party and their dogs hunting him down.

The branches move and he finds himself looking into the eyes of a militiaman, and faces death for the second time that day. But the unknown soldier simply turns and walks away.

Sanchez Mazas becomes a national hero and the soldier disappears into history.  As Cercas sifts the evidence to establish what happened, he realises that the true hero may not be Sanchez Mazas at all, but the soldier who chose not to shoot him.  Who was he?  Why did he spare him?  And might he still be alive?

Another hugely popular book translated into English, and well worth the read. Read my review here

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DEATH OF A NATIONALIST by Rebecca Pawel

Madrid 1939. Carlos Tejada Alonso y León is a Sergeant in the Guardia Civil, a rank rare for a man not yet thirty, but Tejada is an unusual recruit. The bitter civil war between the Nationalists and the Republicans has interrupted his legal studies in Salamanca. Second son of a conservative Southern family of landowners, he is an enthusiast for the Catholic Franquista cause, a dedicated, and now triumphant, Nationalist.

This war has drawn international attention. In a dress rehearsal for World War II, fascists support the Nationalists, while communists have come to the aid of the Republicans. Atrocities have devastated both sides. It is at this moment, when the Republicans have surrendered, and the Guardia Civil has begun to impose order in the ruins of Madrid, that Tejada finds the body of his best friend, a hero of the siege of Toledo, shot to death on a street named Amor de Dios. Naturally, a Red is suspected. And it is easy for Tejada to assume that the woman caught kneeling over the body is the killer. But when his doubts are aroused, he cannot help seeking justice.

This is the first book in a series featuring the same characters. Great to see an author taking this line of fiction.

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THE CARPENTER’S PENCIL by Manuel Rivas

Manuel Rivas has been heralded as one of the brightest in a new wave of Spanish writers influenced by Spanish and European traditions, as well as by the history of Spain over the past seventy years.

A bestseller in Spain, The Carpenter’s Pencil has been published in nine countries.

Set in the dark days of the Spanish Civil War, The Carpenter’s Pencil charts the linked destinies of a remarkable cast of unique characters. All are bound by the events of the Civil War-the artists and the peasants alike-and all are brought to life, in Rivas’s skillful hand, with the power of the carpenter’s pencil, a pencil that draws both the measured line and the artist’s dazzling vision.

Originally written in Galician, this is another great opportunity for readers to enjoy Spanish (Galician) authors on the subject.

51s-joC4ONL._SL500_SX331_BO1,204,203,200_THE STUFF OF HEROES by Miguel Delibes

Set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, Delibes’s ( The Hedge ) plot chronicles the shifting fortunes of the De la Lastra family, which finds itself divided by politics. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of young Gervasio, who dreams of becoming a military hero. While Gervasio enlists in the Navy in order to fight the Communists, his father, a naturopathic doctor, is imprisoned for more liberal beliefs. The surrealistic horror of war, which directly touches every member of the family, is lightened by farcical domestic dramas. Gervasio’s haughty sister has her marriage to a homosexual annulled, only to find herself involved with a Fascist. Gervasio’s nurse, who tries to turn him against his family, outsmarts herself and is dismissed. As Gervasio daily comes closer and closer to battle, he faces his own conservatism, and finally must answer the question posed by Delibes: Which side of this bloody confrontation is indeed just?

This book can be hard to find, but worth it, being a little complex and quirky. Proof the war had few winners.

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IN THE NIGHT OF TIME by Antonio Muñoz Molina

October 1936. Spanish architect Ignacio Abel arrives at Penn Station, the final stop on his journey from war-torn Madrid, where he has left behind his wife and children, abandoning them to uncertainty. Crossing the fragile borders of Europe, he reflects on months of fratricidal conflict in his embattled country, his own transformation from a bricklayer’s son to a respected bourgeois husband and professional, and the all-consuming love affair with an American woman that forever alters his life.

A rich, panoramic portrait of Spain on the brink of civil war, In the Night of Time details the passions and tragedies of a country tearing itself apart. Compared in scope and importance to War and Peace, Muñoz Molina’s masterpiece is the great epic of the Spanish Civil War written by one of Spain’s most important contemporary novelists.

This book is quite a read, it took me months to get through it all. Epic is the only word I would use to describe the novel.

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SEVEN RED SUNDAYS by Ramón J Sender

The time is 1935. The place is Madrid, a city beset by labor unrest which has raised fears―and among some, hopes―of revolution. At an overflow meeting of workingmen, the military intervenes and three of the workers’ leaders and a member of the socialist party are killed. A public funeral ends in street fighting, sabotage, and the prospect of a general strike throughout Spain. From these events Ramón Sender has fashioned a novel of terror and beauty―one of the great unsung works of the 20th century. Behind the confused and conflicting theories of the revolutionaries who are the central characters of Seven Red Sundays, Mr. Sender discovers a sublime faith and a spirit of self-sacrifice. But whether these idealists with guns represent hope or despair is a haunting question which the reader must decide.

Another book that can be hard to track down. The books focus on the lives of ordinary people in the lead up to the outbreak of war.

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SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It is 1945 and Barcelona is enduring the long aftermath of civil war when Daniel Sempere’s bookseller father decides his son is old enough to visit the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There Daniel must ‘adopt’ a single book, promising to care for it and keep it alive always. His choice falls on The Shadow of the Wind.

Bewitched, he embarks on an epic quest to find the truth about Julian Carax, the book’s mysterious author. Soon Daniel is consumed by strange discoveries about love and obsession, art and life, and how they become entangled within the shadow world of books.

The Shadow of the Wind is a mesmerising love story and literary thriller, which twists and turns and enthralls with its cast of vengeful souls, threatening spectres and innocent hearts.

The Shadow of the Wind series is not to be missed. About more than just the war, its aftermath and a gothic mystery feel are added. While the second book in the series, The Angels’ Game, is less war related (but incredible), the third in the series is about prisoners during the civil war. Stop reading this and go and get these books. Now.

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THUS BAD BEGINS by Javier Marías

As a young man, Juan de Vere takes a job that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Eduardo Muriel is a famous film director – urbane, discreet, irreproachable – an irresistible idol to a young man. Muriel’s wife Beatriz is a soft, ripe woman who slips through her husband’s home like an unwanted ghost, finding solace in other beds. And on the periphery of all their lives stands Dr Jorge Van Vechten, a shadowy family friend implicated in unsavoury rumours that Muriel cannot bear to pursue himself – rumours he asks Juan to investigate instead. But as Juan draws closer to the truth, he uncovers more questions, ones his employer has not asked and would rather not answer. Why does Muriel hate Beatriz? How did Beatriz meet Van Vechten? And what happened during the war?

As Juan learns more about his employers, he begins to understand the conflicting pulls of desire, power and guilt that govern their lives – and his own. Marias presents a study of the infinitely permeable boundaries between private and public selves, between observer and participant, between the deceptions we suffer from others and those we enact upon ourselves.

This book, again in Marías’ flowing prose, is the author’ latest work, about a man digging in the his bosses war past and a bit of a journey into voyeurism. Read my review here

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NADA by Carmen Laforet

One of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain, Nada is the semiautobiographical story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona. Edith Grossman’s vital new translation captures Carmen Laforet’s feverish energy, powerful imagery, and subtle humor. Nada, which includes an illuminating Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, is one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe.

“Laforet vividly conveys the strangeness of Barcelona in the 1940s, a city that has survived civil war only to find itself muted by Franco’s dictatorship…The spirit of sly resistance that Laforet’s novel expresses, its heroine’s determination to escape provincial poverty and to immerse herself in ‘lights, noises, the entire tide of life,’ has lost none of its power of persuasion.”

This book is based in the aftermath of the war and one I couldn’t put down. Read my review here

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MAZURKA FOR TWO DEAD MEN by Camilo José Cela

The Spanish Civil War intrudes almost casually on the characters’ picaresque doings in Cela’s amorphous, bawdy novel, first published in Spain in 1983. Set in the mountainous region of Galicia and redolent with the Spanish countryside’s wild beauty and its inhabitants’ folkways, the work depicts a gallery of sinners, fools and misfits in overlapping yarns that span several generations. The plot involves Lionheart Gamuzo, who was shot in the back in 1936, and his brother Tanis, who in 1940 avenges the death with trained killer dogs. The blind Gaudencio, who works as an accordionist in a whorehouse, plays the same mazurka to commemorate these deaths, framing a sprawling canvas peopled with an enormous Rabelaisian cast, including jazz musician Uncle Cleto, who vomits whenever he’s bored; the widow Fina, who is fond of bedding priests; and Roque Gamuzo, who is famed for his colossal member. Winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for literature, Cela ( The Family of Pascual Duarte ) garrulously conveys the impression that “mankind is a hairy, gregarious beast, wearisome and devoted to miracles and happenings.” The musical translation captures his lyricism and colloquial flavor.

I love this author and all his works are worth taking the time to find and read. This book is a bit all-over-the-place but still worthy of attention.

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THE SENTINEL by Mark Oldfield

You can’t escape the past.

He was the cold steel behind Franco’s regime. The fear behind Franco’s power.

57 years ago, Comandante Leopoldo Guzmán disappeared without a trace. They know what he did, but they don’t know where he’s gone.

Madrid, winter 1953: the snow lies thick on the ground and Comandante Guzmán of the Brigada Especial is preparing a dawn raid. His job is to hunt down opponents of Franco’s regime and destroy them. Feared by all in Franco’s Spain, Guzmán takes what he wants: food, drink, women.

That is about to change. Guzmán is going to find himself on the wrong side of Franco, and on the wrong side of history. It’s not the first time Guzmán has been on the wrong side. But there’s no one left alive who knows about that… until he gets a message from a dead man…

Madrid, 2009: Ana María Galindez is a forensic scientist investigating a mass grave from the Franco era. Now she is hunting for the hidden ledger of secret policeman Leopoldo Guzmán – a man who disappeared without trace in 1953. But there are those who would rather the secrets of Guzmán’s ledger stay buried. Galindez’ pursuit of the past has revealed a battle for the present…

This is the first in a three part series, and a long read worth your time.  Read my review here. Book two, The Exile is also available. Read my review here

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: June – ‘Everybody Behaves Badly’ by Lesley M M Blume

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The making of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the outsize personalities who inspired it, and the vast changes it wrought on the literary world

In the summer of 1925, Ernest Hemingway and a clique of raucous companions traveled to Pamplona, Spain, for the town’s infamous running of the bulls. Then, over the next six weeks, he channeled that trip’s maelstrom of drunken brawls, sexual rivalry, midnight betrayals, and midday hangovers into his groundbreaking novel The Sun Also Rises. This revolutionary work redefined modern literature as much as it did his peers, who would forever after be called the Lost Generation. But the full story of Hemingway’s legendary rise has remained untold until now. 

Lesley Blume resurrects the explosive, restless landscape of 1920s Paris and Spain and reveals how Hemingway helped create his own legend. He made himself into a death-courting, bull-fighting aficionado; a hard-drinking, short-fused literary genius; and an expatriate bon vivant. Blume’s vivid account reveals the inner circle of the Lost Generation as we have never seen it before, and shows how it still influences what we read and how we think about youth, sex, love, and excess. 
Cover and blurb via amazon
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This month, Spain Book Review goes a tad off-road, with Everybody Behaves Badly. Not strictly about Spain or written in Spain, but since it’s about Ernest Hemingway getting his Spain on, I figured it works just fine. The book covers both Spain and Hemingway’s time in Paris. By 1921, Hemingway was already on his way to literary famousness, but was in need of the great American novel. So when handsome young Ernest headed to Spain with a troupe of friends in 1925, their trip would end in the genius that is The Sun Also Rises.
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The book starts out with the early years in Paris and how Hemingway felt the desire to add a novel to his career, since he had only published short stories at that point. Hemingway and his new wife Hadley go to Paris, as members of the lost generation, and the author goes into full detail of the lifestyle of a man in need of literary success. The book focuses heavily on details of Hemingway’s early life, telling both a story and writing a biography in one.
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Everyone knows the story of The Sun Also Rises (this link has my review if you don’t) – a group of friends go to Pamplona, enjoy some bullfighting and a random fishing trip, have affairs, drink waaaay too much and the whole escapade turns to hell. Everybody Behaves Badly is the real life excursion. Hemingway and wife Hadley went to Pamplona in 1923 and 1924, and in 1925, went with a group of friends – Harold Loeb, Duff Twysden, Bill Smith, Pat Guthrie and Donald Ogden Stewart. What unfolds is what Hemingway could later turn into his famous novel. Hemingway, now famous for womanising, was with his wife but was interested in Duff Twysden, as was writer Harold Loeb. And we all know how well romantic rivalry mixes with alcohol and bravado. The back story of the fateful 1925 trip is spelled out in great detail as the members of the lost generation explore sexual freedom and creative processes on what was supposed to be writing trip about bullfighting but ends up with jealousy and fist-fighting.
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The last portion of the book is dedicated to the editing and publishing of The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s life is really taking off, and his wife (and now young son) are not fitting in with his choices. Hemingway nicely starts an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer. Hemingway ruthless cut and edited his book to create a great piece of work, and decides to also edit out his own wife. Hemingway needed to get in with a new publisher, Scribner’s, a challenge in itself, all while working greats of the day, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, to create a book which has been in print for 90 years now.
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Hemingway’s life has been viewed from every angle, but this, while not all new info, tells the story of the pivotal time of Hemingway’s life. Much is made of his life during the Spanish Civil War, but this gives us a new insight to Hemingway in Paris, his early romantic life and his lifestyle in these early days. My dream Spanish road trip (a game played a few years back) was with Hemingway and Dalí, and reading this book made me even more convinced I made the right choices. My own bullfighting research trips don’t get this wild (thank God), and I’m glad to have read this behind-the-scenes moment in time. Perfect for lovers of Spain, the 1920’s, Hemingway, or like me, all three.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Death And The Sun: A Matador’s Season In The Heart Of Spain’ by Edward Lewine

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An immoral spectacle or a metaphor of life? Bullfighting never fails to provoke a reaction. In this unusual travel memoir, Edward Lewine embarks on an eye-opening journey around Spain to track a typical season for the country’s biggest bullfighter, Francisco Rivera Ordonez. Fighting bulls while fleeing celebrity, Spain’s most infamous matador lives both his public and his private life on the edge. The last in a distinguished bloodline, he is plagued by the legacies of his great-grandfather, the greatest matador of his day and revered by Hemingway, and by his late father, who was gored to death in the arena. With sixty-two fights and a hundred and twenty bulls to confront in the coming season, Francisco must also endure the aggressive attention of the paparazzi who pursue him for news of his colourful private life and breakdown of his marriage to a Spanish duchess. LEWINE witnesses at first hand the thrilling routine of a top bullfighter – the rituals, the risks, the stage fright – and assesses the significance of bullfighting in the context of Spanish identity. This national obsession encapsulates the uniqueness of Spanish culture.

Photo and blurb from Random House

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If you are not a fan of bullfighting, read my quick disclaimer or keep your opinions to yourself.

Edward Lewine’s book Death and the Sun is by no means new; published in 2005, I have read it several times, and have just finished reading it again while studying bullfighting. The book follows a make-or-break season for famous bullfighter Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, known as Fran. Fran comes from a famous line of bullfighters; his father was the famous Francisco Rivera Pérez, ‘Paquirri’, who died in the ring when Fran was 10. Along with his brother Cayetano, they would form another piece in a famous bullfighting family; their great-grandfather was Cayetano Ordóñez, who was a muse for Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, and his grandfather was Antonio Ordóñez, who featured in Ernest Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer. It seems Fran was always destined to become a bullfighter, the son of the most famously killed bullfighter, and he and his brother, born to a tabloid queen, are no strangers to being dressed in the traje de luces, the suit of lights.

This book covers Fran and so much more. The author sheds light on bullfighting for anyone not terribly knowledgeable on the event, the history, the traditions, the animals. No detail or aspect is left untouched. Following Fran through a season, shows an eventful eight month period for the bullfighter; Fran has just announced his separation from his wife Eugenia Martínez de Irujo, 12th Duchess of Montoro, with whom he shares a very young daughter. The tabloids are loving the story; his mother, in an ever-pressing need to be heard, shares tales of the relationship, something which only serves to make Fran’s season more difficult.

Fran is at a crossroads; use his skills to become one of the greats or fade into obscurity, like so many before him. The author follows Fran through all stages; the fights, the reactions, the travelling, the entourages and their thoughts. A whole world of glamour, traditions, bright lights and heavy pressures swirls about Fran, the ring leader of the bullfighting circus. Fran is no stranger to anyone interested in fighting. He has been followed by multiple writers, but this is an all-new angle on the man behind the family name.

Rather than being a travel book on Spain, you see the country through bullfighting eyes. There is tradition and drama, formalities and losses, people crying the usual bullfighting clichés and the zest for the melodramatic. The book also touches on bullfighting as a whole – addressing many of the cries from those who hate the entire event. Man against death. The bull will always die, that is not in question – but would death of the man be suitable, a loss, or a disappointment? Of course not.

The sections of the history of bullfighting are excellent in their detail, the stories of the bull-breeding is concise and yet never dull, all details are acknowledged so the reader can feel part of the exclusive world. There can’t be guide in English as well-written or thought-provoking as this. How a bullfighter travels and what his team have to say, earn and like is there, laid out in perfect clarity.

Fran is a difficult person to see in the book. While the characters all attempt to make themselves known, Fran almost seems to be behind a curtain, not quite letting out who he really is. He paints the picture of a man surrounded yet somehow solo, heaving under a huge weight of expectation, and yet finding himself not living up to those expectations, real or perceived. Frustration is evident with bulls which fail to live up to what Fran needs in order to cement his name in the ring.

Fran’s personal life is in total disarray, but Fran barely mentions it. Maybe it was painful, perhaps he wanted to keep it quiet while his ex and his mother continued to talk to anyone who would listen. Maybe he just didn’t care; sometimes divorce is a weight lifted. But no doubt the author covered Fran as who he appeared to be – reticent, strong, quiet and perfect for the role the suit of lights expected from him. Who Fran is in private, perhaps no one will know for sure. This book is perfect for anyone interested in bullfighting, and anyone who wishes to learn needs to look no further than Death and the Sun. I am quick to toss a book that doesn’t catch me early on, yet I’ve read this four times. This is a book about souls who live in a world which divides opinion like nothing else.

The most special day of Francisco Rivera Ordóñez

Francisco Rivera Ordóñez source

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War’ by Amanda Vaill

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Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe—a conflict one writer will call “the decisive thing of the century”—six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love and experience, thinks she will find both with Hemingway in Spain. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, idealistic young photographers based in Paris, want to capture history in the making and are inventing modern photojournalism in the process. And Arturo Barea, chief of Madrid’s loyalist foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy, are struggling to balance truth-telling with loyalty to their sometimes compromised cause—a struggle that places both of them in peril.
     Hotel Florida traces the tangled wartime destinies of these three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history. As Hemingway put it, “You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could anywhere in the world.” From the raw material of unpublished letters and diaries, official documents, and recovered reels of film, Amanda Vaill has created a narrative of love and reinvention that is, finally, a story about truth: finding it out, telling it, and living it—whatever the cost.

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I rarely read reviews before I start reading a book, so they don’t influence my opinion while reading. However, Hotel Florida seemed to pop up everywhere just prior to its release, with reviews written by those with advance copies and the like. Once I received my own copy of the book, I already had the opinions of others going around in my head. For once, it’s not a big deal, and the word that seems to be thrown at this book is ‘compelling’. With characters like Hemingway, Capa, Taro and Gellhorn, how could it be anything but compelling? Given that these characters are not new to anyone, how can pre-conceived stereotypes of characters not interfere with reading? There was only one way to find out.

For those without knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, the book starts out with timelines and facts of the who/what/ where/why’s of the conflict. I must confess I skimmed over these since I already knew the details, but this would prove invaluable to those who need to be shown the way through the civil war. They immediately show a reader that the author has gone to a great deal of effort to produce a quality read.

The book has a stellar cast – Ernest Hemingway, (the man who needs no introduction, booze, girls, writing and fighting), Martha Gellhorn (the hardest character to like, known for being lazy and lying), Robert Capa (brilliant but also fluid with the truth), Gerda Taro (young, intelligent, easy to root for, killed in her prime), Arturo Barea (a budding Spanish writer, a character who could have a whole book to himself) and Ilsa Kulcsar (a brave and intelligent Austrian leftist assisting Barea in his pursuits).

These three couples don’t have a large deal of interaction in the books, and the reader gets to jump from the mind of each character chapter by chapter, in a book which moves at a quick pace. The danger faced in Spain as intensely real and would leave a mark on each of these people forever. Hemingway folds into the role he is known for – brash, loud, writing well enough to tell the world what was happening in Spain, but also jealous and petty around other people. Gellhorn wiggles her way into Hemingway’s life, and his marriage, always possessing the air of someone who can’t be trusted, but could be a good writer with more effort. No one could ever suggest going to Spain during the war was an easy task, and these two were changed by their experiences, but at times seemed to be enjoying the war. It was a grand adventure, of front line reporting and loud Madrid parties. Fans of Gellhorn may enjoy her role in this book, though to the less informed reader, she seems like a privileged girl who lives on her whims. Only after her time in Spain did Gellhorn really come into her own, which only served to crush her marriage to Hemingway.

Capa and Taro are an infamous pair, escaping unsafe homelands in Germany and Hungary, changing their names, and setting out to make a massive impact on how the world saw the Spanish Civil War. The iconic moment when Capa (may or not may not – the book doesn’t say) faked the shot of the falling soldier weaves its way into the narrative as the pair photograph the war. It’s been said that Taro was the genius of the pair, but her death was cruel and left a deep wound in Capa, who had found a soul-mate in Taro in more than a romantic sense. The pair makes for reading that would interest even those who don’t know their exploits and photographs.

Arturo Barea is the best character in the book. The Madrileño, who opens the book contemplating how he doesn’t love his wife or mistress, has a quality different to the others. Barea has more faith in the telling the truth and doesn’t enjoy twisting the facts to make reports sound more favourable for the ever losing Republicans. While Hemingway, Gellhorn, Capa and Taro are not fixated on the truth, rather getting published, Barea is left at odds with them all. Barea finds Hemingway and is ilk to be ‘posturing intellectuals’, and Barea better understands what is stake during the conflict. The Spaniard can see the fate of the Republicans as the war unfolds and realises all Spaniards are going to pay and suffer as a result of the fighting. While others can flee, it is Barea’s home that has to live with the realities of war. He engages in an affair with Ilsa Kulcsar, who had come to Spain from Austria in an attempt to aid the Republicans, and Barea divorced his wife to be with Ilsa, which meant he never saw his children again. By the end of the war, Barea and his disdain for the war and those around him made him an outcast, and he and Ilsa had to flee to Paris with little more than the clothes on their backs. They made lives in Britain with their knowledge of Spain, war and languages in what appeared as a life long love affair.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when reading Hotel Florida – fitting all these larger-than-life characters into one book can’t be easy. It is described as ‘a narrative rather than an academic analysis’, which gives the possibility for rich, engaging characters. All the reviews I have read rave about the work, no doubt because of the level of effort Vaill has exuded while writing. While reading, I couldn’t be sure how I felt about the book – the pace made me feel as if I had fact after fact tossed to me, with so many details to absorb as the characters sped along. The book has an ode to Hemingway with some  long sentences – I counted one at 76 words, just as in the style of the big man himself. Being a narrative, I expected to be shown the story rather than to be told the tale, but this did not happen. The story of Hotel Florida is told to the reader; it does not unfold in any way, rather all the details are laid out and presented. Readers do not need to imagine anything, nor put the pieces together, rather everything is laid on the table with sharp sentences. While you cannot doubt the level of devotion Vaill has for her characters, they don’t have personalities, and readers need to rely on the details given out when engaging with these well-known people. Anyone who has edited a book knows the irritation of having to reduce adverbs or fix sentences ending in a preposition, and these basics haven’t been done in this book, but it makes the story more relaxed as a result.

The book ends with forty pages of notes (around 25% of the book on my Kindle), which shows how much effort the author put into this book. The attention to detail is meticulous, and much credit should go to Vaill for her hard work and commitment to perfection. If you are looking for a sweeping tale of wartime Spain this may not be the book for you, but if are looking for a tell-all of famous faces, then you have come to the right place. An added bonus is the cameo roles of powerhouses such as George Orwell, Kim Philby and others who also made their names in Spain in this era. Whether you want war, idealism (foolish or otherwise), love, lust and sex, or celebrity jealousy and pettiness, Vaill has rolled them together in Madrid’s Hotel Florida.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway

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Synopsis –

In 1937 Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the civil war there for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Three years later he completed the greatest novel to emerge from “the good fight,” For Whom the Bell Tolls. The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving and wise. “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” Maxwell Perkins wrote to Hemingway after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.” Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.

“There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.”
― Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Many foreign writers went to Spain to cover the civil war in the 30’s, and fine selection of them told the situation in different ways, all coming together to tell a truthful account of war. Among these writers was Ernest Hemingway, who went on to write one of the greatest novels of all time, For Whom The Bell Tolls. There are only a tiny amount of tales written that capture the bitterness, the desperation, and the tragic outpouring of war. Hemingway succeeded in captivating readers and opening up the reality of Spain’s front lines, through real life situations and experiences that cannot be imagined.

The book tells the story of Robert Jordan, a journalist who travels to Spain as part of the volunteer International Brigade. Jordan, who is experienced with dynamite, is ordered to destroy a bridge outside the town of Segovia, just north-west of Madrid. Jordan and a group of Republican fighters, including Pablo and his wife Pilar, and a young woman named Maria, are all aware that their mission will almost certainly kill them. As the group go ahead with their operation, Jordan finds himself falling in love with Maria, who has suffered the worst atrocities of the Falange (fascist group following Franco’s rebel forces), which only complicates Jordan’s quarrel with death. When a fellow Republican group is caught by the rebels, Jordan’s team falls into disarray and betrayal as the reality of being against a far-stronger enemy begins to become clear. While the band all have honest intentions, fear and misery overcome the group. In a final stand, Jordan is forced to ambush the enemy, just as the world around the idealism of the Republican causes hits the darkness.

One thing readers need to come to grips with is Hemingway’s use of thou/thee, which is a translation of the Spanish tu, meaning you. Once readers have got the hang of using the old adage, it becomes enjoyable to read. The novel is written in the  third person limited omniscient narrative, in my opinion the best of its kind for this book. By giving the protagonist an all-knowing all-seeing narrative, as well as thoughts of other characters, the whole picture become more realistic and heartfelt.

Many themes are considered in the book, the main being death. Each character needs to come to terms with the fact escape while under enemy attack is unlikely. Suicide is also on the minds of each character, as it is their only alternative to an evil death in enemy hands. True to form with the civil war, politics is explored, and the ideal that men and women are equal (touted by the Republicans, hated by the Fascists) is given a real chance through the character of Pilar, who threatens to be the star of the entire story.

Due to Hemingway’s real experiences in the field during the civil war, the opportunity to have scenes well described has been used superbly. Readers have no need to have a good knowledge of Spain or the civil war because Hemingway brings it to life for all. The author had been trying to use internal dialogue correctly for years, and this is the book that cracked it with aplomb. The book was also the birth of the famous line “Did you feel the earth move? (or in Hemingway’s case, Did thee feel the earth move?). With the use of fictional characters, those based on real life figures Hemingway met, and also famous figures of the war, the book comes to life with a richly uplifting and painful novel that is a must-read for everyone.

No need to be a Spain or civil war lover, because you haven’t read until you have finished For Whom The Bell Tolls. The book should be rated 15/10. Life and death, ideology versus reality, Robert Jordan is a character that comes along once in a generation. Even if you have read it before, read it again, because books change as people change. This novel just gets better and better.

Next week – The Sun Also Rises

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 5: Madrid Food Tour with James Blick

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Never complain to a kiwi about flying. Anything less than 12 hours is practically short haul. It takes 30 hours to fly Auckland to Madrid (via Brisbane and Dubai), 25 hours of that in the air. I didn’t sleep the entire trip to Madrid yet again, but I did enjoy watching the scenery of flying over places like Iraq and Turkey. I hit the ground in Madrid, a city I hadn’t visited in seven years. It had all the familiarity of being Spanish, but still, the place felt a bit like a maze.

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Madrid is beautiful place to get lost

Little did I know. After one of those awful half-hour naps, I found myself outside the coffin-shaped Teatro Real on a mild  Saturday evening. It was time to get well and truly lost in Madrid by night. A while back I discovered Madrid Food Tour through founder Lauren Aloise, who put me through to James Blick. In true style, you can’t travel anywhere without running into another New Zealander, so to find I would be tripping around Madrid with another kiwi came as no surprise. I had never been on a tour of any kind before; I’m not a fan in any respect. If anyone can change my mind about something, it’s James Blick.

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Taberna Real

I can only try to convey the fun to be had on the Tapas and History tour. It’s a sights, sounds, smells and tastes experience that needs to be grabbed with both hands. James’ enthusiasm for his city is irresistible, and matched with several engaging couples from the around the world, I started the evening with vermouth at Taberna Real, followed by a warm evening stroll. Plaza de Oriente was filled with families enjoying the last of the sun, along with musicians and locals enjoying a drink in the fading light. It is a part of Madrid I haven’t really wandered much, so by the time we  left Plaza Ramales, the burial place (or not-so burial place in the case of the missing skeleton) of the famous Diego Velázquez besides San Juan Bautista church, I was already lost in Madrid. Not that I really noticed, given the charming company and keen wit of our tour leader.

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Plaza Ramales

 A quick walk through Plaza del Villa and down past Restaurante Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant, the next bar we stopped at was the kind I love – a tiny place, standing room only to sip wine and eat Spanish deliciousness.

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Restaurante Botín

I admitted my dislike for red wine, which set James a challenge to change my mind. Between the chorizo, blue cheese, anchovies and other such snacks, the red selected for me was excellent. Having the chance to visit places with someone who knows the history of the place greatly enhances the atmosphere.

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As the sun began to set, we headed back up Calle de los Cuchilleros and through the archway into Plaza Mayor. I must admit I had never been there, as I’m no fan of crowds of tourists. However, as the sun set the place was rather quiet. We wandered and talked about the Spanish Inquisition and various other activities to have taken place in the square, before heading out in search of better restaurants than the ones on offer in the plaza.

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Plaza Mayor

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Wandering Madrid during sunset

We stopped in Puerta del Sol, to discuss the more of Madrid’s history for those new the place, before we carried on to somewhere the nerd inside of me was excited to visit. (By this time, everyone knew I was a Spanish history nerd, no need to hide it.)

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All quiet in Puerta del Sol

We took in sherries at La Venencia, which I can only assume is named after the tool you use to take a sample of wine from the barrel. It is none other than the sherry haunt of Ernest Hemingway, a man who was still fresh in my mind after re-reading most of his work in the lead-up to my re-visit to Spain. The place looks like it stepped out of the 20’s, and rightfully so. James pointed out that it’s not cool to take photos inside the bar, but I may have accidentally slipped with my iphone and taken one of the dusty sherry bottles (don’t worry, the barman saw me and gave the nod of acceptance).

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Hanging out at La Venencia

The sherries James selected on our behalf were great and very different to each other, as was the conversation between our spirited bunch. It was well and truly dark by the time were spilled back out on the street in search of another restaurant close by.

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ME Madrid Reina Victoria hotel

The final spot of our evening delivered us more delicious fare and more too-easy-to-drink red wine. By now, a combination of alcohol and jetlag allowed for fun and informative conversation, even if the  nearby guests looked at me strange every time I said ‘Franco’. Hey, I was hating on the guy, no big deal! The opportunity to sit in a restaurant in Madrid, early into the morning and talk about Spain, its history, its culture, its economic collapse was exactly what I had come to Spain for.

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Hanging with Federico García Lorca in Plaza Santa Ana

By the time we had wandered back in the direction of Puerta del Sol, the streets had started to empty out and I was more lost than I have ever been in my life! James was kind enough to walk this afraid-of-the-dark woman back to her hotel, and along the way gave out plenty of helpful tips for my solo stay in Madrid.

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Cape shopping, anyone?

Without a doubt, the Tapas and History Tour of Madrid with James Blick is a 10/10 must-see activity. I know my fair share about Spain, but I wasn’t left feeling like I was hearing basic info for first-time visitors. Our group of was a mix of Spain aficionados and newbies, and everyone came away feeling happy and fulfilled.

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I came to Madrid for the bullfights, so I had to get this snapped

I spent a few more nights in Madrid, dominated by friends and beverages before heading on to my more familiar locations around Spain. However, my final two nights were based back in Madrid to take in some bullfighting at Las Ventas.  so I decided catch up with James again for another tour.

I met James in central old-town Madrid and set off on an all different tour of the city. San Isidro was in full swing throughout Madrid, and was the reason I chose Spain in May (and not for the weather, because Madrid, you were FREEEEEEZING that night!). We stopped and took in a view of Casa del Campo as the sun began to set. I wasn’t able to visit the place where two New Zealanders died during the battle of Madrid in 1936, but at least the opportunity to talk about the history of the place with people who were genuinely interested almost made up for it.

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Vermouth dominated the beverages

The streets were full with locals out despite the cold, and after a visit to a church and a helpful San Isidro lesson, in true Spanish style the bar still wasn’t open, even though we were running late. We settled in another bar for a pre-dinner drink- drink (that’s a thing!) to discuss the civil war. (James is well aware of my nerdiness and chatted accordingly. I appreciate his patience.)

Once we couldn’t cope with the cold any longer, we went into Bar Sanlúcar, a small and fantastic place in La Latina. Between the wine, vermouth, bullfighting memorabilia, Andalusian music and salmorejo,  it is a perfect place to visit. It was full of locals enjoying a drink, and we talked about the food, the bar, and the ambiance of the area.

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Bullfighting tickets… why not?

On the three of us went in the cold, discussing Spain’s current economic situation, before we stopped at a great Basque bar. I say great, because it was standing room only, and even then, it was standing against each other kind of popular. We had the chance to partake in Txakoli (chacolí in Spanish), which is poured at a great height, enough to let the white wine fizz nicely. As a white wine lover (no apologies!) I really enjoyed it. The pintxo to accompany the drinks was rabo de toro – oxtail sandwich – which was a weird flashback moment for me. I was fed a lot of that as a child in New Zealand, and didn’t expect that familiar flavour to come rushing back in Basque bar in Madrid. I digress. Whilst you can’t exactly feel the salty air of the Atlantic blowing on you in Madrid, you can  understand why so many people flock to the Basque country for the food and wine. If you haven’t… why not?

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Oxtail sandwiches, baby

On we marched, discussing tips to get the best from El Rastro (I won’t lie, I’ve been once – not my thing) before we stopped at the 100-year-old shrimp institution La Casa del Abuelo on Calle Victoria. It was already late by the time we jumped in from the cold and the floor was littered with napkins and shrimp bits – a Madrileño homage to the greatness of the place. (As a kiwi, throwing my rubbish on the floor in appreciation is something I still feel weird about, even now.) You don’t need to be crazy for shrimp or prawn to eat here, everything is cooked on the plancha (flat grill, for lack of better translation term) and served in garlic deliciousness.

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I didn’t just take the decor pic to snap Manolete’s butt (top centre), I promise

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Me (left) with great shrimps

Our last stop was a more modern style of restaurant, Taberna del Chato. With more white wine and a chat with the guy behind the bar, I can barely recall what we had on the toast. If James could fill in me, that would be great!  The restaurant was a complete contrast to the very traditional shrimp place before; James gave us an excellent mix of what is available in Madrid.

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White wine and… something

Despite it only being about 1am, we stopped at Chocolateria San Ginés, the place where everyone knows their churros. More suited to those stumbling out of bars at 5am for the past 120 years, the place was quiet as we laughed, chatted and looked at the photos of celebs who have needed churros to soak up alcohol for them over the years.

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Churros. It had to be eaten

It was 2am before we were finished and Madrid was cold enough even to chase two kiwis indoors.

Sure, you could probably find these bars and restaurants on your own, and stumble your way through the menus, but you wouldn’t get an experience half as good without James Blick on board. The Tapas and History Tour constantly gets rave reviews and it’s easy to see why. Whether you already know Spain or are brand new, James’ unique, committed and sincere passion for Madrid provides a tasty, eye-opening night out. Whilst daytime Madrid left me wanting, night-time Madrid is a great place to get lost, as long as you have James Blick to navigate your taste buds. Of course, some people couldn’t think of anything more boring than discussing the Spanish civil war all night, but the beauty is that the night can take whatever path you like. Your tour, private or as a group, is tailored to what you enjoy.

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To book a tour with James Blick, or one of the other tours available – Madrid Food Tour

To read reviews about James, Lauren, Alejandro and Kay and their Madrid Food Tours – Madrid Food Tour – Trip Advisor (currently ranked #1 activity in Madrid!)

Like food blogs? – Madrid Food Tour Blog

James Blick’s Blog – Madrid Chow

Lauren Aloise’s Blog – Spanish Sabores

Up next… Part 6 – Bullfighting: Madrid vs Valencia

Click here for the Spain 2013 in Review series – Spain 2013 in Review