This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 42 and 43: The May Days of Barcelona 1 – 15 May 1937

Barcelona, May 1937

The Barcelona Generalitat is run by members of many political groups as they fight to both repel the Franco Nationalist invasion, and cope with anarchist-led social revolution, giving workers and the poor equal rights and freedoms. Many sub-groups and belief systems also exist, but to simplify, listed are the major players, in which all these smaller groups are affiliated. All groups are either left-wing, or centre-left, all battling against Franco and fascism, but have been infighting in Barcelona

CNT – Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, National Confederation of Labour, a powerful anarchist workers’ union, enacting social revolution and the downfall of the rich bourgeoisie. Aligned to Republican Socialist government but only out of necessity for survival
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FAI – Federación Anarquista Ibérica, Iberian Anarchist Federation, anarchist workers’ union, heavily sided with the CNT
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UGT – Unión General de Trabajadores, General Union of Workers, Socialist workers’ union aligned with government after breaking away from the CNT. Not heavily involved with social revolution but pro-workers’ rights
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POUM – Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, a Communist group also aligned with Troksyists. They wish to promote Communist freedoms but reject Stalin and Soviet Communism
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FIJL – Federación Ibérica de Juventudes Libertarias, Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, a group of young people believing in social revolution and freedom, aligned with the CNT
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PSUC- Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya, Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, a member of the Comintern, International Communism, supported by Stalin. The rich bourgeoisie support the party as they seek to regain control over Spain. Keen to destabilise the Republican government in order to take over when all is destroyed
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PCE – Partido Comunista de España, Communist Party of Spain, the largest national Communist party in Spain, including the Communist workers’ unions
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Estat Català – Catalan State, pro-independence group. Supportive of the Catalonian government, but opposed to power given to the Anarchist workers’ unions. Torn internally between supporting the government and overthrowing it for total control
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Generalitat de Catalunya, the Socialist government of Catalonia, which controls the city of Barcelona and all regions of Catalonia independently from Spain
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Second Spanish Republic – the Spanish Republican government, led by Prime Minister Largo Caballero, currently housed in Valencia during the war against Franco, and supporting the Catalonian government. Made up of all political parties fighting against Franco’s Nationalists, but struggling on the frontlines and internally
May 1

The May Day parades are canceled in Barcelona by the CNT and UGT, to avoid riots and clashes. Since the victory for the workers’ unions in Catalonia at the outbreak of war, infighting between leftist factions have been escalating. The Anarchists have established social revolution in rural Catalonia and Aragon, which is coming under constant fire from Communists who oppose social revolution and promote government-led societies. The CNT, FAI and UGT workers unions have been working as part of the Catalonian government alongside the Communists, who fear anarchism (and their hatred of leaders and leadership roles). The Spanish PCE Communist group, along with Soviet-doctrine PSUC Communists have been pushing back against the Anarchists for months in the Catalonian regions. The Marxist POUM have sided with the Anarchists, despite their Soviet roots. Constant outbreaks of fighting have resulted in deaths, and tensions have been growing all year. Leaders and prominent men in all parties have been targeted, many killed in assassinations.

May 2

The Patrullas de Control, Control Patrols, made up of men from all unions, maintain the fragile peace in Barcelona, but are losing control. Errant Civil Guards and Communist gunmen are killing people around the city. Rather than working together, all these leftists groups are splitting apart for power. Spanish President Azaña tries to call Lluís Companys, leader of the Catalan government, but is cut off by workers at the telephone exchange, stating lines are too important for their conversations. Marine and Air Minister Prieto calls from Valencia, only to be told that the Catalans have no government anymore, only a defense committee.

Shooting breaks out on the streets in central Barcelona between pro-independence Catalan State members and anarchist FAI men, who lose a man in the shooting. These outbreaks have become common in resent months.

May 3

The strategic Telefonica building, controlled by the CNT and UGT, is attacked at 3pm. Around 200 guards from the Communist-led police units, under orders from Catalan government members, storm the building. Anarchist guards armed with machine guns manage to repel the Communists, who only claim the first floor of the building. This outbreak of shooting marks the start for other fighting to break out through the city. Hastily made barricades go up in the streets, Communist men occupy tall buildings and bell towers at churches, and start shooting at everyone they can find. CNT, FAI and UGT supporters are targeted, along with the Marxist POUM members. Check points are set up to arrest anyone a member of the CNT or POUM. The army stays neutral but CNT and POUM officers are arrested. Together, the Control Patrol and police leaders, both CNT sympathisers, go to the telephone exchange and appeal for calm. Catalan government leader Companys had no prior knowledge of the outbreak but sides with the police and patrols. The CNT and FAI are forced to get their own union members to maintain peace and calm in the city.

By nightfall, the Catalan State and PSUC Communists have the centre of Barcelona. The CNT have the suburbs and the western portion of the city itself. The POUM, along with the Bolshevik-Leninists and Libertarian Youths are all barricaded in within central Barcelona. The POUM propose an alliance between groups to gain control over the Communists, with no success. Gunfire continues in the city centre, where all parties have their headquarters, while the telephone building is at a truce, to allow vital communications to continue.

May 4

Buildings are barricaded shut in Barcelona, and shops are closed to keep people safe. Only gunfire can be heard through the city. The police seize the Justice building and several CNT bases around the city. Civil war inside civil war is threatening to break out. CNT members in the government meet with other groups at 11am, eager to promote calm. CNT leaders appeal for their members, via radio and newspaper, to lay down weapons and go back to their lives, while executive leaders of the CNT and arrive in Barcelona to plea for peace.

Word comes in that Communist-led military units are not going to abandon the frontlines and come to Barcelona, giving hope to calm. But at 5pm, a CNT car is stopped by Catalan State and PSUC Communists at a barricade as they attempt to get to the CNT-FAI headquarters. All CNT men surrender but are gunned down on the main street of Via Durruti (Via Laietana). Shootings have been breaking out all day, and among them are the deaths of the Aragon Defence Council president Joaquín Ascaso and famous libertarian Domingo Ascaso, family to famed Francisco Ascaso, killed last July. The POUM are openly supporting the Anarchists and Libertarians, and call for a general truce throughout Barcelona in defiance of the Communist uprising.

May 5

Overnight the entire Catalan government has resigned. Each faction in the city is given one member each in a provisional government to negotiate peace. But assault guards attack the Medical Union building in Plaza Santa Ana and the Libertarian Youth building where six men are killed. The CNT-FAI put out more men and armoured cars to protect their headquarters and members, but many Anarchists are trapped and killed around the city. While a truce is called by leaders in negotiations, the units are no longer taking orders from any one person and are impossible to control, and fighting continues.

May 6

Around 5,000 neutral troops, chosen evenly among their units to promote neutral agreements, start arriving from Valencia. They quickly occupy much of the central city, and barricades are abandoned in the streets. The CNT officers reclaim the telephone exchange. While anarchist left-wing parties are facing backlash all over Spain, many of these neutral officers are CNT members and are keen to salute their headquarters as they take over Barcelona.

May 7

Troops from the Jarama frontlines are in the region now, taking control of the area as Barcelona finally stops fighting. The CNT calls for everyone to lay down arms and return to work, but assault guards new to the Catalonia region are still killing and arresting CNT, FAI, UGT, Libertarian Youth and POUM members. The arrests are illegal and they are held in Communist-led military barracks, secret prisons and police stations. Over the past several days, 500 are killed and another 1500 injured.

May 8

Peace has been restored in the city, along with the Barcelona and Tarragona regions of Catalonia, with all anarchist groups defeated. Barcelona police find twelve bodies, all young men who have been mutilated. They had been arrested on May 4, pulled from a CNT truck outside Communist barracks. Cesar Fernández Neri, Jose Villena, Juan Antonio, and Luis Carneras are identified, but the other eight are too badly mutilated to be named. Also found is popular Italian anarchist Professor Berneri and two friends, found dead in a Communist barracks building.

May 11

The Communist PCE and PSUC lay the blame on the May Days on the small POUM, for supporting Anarchism instead of Communism. The Spanish Prime minister Largo Caballero disagrees, but he is losing power against the Communists. The Anarchists are reeling from the fighting in their home power base, knowing they cannot hold power alone and need alliances to continue social revolution, but the Communists are constantly gaining strength.

May 13

The Communists are still pushing blame on the POUM, now claiming they are fascists for Franco. They have also made the same accusation at the social revolution Anarchists who hold control over Aragon. While peace is restored, the hatred between groups continues to swirl.

May 15

Prime Minister Largo Caballero resigns from his post, now having no alliance with either Anarchists, Socialists or Communists. A member of the centre-left PSOE, Juan Negrín, is appointment Prime Minister, and selects a group of ministers from all groups, Republicans, Communists, Socialists and Basque men to form the government. The CNT however are now cut out entirely from Spain’s government, despite having huge support around the country. The Anarchists are quickly losing strength and the POUM is about to be outlawed completely in Barcelona and around Spain.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years since the Málaga-Almería Massacre

‘The Moors are coming’

By January 1937, the Spanish Civil War already six months old, and the southern region of Andalucía had already been through its fair share of horrors. With much of the area sided with the Republicans, the Nationalists, led by fascist Franco (and his German and Italian allies) were hot on ripping through Andalucía and ruling the area, and were having great success. In January, General Queipo de Lllano, who had already enjoyed mass executions through Andalucía, was named head of the Army of the South, a division of 15,000 troops, made up of Spanish soldiers and Moorish fighters from Morocco, based in Seville. They were aided by Italian men brought in from Cadiz, 10,000 ‘Blackshirts’, and were ordered to take Málaga on the southern coast, picking up Granada, Marbella and Ronda on the way, along with the surrounding rural areas.

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The city of Málaga, population 250,000, plus another 90,000 who had fled there from the countryside, saw no immediate reason to worry, and their 12,000 Republican militia (only 8,000 armed) did not take up any training, dug in no trenches, set up no road blocks and manned no hilltop lookouts. They simply did not have the manpower or supplies to defend themselves. The Nationalists were battle-hardened men who had no problem killing brutally, particularly the Moorish soldiers, who had committed horrid crimes elsewhere in Spain.

The attack began on February 3, 1937 when Ronda was defeated by Nationalist troops, leading them right to Málaga, coming from the west. The Italian troops, who had entered the region from the northern hills, arrived on February 6. At that point, all the people of the city could either fight or flee. Through the day on February 7, the Republican fighters were torn apart by the onslaught of the Nationalists, and executions began. It mattered little whether you were a militiaman or not, you were executed. Women were raped brutally, and then shot if the rape didn’t kill them. Children were killed in the crossfire or just killed as collateral damage. February 8 marked the official fall of Málaga, completely swamped with Nationalist soldiers and bombed from the air by German and Italian planes. Boats offshore also bombarded the city. Around 4,000 people were killed in the initial executions alone, though exact numbers are not possible.

The people of Málaga had only one way to go; east along the coast towards the haven of Almería, an area relatively safe at this point in the war. But Almería was 220km (135 miles) along the N-340. It is unknown precisely how many people tried to flee, either on foot, donkey or by truck (until petrol ran out anyway), though an estimate by Contemporary History professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto is 100,000 now-refugees.

By dawn on February 8, the city was Nationalist territory, and many of the people who fled were around 30 kilometres east in Torre del Mar, walking the sparse road. Trucks that ambled past were loaded with children, parents eager to get them to safety any way possible, begging the trucks to take children from their arms as they walked. They had to walk with everything they owned, clothes, bedding, sewing machines, tools, water, anything they had, strapped and carried by their bodies or donkeys. But the walk was not their only problem. General Queipo de Llano was not content with taking the city and executing those who didn’t flee. The refugees would be chased.

As people trekked the winding, hilly, unsealed road, the troops were making their way behind them, swift and trained for marching. Then bombing from the air along the road began. People had nowhere to hide – caves, ditches, rocks, anything had to be used for defense as the Nationalists looked to wipe out the lot. The 16-kilometre stretch between Nerja (55 kilometres east of Málaga) and La Herradura suffered a terrible fate as the first wave of civilians were attacked, bodies littering the road as they were defenseless from the air. Parents were forced to dig with their hands and bury their children. People pressed themselves against cliff-faces in the hope of safety and died on the spot. Gutters filled with bodies as they fell from the roadside. Whole extended families were found lying together, all dead, and some with children left alive, picked up by other people strong enough to carry an extra person. The bridge over the Guadalfeo River, 90 kilometres from Málaga, was bombed, sending innocent refugees into the water and drowned at nightfall.

By the time the refugees arrived in Motril, 95 kilometres from Málaga, the International Brigades were there to help defend them against the Nationalists, but many refugees were now injured, starving and exhausted, and still had a long way to go, with family members left dead on the roadside. None would return until the end of the war, some remained in exile for life. Reports state that skeletons of the people killed on that dusty stretch were still to be found on the roadside until the mid-1960’s. No one wanted to go home along the N-340, and the whole incident was silenced.

One man became well-known in the mess, a Canadian named Norman Bethune. A doctor and ambulance driver, he was in Spain to fight fascism as an international volunteer. His ambulance raced back and forth along this road, trying to save all he could. To read about Bethune, try ‘The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read. It’s a shame the locals who suffered this event were not so well-known, their stories limited to tales told between generations until recently.

Professors at the University of Málaga estimate over 5,000 people died on the road, based on oral histories collected, plus burial records in Salamanca, and Málaga archives. Bodies were not properly buried or treated, so the exact figure can never be established. Those killed and buried along the roadside are still left there today. Ten years ago, the Diputación de Málaga opened its archives for professors to complete historical memory works on the massacre in the area, to accompany the stories of 400 people who came forward with their personal accounts of the event.

The Malaga-Almeria massacre is commemorated at Torre del Mar, considered a halfway point along the road where the massacre took place, on February 7, the date people began to flee their homes in Málaga. This attack was almost a practice, a prelude to many atrocities that would go on to occur in WWII. The damage done to the people of Málaga, the towns that were in the firing line towards Almeria, and the whole rural region itself is unimaginable, and how it shaped and changed the lives and lifestyle of following generation in the area has been largely ignored until recent times.

If you are interested and can read Spanish, the book by professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto from the University of Malaga is Poblacion y Guerra Civil en Málaga: Caido Exodo y Refugio, an excellent book, well researched, with powerful personal recollections.

A first person account written is 1937 is Norman Bethune’s The crime on the road Malaga-Almeria : narrative with graphic documents revealing fascist cruelty (if you can get a copy – I can’t!)

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are auto-linked to source for credit.

This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: Federico García Lorca – 19 August 1936

Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca 05/06/1898 – 19/08/1936

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Federico García Lorca, born in June 1898 in the small town of Fuente Vaqueros (near Granada) is a universally known poet and writer. But just as he is recognised for his literary achievements, his name is also well known for what happened on 19 August 1936.

García Lorca grew up with his father, Federico García Rodríguez, a successful farmer, and his mother, teacher Vicenta Lorca Romero, on their farm until moving to Granada in 1909. Six years later he started at the University of Granada, and despite being a gifted musician, he started writing. Just one year later, García Lorca travelled through Spain, and self-published his first book, Impresiones y Paisajes (read my review here) based on the trip in 1918. Through his success, he moved to Madrid a year later to the Residencia de Estudiantes to study at the University of Madrid.

García Lorca studied philosophy and law, but his heart lay in writing. He struck up friendships with Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Gregorio Martina Sierra and Juan Ramón Jiménez, and published his first work of poetry two years into his studies. More poetry, essays and plays followed, with his most popular poetry Romancero Gitano published in 1928. García Lorca found inspiration in the land and the people of Spain, seeing it through less-than traditional eyes, instead finding beauty in new lights. In 1927 a play opened by Salvador Dalí had García Lorca at his side, to great acclaim, after play failures five years earlier.

Lorca (1914)
Lorca (1914)

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The mid-twenties were filled with strong collaboration between García Lorca and Dalí, though Dalí rejected García Lorca’s romantic advances. By 1928, the friendship became strained, and García’s Lorca also broke off his affair with sculpter Emilio Soriano Alarén, which enhanced García Lorca’s depression. The constant stress of being a public figure, and having to hide his true self weighed on him (same-sex relationships were technically legal between 1881- 1928, and then 1932 -1936, but in a deeply Catholic nation it wasn’t considered acceptable). He was being typecast as a gypsy poet, as gypsies were one of his predominant themes in his work. García Lorca wanted to adapt and live his art. Dalí and Luis Buñuel released a film in 1929, without García Lorca’s help, and Dalí married, leaving García Lorca feeling he was being edged out of the group and the depression only grew worse. His family shipped him to the US in 1929 to recuperate from his worries. García Lorca flirted with new styles, though his work would not be published until after his death.

García Lorca returned to Spain after a year and then in 1931 the Second Spanish Republic was born. The young writer was in charge of the Teatro Universitario La Barraca. Thanks to the new government education programme, García Lorca toured rural Spain to bring free art to the public. With little equipment and a tiny stage, the masses got to see García Lorca acting and hear his work performed. Seeing the poor populations of Spain and their reaction to their first (sometimes only ever) art performances drove García Lorca to believe art could change lives with plays about social action. The La Barraca tour created three of Garcia Lorca’s best plays – Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, all about standing up to the bourgeois.

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After taking Blood Wedding to Argentina in 1933, García Lorca was on a roll. He returned home and created Play and Theory of the Duende, and wrote about how art needed to understand death, and reasoning limitations, and then returned to his roots of romance in his poetry (after a love affair with Juan Ramírez de Lucas) with the amazing Sonnets of Dark Love. But La Barraca had their funding cut in 1934 and closed in April 1936. García Lorca kept writing over summers at home in Huerta de San Vicente outside Granada, adding to his works with When Five Years Pass and Diván del Tamarit.

But as everyone knows, García Lorca was living in a deeply troubled world. The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, and García Lorca knew his work on rebelling against the wealthy and his outspoken views on right-wing politics could see him as a target. A spokesman for the people was not going to be welcome anymore. Granada was in turmoil; not one of the cities to be initially overthrown by the rebel Nationalists, but it had martial law imposed. Bombings became frequent and the huge divide between left or right (poor or rich) was so stark that fighting emerged everywhere. García Lorca was not political, but when push came to shove, he supported those with nothing, after years of seeing deprivation in his country and abroad.

García Lorca left his home and stayed with his friend Luis Rosales in central Granada, but nowhere was safe. Lorca’s brother-in-law, Granada Mayor Manuel Fernández-Montesinos was assassinated during fighting on August 18. Hours later, fascist militia turned up at the Rosales’ residence and García Lorca was arrested, no reason given. He had been visited and interrogated weeks earlier, but when a right-wing politician came and got García Lorca alongside armed men, all of García Lorca’s fears came true.

García Lorca was held overnight by armed gunmen, their whereabouts or activities murky. The following morning, García Lorca and three others – Joaquín Arcollas Cabezas, Francisco Galadí Melgar and Dióscoro Galindo González – were driven out to Fuente Grande, the middle of nowhere between the towns of Víznar and Alfacar. After digging their own  graves, García Lorca and the others were executed.

While the world was deprived of García Lorca from then on, the why’s and how’s have been debated ever since. He was shot by fascist forces, though his arrest came from CEDA, a conservative Catholic political group. Some think it was part of an elimination process of all who supported Marxism. His murderers spoke of his sexual orientation, leading that to be a theory on his killing, along with some kind of same-sex love and jealousy theory. García Lorca had friends in right and left-wing groups. He supported the left-wing government and had spoken at gatherings supporting the left. He also had communist supporters, yet was arrested in the home of a leading Falange fascist, and regularly met with Falange leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Francisco Franco himself ordered an investigation on the execution, but the paperwork has never been found.

Since the undignified death, countless have sought to find García Lorca’s burial place. One early search was by author Gerald Brennan himself, as documented in the wonderful The Face of Spain in 1949. Despite many attempts, García Lorca was never found in the Franco era (1939-1975).  The site of the executions was identified in 1969 by a man who said he helped García Lorca dig his grave, but it wasn’t until 1999 that digging by the University of Granada could begin. Nothing was found. García Lorca’s family long denied permission for people to dig up their relative, but relatives of another man also executed continued to push for answers, which the García Lorca family agreed to. DNA samples were taken from all families and in 2009, it was time again to find García Lorca.

 

site of 1999 excavation

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After two weeks’ work, samples were taken from a site for testing. No bones were found, and no bullets were uncovered. The grave was very shallow, about 40 cm deep, and could not have been a 70+ year-old grave-site. Three years later, another dig was launched, 500 metres from a first site, which also uncovered nothing. People who claimed to be part of the killings, hired men out killing for the Falange, claimed that García Lorca was a target after writing The House of Bernarda Alba, and the people portrayed in the story wanted him gone.

The Barranco de Viznar, a nearby spot of mass civil war graves in the wilderness, has been suggested as a site where García Lorca may lie, killed or moved there during the war. A memorial headstone lies there for García Lorca stating ‘We are all Lorca’. An olive tree at Fuente Grande has a memorial for García Lorca, where flowers are laid every year. All his family homes are now museums in Granada, along with a park named Parque Federico García Lorca. A famous statue of García Lorca stands in Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid, and his niece runs The Lorca Foundation in his honour.

me paying homage to García Lorca's life in Madrid
me paying homage to García Lorca’s life in Madrid

García Lorca’s work was banned by Franco until 1953, and then censored for the rest of the Franco era. Since then more work has been published and celebrated, along with new publications from unpublished manuscripts held dear by his family. Searches and theories on his death remain ongoing 80 years later. This month, Argentinian federal judge Maria Servini has agreed to take on the García Lorca case, sequestering paperwork on the killing of the poet, while she is also prosecuting over other civil war deaths. Perhaps one day, Federico García Lorca will be found.

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This is not a detailed analysis, instead a simplified report of Lorca’s life and death. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind (La sombra del viento) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles. To this library, a man brings his ten-year-old son, Daniel, one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book and from the dusty shelves pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. But as Daniel grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. What begins as a vase of literary curiosity turns into a race find out the truth behind the life and death of  Julián Carax and to save those he left behind.

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With this number one bestseller, I will admit that I had high hopes when I finally sat down to read this book. Despite the the fact that the book has been available for several years in English, I only bought the book, along with its companions, The Angel Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, a few months ago. The Shadow of the Wind opens in 1945 in Barcelona, a city whose history I know well, and life under the regime of Franco is of particular interest to me. As soon as you begin to read, you get a feeling of darkness, of a life and time where things are tough, and people are simply getting by, the way they know best. Young Daniel Sempere finds a book, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, in a secret bookstore which changes his life. His father, a bookstore owner, introduces him to the larger-than-life Don Gustav Barceló, a book lover and buyer, which leads Daniel into a friendship and long-term crush on Barceló’s niece, Clara, a beautiful blind woman ten years his senior. Daniel reads to Clara and comes up with plenty of reasons to spend time with her over several years. At this point, I had to wonder where the storyline was attempting to take me, as the characters, while vivid, were not terribly endearing. I stopped reading at 100 pages and took a long beak.

But then the story beckoned me back. When Daniel is violently booted out of Clara’s life, he stumbles upon the book’s greatest character, Fermín Romero de Torres, a homeless man who comes to work in Daniel’s father’s bookstore. Fermín Romero de Torres, who is regularly identified with his full name, is a tremendous enriching character who always has the right thing (or, at least, the most amusing thing) to say. Daniel remains besotted with the books of Julián Carax, which sold poorly but somehow continued to be published throughout the 1930’s. Carax was shot dead in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona, and all copies of his books have been destroyed, most notably by a fire. Daniel has a remaining copy, and there is a man who is desperate to get it from him, a terrifying stalker with no face, just the charred remains of skin that hangs from his bones. Throughout the book he constantly appears, under a false name, as a gruesome and soulless person who is prepared to hurt people for the sake of novels.

Through a series of well-described and easy to follow investigations, Daniel and Fermín unravel Carax’s short life, in the form of his schoolmates – a group of boys with rich fathers, along with several downtrodden boys who have managed to get into a well-to-do school. Each of these boys go about intertwining themselves in each other’s lives, and a vendetta is placed over Carax when he falls in love with his friend’s sister, to the disgust of another schoolboy friend, who is a vile and vicious individual named Francisco Javier Fumero. Fumero is a real villain, first a troubled boy, then a double-crossing spy and killer in the civil war, and now a policeman in search of violence and revenge on none other than Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres. Daniel and the dead Carax’s lives continue to be punctuated with many coincidences, both culminating in scary and life-altering moments in The Angel of the Mist, a haunted house that has many secrets waiting for those who are ready to find them out. I have to admit, I figured out the mystery and the twist about halfway through, but that may not happen for everyone.

This book is dark, no question, but also exceedingly intriguing, regardless of whether you understand Spain, its history and its way of life. The prose of this book had been described as ‘florid’, and it certainly is. You cannot go a single page without a lyrical metaphor and/or simile being thrown at you. At times,  it can be a little annoying, but some lines are genius. When Fermín speaks, you can imagine a light coming on, illuminating the dark world around him. When reading, you feel as if you are wandering the cold streets of Barcelona, with the feeling that something will jump out at you. You can feel the nervousness the damp, the worry and the angst. One character I loved is Nuria Monfort, one-time lover of Julián Carax, who endures a difficult life, knowing that she would not ever truly gain Carax’s heart, but my favourite character is Miquel Monfort, Carax’s best friend, and a tortured soul. This book is a love story, of Julián Carax and his Penélope, and of young Daniel Sempere and his Beatriz, whose love affairs take eerily similar twists despite being parted by time, and while romance has to hide in the shadows of much bigger issues, love comes to be one of the biggest dangers that these coming-of-age characters have to face.

I have read many reviews about this book, most praising the work, but I also took the time to read reviews from those who were disappointed. It is a long read at a shade under 500 pages, and there are slow points, particularly in the beginning. However, you cannot fault the quality of the work produced and attention to detail. In terms of the finer detail of the writing style, I read and felt as if I had come across something similar to my own, and that was unusual. I have yet to read something that feels so familiar in its approach (I’m not suggesting I’m as good as Zafón!). The characters all have back stories and personalities of their own, each has a part to play, and in turn, Barcelona is filled with an vast mix of people, all from different walks of life, all connected by a single book from a library that nobody ever visits.

Given the time periods and the lives portrayed this book, it is easy to feel the author’s political leanings, or at least, for what he envisions for the characters. Fermín Romero de Torres once worked for Lluís Companys, the Catalan leader during the Spanish Civil War, who is murdered and is seen as a martyr. Fermín is clearly a man who believes in the freedom of Catalonia, and Fumero, the blood-sucking officer who tortured him during the war, and now has murder in mind, is portrayed as a Franco loving right-wing fanatic (and a well-written one at that). However, anarchists, fascists and communists are all portrayed in a negative light, despite being vastly separate from one another on the political spectrum. There are references throughout the book, by multiple characters, that they hate Franco and fascist dictatorship, and that their lives have been harmed or destroyed by his reign, but they do not appear to be living in fear of him. There is no reference to the language spoken by the characters, which may be a by-product of the translation into English. The Catalan language was banned under Franco, so one might assume they spoke Castilian (traditional) Spanish, but perhaps not. We will never know.

Not only has Carlos Ruiz Zafón written a piece of art, but it has been translated in an excellent manner. There were certain things that I read and thought, ‘that’s not an expression that a Spaniard would use’, but it is what would be the best expression to use in a translation from the original, and as anyone who translates knows, literal translation would not make for an easy-to-read book. If you don’t have a keen understanding of Spain or the Spanish, you probably won’t notice this at all.

My rating for this book is 5/5. Lovers of 1950’s Spain will adore this, as will casual readers looking for a fine mystery.