My Best Spanish Reads in 2014

 

As 2014 shuffles off, the list of books I have read has piled high yet again. I lost count once I passed 100 books back in August or so. I’m always reading, though I only review books on this site I think are worthy of addition. Books I dislike get tossed and forgotten; I don’t ‘do’ bad reviews here. I also read plenty of books which are not based in Spain, written in Spanish (or translated) or created by Spanish authors, but I review those in different places. This site is purely for my Spanish reads. Here is the list of the books I deemed worthy of adding to my site this year. These are books brand new, yet some are 70+ years old; some are new to me, some I have read five or more times. I haven’t had to time to load all my reviews (I’m attempting to publish my next book in April 2015), but these reviews make the 2014 list anyway.

‘The Forge’, ‘The Track’ and ‘The Clash’ by Auturo Barea. I may review at some stage, maybe not. So much brilliance, how can it be reviewed? My favourite reads of the year, and I managed to get first editions of all three books.

Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom Some really unlikable characters here

‘Spanish Cooking Uncovered: Farmhouse Favourites’ by Paco de Lara and Debbie Jenkins Yum! And there is now a sequel too

‘Adventures of a Doctor’ by E. Martínez Alonso HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

‘War is Beautiful’ by James Neugass (review pending early 2015)

‘100 years of Spanish Cinema’ by Tatjana Pavlović (review pending early 2015)

‘The Angel’s Game’ (El juego del ángel) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón How many times can someone read this? Dozens

‘Images of the Spanish Civil War’ by Raymond Carr Sad yet powerful

‘Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War’ by Robin Adèle Greeley (review pending early 2015)

‘The New Spaniards’ by John Hooper A classic, stands the test of time

They Shall Not Pass’ by Ben Hughes (review pending early 2015)

‘The Spy with 29 Names’ by Jason Webster A forgotten Spaniard with engaging skills

‘Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War’ by Amanda Vaill A whole lot of history and ideas crammed into one novel

‘Unlikely Warriors’ by Richard Baxell Well researched, well written

‘The Spanish Civil War’ by Stanley G. Payne (review pending early 2015)

‘Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis)’ by Javier Cercas A moral tale anyone can understand

‘Blood Med (Max Cámara 4)’ by Jason Webster This series keeps improving with age

‘The Shallow Grave’ by Walter Gregory (review pending early 2015)

‘Sketches of Spain (Impresiones y Paisajes)’ by Federico García Lorca Read with a glass of wine

‘As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee’ by P D Murphy A genre I don’t usually read, but it is excellent

‘The Triumph of Democracy in Spain’ by Paul Preston My go-to while writing ‘Death in the Valencian Dust’

‘Nada’ by Carmen Laforet A truly beautiful novel in 1940’s Barcelona

‘Outlaws’ by Javier Cercas Fast-paced with moral consequences

‘Into the Arena’ by Alexander Fiske-Harrison A truly excellent bullfighting book, well thought out and researched

‘Heart of Spain’ Photographs by Robert Capa A beautiful collection of Capa’s work

‘The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read A revival of a forgotten man

‘1984 and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read A short story filled with thought-provoking comments

Juan Carlos: A People’s King’ by Paul Preston Essential studying while writing my newest book

‘Death And The Sun: A Matador’s Season In The Heart Of Spain’ by Edward Lewine  A bullfighting icon

‘Moving to Spain with Children’ by Lisa Sadleir The book I wish existed ten years ago!

‘Franco’ by Paul Preston I’ve lost count how many times I’ve turned to this book

‘Franco: Biography of the Myth’ by Antonio Cazorla Sánchez Almost felt as if I had jumped down Alice’s rabbit hole while reading

‘Defence of Madrid’ by Geoffrey Cox So grateful I stumbled upon this book, never recommended to me

‘The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction’ by Helen Graham The whole war read in a day

‘The Anatomy of a Moment (Anatomía de un instante)’ by Javier Cercas History at its finest

If I read your book (or your suggestion) and you don’t see it here, let me know. The review may be lost in my archive of posts. If the book in question was one I hated, you will have already known that from my honest twitter feed! If you have any suggestions, or would like to request your own book to be added to the list for 2015, please let me know.

 

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Outlaws’ by Javier Cercas

cercas

On a summer day at the arcade, timid sixteen-year-old Ignacio Cañas encounters two charismatic rebels: El Zarco (“Blue Eyes”) and his gorgeous girl, Tere. Entranced, he crosses the border into their dangerous world, becoming their partner in crimes that quickly escalate.
 
Twenty-five years later, Tere materializes in Cañas’s office, needing help. Cañas has settled back into middle-class life, becoming a successful defense lawyer. Zarco has matured into a convict of some infamy. Yet somehow, with new stakes, this three-way affair will begin again.
 
With his usual brio, Javier Cercas surveys the borders between right and wrong, respectability and criminality, and to what extent we can pass between them—or determine on which side we ultimately fall. This brilliantly plotted tale firmly establishes him as one of the most rewarding novelists writing today.
Cover and blurb via Amazon
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Cercas’ 2014 novel, Outlaws, (or Las Leyes de la Frontera – Laws of the Border) is a book where historical detail and fiction mix (and you know how much I enjoy that). The book tells the story of a boy, Ignacio Cañas, starting in the 1970’s, who comes of age in a dangerous way. The point of view is told through Ignacio, retelling the story in later life.

Ignacio meets El Zarco, a young criminal and his girlfriend, Tere. Ignacio is quickly on-his-knees in love with Tere, who toys with him to irritating (for Ignacio) levels. Franco is already dead but the repressive laws of the time haven’t yet been lifted. Ignacio is living an average middle-class life in Gerona, and works after school at an arcade, where the initial meetings take place. Zarco, a self-important thug, and his misfit girlfriend recruit Ignacio into their gang. It takes little more than a blowjob and the promise of mischief to draw Ignacio from his simple life with his family. Petty crime turns to more violent acts as Ignacio’s life with drugs, prostitutes and breaking the law spirals into a shambles. But when a bank robbery goes wrong, the gang is disbanded. The characters of the innocent Ignacio, and the wannabe hero/criminal Zarco are well told and believable, and Tere’s desperation is easy to imagine.

The book jumps forward 25 years and Ignacio is a successful lawyer. He had put his past behind him, much like Spain has done in the same time period. Thanks to Ignacio’s father and his Falangist friend, Ignacio came away unscathed from a bank robbery, never charged, while Zarco and Tere shared a harder fate. Over two decades, Zarco has been the inspiration of four movies and has released his memoirs, and Ignacio fears Zarco believes him to have been an informant, such was his preferential treatment by the police in the 1970’s.

Ignacio decides to become Zarco’s lawyer, and tries to get him released from prison with a PR campaign. Zarco has a drug problem, and serious health complications, but a combination of Zarco’s bravado in the media and a carefully new public face created, what the public hear and the real Zarco become more separated than ever before. As the book continues, more secrets about the characters unravel to give a big picture about how people changed while the nation  reinvented itself.

Zarco is inspired by real-life criminal Juan José Moreno Cuenca, ‘El Vaquilla’, who became a celebrity before dying in 2003. The storyline of the lives of the mid-1970’s is told well and the story has a great pace and relaxed style, showing how Spain grew up alongside the characters.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Anatomy of a Moment (Anatomía de un instante)’ by Javier Cercas

In February 1981, just as Spain was finally leaving Francos’ dictatorship and during the first democratic vote in parliament for a new prime minister – Colonel Tejero and a band of right-wing soldiers burst into the Spanish parliament and began firing shots. Only three members of Congress defied the incursion and did not dive for cover,: Adolfo Suarez the then outgoing prime minister, who had steered the country away from the Franco era, Guttierez Mellado, a conservative general who had loyally served democracy, and Santiago Carillo, the head of the Communist Party, which had just been legalised.

In The Anatomy of a Moment, Cercas examines a key moment in Spanish history, just as he did so successfully in his Spanish Civil War novel, Soldiers of Salamis. This is the only coup ever to have been caught on film as it was happening, which, as Cercas says, ‘guaranteed both its reality and its unreality’. Every February a few seconds of the video are shown again and Spaniards congratulate themselves for standing up for democracy, but Cercas says that things were very quiet that afternoon and evening while all over Spain people stayed inside waiting for the coup to be defeated …. or to triumph.

Cover and blurb via Amazon

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Anatomy starts off with a prologue, explaining how the author set out to write a novel regarding the 23 February 1981 coup attempt on the Spanish government. But with events of the time already muddy in people’s memories, instead Cercas set out to instead write a book designed to set straight the events of the fateful day. What started as a novel set in the time period became an expertly studied piece of non-fiction, complete with photos, capable of explaining what really happened in 1981.

The ‘moment’ of the book is when Lieutenant Colonel Tejero and his huge moustache storm the Cortes (parliament) while full of MPs on February 23, 1981. While the Guardia Civil start shooting warning shots, three men –  Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo and Deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, refuse to bow down to the Colonel.

Anatomy tells the story of these three men, who become the main characters. Prime Minister Suárez comes into view, chosen by King Juan Carlos to lead after Franco’s death in 1975. In his years as Prime Minister, Suárez turned Spain into a democracy, with elections held, army rebellions quashed and heeding all political parties across the divide to come together for the sake of Spain and its new democracy. However, with Suárez failing at leading Spain in these early years, and the ever-increasing threats from ETA, the time has come where people question Suárez’s leadership.

Every book needs a villain and Anatomy gets three – Tejero, ready to bend reality to favour himself, plus soldiers General Milans del Bosch and General Armada, who each in their own way think they have a chance at succeeding in the coup. They wanted to take Spain back to its Francoist state, military rule, Catholic suffocation, and total power.

Anatomy tells of success and failure; the coup failed and democracy continued, but on a  cold night the coup had one success; it showed the shaky new start for Spain could hold its own. The nation sat in the cold and waited for news, a night where their fates could have been different. The book delves into the background and motivation of each of the main characters, something which could come up for debate, depending on a reader’s opinion. The book does give a real picture of what happened in 1981, when legends and stories float around all too easily. The translation isn’t perfect (they never are) and that leaves some very long sentences for readers to swallow, but the book is enthralling on the subject matter. The book has more accolades and awards than you can poke a stick at, and definitely worth a reader’s time. If you love Spain, if you live in Spain, you need to know what happened on the night of February 23.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis)’ by Javier Cercas

Soldiers of Salamis

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?

~

Soldiers of Salamis was first released in Spanish in 2001, just one year after the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was founded, set on carrying out the task of excavating bodies left hidden after the Spanish Civil War. The author took on the subject of the war in a time when he felt many of his generation were not talking on the subject, and the 2007 Historical Memory Law, giving the task of digging up the past a mainstream light,  was still far away.  In a time when some voices were still just starting to be heard gain, this book clearly points out that history is merely the opinion of who tells the story, and a hero and villain can be hard to identify when faced with individual tales.

The book is put into three parts. The first tells the story of a journalist, given the same name as the author, who decides to find more about the story of founding fascist Rafael Sánchez Mazas. After an interview with the son of Sánchez Mazas, he writes an article on the man, but decides to find out more. He goes on to find the revealing tale of the night Sánchez Mazas is to be executed in the forest, and the Republican soldier who hunts for him amongst the trees and finds in him cowering the dark, and yet turns away and lets him live. Sánchez Mazas goes on to struggle to survive in the hills outside Girona, and after being taken in by a generous family, he meets three Republican men, who know that they are about to be the losers of the war. Despite their differences (Sánchez Mazas is the highest living member of the fascist party in Spain) they become friends in a brief yet solidifying time in 1939. The tale is written as if the author is retelling what he has heard, giving it a personal approach.

The second part tells the story of Sánchez Mazas, biography style, of an upper class man who shows great talent for writing, but cares little for publishing his poetry. Married to an Italian, he sees value in Italy’s fascism policies and seeks to recreate such ideals in his home nation. After hiding in the Chilean embassy for the first year of the war, he is then taken prisoner on the ship Uruguay until the end of the war, when he is taken to the countryside to be killed by firing squad. There his miraculous escape occurs.

The third book is more fiction, where the journalist Cercas is determined to seek out the Republican solider who let Sánchez Mazas go free. Cercas meets Miralles, a former French Foreign Legion with a history of brave Civil War tales. Miralles never confirms that he indeed was the soldier who chose to set Sánchez Mazes free, despite the journalist being convinced he has found the right man.

Throughout the book, Sánchez Maza’s little green notebook is mentioned, written as he struggles through the forest with his unlikely friends, who are also the enemy. All men went on to live lives of vastly different stature after the event, and the little notebook attempts to give details and validity of the story of Sánchez Mazas, his firing squad escape and battle for survival.

Most Civil War tales tend to be told from the Republican point of view, but the author chose to see it from the Nationalist point of view instead, and makes no assumptions. Never is Sánchez Mazas considered a hero in the book, and neither are opposing soldiers during a time when Spain changed forever. It shows how each individual was their own man, fighting through the turmoil that erupted around them. A moment of a shared gaze between a fleeing fascist and a Republican, who chose not to pull the trigger is the centre, along with the certainty that men are men, never heroes in war.

Rafael Sánchez Mazas seems to be someone not spoken of often, which seems unusual. A founding member of the Falange, he escaped the fate of his collaborator Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. After spending his pre-war years setting up Falange newspapers and various other publications, and years as a prisoner, he went onto be a minister in Franco’s government, and his sons and grandsons now are also writers. Soldiers of Salamis was translated into English in 2003 and made into a movie in Spain, Soldados de Salamina, the same year. The book was a best-seller in Spain, and I am ashamed to admit it has taken me this long to read the book. It is rare to read a Civil War book which such a lack of prejudice.