SEPTEMBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Dead’ by Mark Oldfield

MADRID, 1982.
Comandante Leopoldo Guzmán has decided it is time to disappear. Franco is in his grave and there’s no place in the new order for the one-time head of the dead dictator’s secret police.

But first Guzmán needs money. Luckily, blackmail has always come easily to him – after all, he knows where the bodies are.

And so he should. He buried them.

MADRID, 2010.
Fifteen tangled corpses in a disused mine, three bound skeletons in a sealed cellar – a trail of dead that has led forensic investigator Ana María Galindez to one Comandante Leopoldo Guzmán.

Guzmán himself disappeared decades ago but she fears his toxic legacy lives on. Her investigation has revealed a darkness at the heart of Spain, a conspiracy born amid the corruption and deprivation of Franco’s dictatorship, a conspiracy that after decades in the shadows, is finally ready to bloom.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The Dead is a long-awaited book for me – I read The Sentinel and The Exile as soon as they were released, so I pounced on this as well. The Dead is the final in the trilogy of Franco-lover Guzman and the modern-day investigator Ana Maria Galindez, who is literally about to have history come back to bite her.

The Dead moves at such a fast pace you need to make sure you are stable in your seat. You could read The Dead on its own, but I recommend the first two just for the joy. The book lives is in three time periods; 2010, where Galindez is looking for Guzman, whom she has been tracking after forensic evidence put him in the centre of multiple murders and torturing incidents during the Franco regime. The book keeps jumping around, entering 1982, where Guzman runs the Brigada Especial; Franco is dead and the ‘glory’ days of being able to be a vicious fascist is over. Spain is concreting over its past and wants democracy to work. Guzman has one last mission, and wants to end his enemies. What I love is the little flashbacks to 1965, and Inspector Villanuevo who lives in tiny Llanto del Moro. A policeman living under Franco is bound to get caught up in something nasty.

Even with three time periods, the storyline gallops along, the flashbacks filling in details as Galindez tracks Guzman to the bitter ended. The reality of life under Franco and those fragile years post-death swaps out to Spain 2010, not exactly a prosperous time, but at least free. Those who were murdered in Franco’s name, those who are the ‘disappeared’ and the selling of babies all comes back to haunt Spain and Guzman in his final stand.

You all know I love these subjects. My own Spanish trilogy dealt with baby selling, the Brigada Espeical and the ‘disappeared’ from the Spanish Civil War onwards. Only, I like Guzman, even though he was the bad guy. I could never really root for Galindez, the history nerd in me kept referring to the other characters.

In Oldfield’s version, the story is more important than history, so it can appeal to a wide range. The series is neatly tied up and at least some of Spain’s ghost are laid to rest. Reading this made me want to dump all my own work and write another Spanish historical fiction immediately.

Click here to read my reviews of The Sentinel and the Exile

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 61: 10 – 17 September 1937

September 10

Still under the thick fog, the Nationalists take the hill at Biforco, below the El Mazuco Pass, but the mountain of Llabres is still in Republican hands, where they machine gun Nationalist troops and roll down barrels of explosives. The day is marked with the first delivery of hot food for the Republican men. If the Nationalists cannot take this pass, they will be forced to climb much steeper mountains to claim El Mazuco.

on the hills at El Mazuco

September 11.The Nationalists are still stuck in the valley below the El Mazuco pass, and change their plans. They spend two days heading along the mountain range to hike up Pico Turbina,  height of 1315m, a rocky cliff face with 40° slopes.  No tracks have ever been made up Pico Turbina and no mules have ever made the trek. The Nationalist men are forced to carry everything as they scale the cliffs. They are hidden in thick fog and no aircraft can see them overhead.

September 13

Constant bombardment on the northwest edge of El Muzuco has weakened the Republicans at the top, and they have to surrender the Sierra Llabres to the Nationalists. At the top of the village of El Mazuco itself, which has no defenses.

El Mazuco village © José González Fernández.

September 14

Nationalists climbing the Pico Turbina have almost reached the top of the mountain but are attacked by Republicans with hand grenades, aided by the thick fog, which prevents the Nationalists from taking the peak.

Pico Turbina

September 15

El Mazuco village is surrounded by Nationalists so the Republicans retreat back to Meré, six kilometres west along the mountains pass. Pico Turbina is taken by the Nationalists at last and nearby Peñas Blancas peak is also taken, along with the villages of Arenas Arangas.

September 16

The three summits of the Peña Blancas (Peña Blanca, Pico Turbina and El Mazuco) are all now surrounded  by the Nationalists. There are still Republican men at Pico Turbina, not yet ready to surrender. If they can hold the Nationalists on the south side of the Peña Blancas and the El Mazuco pass until winter, then the remainder of the north will be safe from the Nationalists. Casualties are unknown at this point in the wild terrain, but with the Nationalists starting with 33,000 men and the Republicans with only 5,000, the Republican hopes of the Basque, Cantabrian and Asturian men are fading fast.

nearby Arangas

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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.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 60: 3 – 10 September 1937: 80 years since the Battle of Belchite

The ailing Republican battle of Zaragoza is now centred on the bombing of the village of Belchite, which has been surrounded for two days. Around 3800 civilians are trapped in the town along with 7000 Nationalists fighting, determined not to lose the area. All are suffering with the heat of summer and water in the area has been cut off by the Republicans. With troops so spread out over the Zaragoza battle area of 100 kilometres between Belchite and Zuera, exact numbers are not known, but bloody combat continues right around the small town. Much of the Republican artillery for the battle, with T-26 tanks and aircraft support, moves in to cut off the southern end of the Nationalist troops from the northern reinforcements.

September 4

While the bombardment of tiny Belchite continues, Nationalists with the Army of the North continue their trek through the mountains from the Cantabria region into Asturias, and cross the strategic point of the Deva river, with Republicans holding the area quickly having to retreat.

September 5

The advancing Nationalists capture the tiny town of Llanes, but the 33,000 troops now have to trek through the limestone cliffs of the Sierra de Cuera. These difficult regions are Asturias’ protection and the Nationalists will have to take the El Mazuco pass in order to advance any further.

El Mazuco mountains

September 6

While the bombardment of Belchite is still ongoing, the 33,000 Nationalists in the north begin the battle of El Mazuco. The Republicans, groups of Basque, Cantabrian and Asturian fighters, have only 5,000 men in the Sierra de Cuera region. El Mazuco is just five kilometres from the ocean, meaning destroyers can also be deployed to help the Nationalists, along with German Condor Legion aircraft. The Republicans, all men weakened from the lost battles of Bilbao and Santander, have no support and no way of gaining reinforcements. Only the steep cliffs will keep the Nationalists at bay.

Republican Libertad

September 7

The Nationalist cruiser Baleares battles the Republican light cruisers Méndez Núñez and Libertad off the coast of Cherchell on the Algerian coast. The Baleares comes across the Republican convoy in the dark, becoming the battle of Cherchell. Republican ships are escorting merchant ships through the dangerous area. The entire convoy flees the area while Libertad and Méndez Núñez try to hold off the larger Baleares. The two Republican ships are separated  during the day while Baleares tries to repair initial damage, but by afternoon, Baleares is hit twice by Libertad. Baleares backs away to be recused by a sister-ship in the sea, while both Nationalist and Italian planes attack the two Republican ships from the air. All ships involved are damaged and the leave the area, with only the Nationalist Baleares suffering serious damage. However, two of the cargo ships which had been travelling with the Republican convoy panicked during the nearby battle and changed course to get to Algeria. One ship runs aground, and one is captured the French and taken into the Cherchell port.

Carpet-bombing is used in the battle of El Mazuco, using both explosive and incendiary bombs throughout the day. The Republicans are trying to hold their post under Commander Higinio Carrocera, just three battalions and 24 machine-guns, and only the terrain holds back the strong Nationalist troops.

Still on September 7

The huge battle of Zaragoza is over. Republicans managed to eat 10 kilometres into the Nationalist areas, but only captured unpatrolled areas and win a few tiny villages. Exact losses on both sides are unknown (running into the thousands) but are worse for the Republicans who have also lost much of their artillery in the process. The battle of Belchite has also now come to an end, with the village completely destroyed. The Republicans and International Brigades take 2,411 prisoners and another 600 Nationalists have been wounded in the fight. After both bombing and hand-to-hand fighting, 3,000 people are dead. Those left behind manage to live in the rubble until a new town is built nearby in 1939, however the ruins will never be touched.

source

September 8

The battle through the El Mazuco mountains continues as thick fog fills in the whole area. The only fighting that can be done is hand-to-hand combat, causes massive casualties and wounds on both sides, and the Nationalists manage to capture a full two kilometres of ground.

September 9

The Republicans battalions defending El Mazuco have to retreat as the Nationalists shell their positions, but the Nationalists cannot take new ground as the men are cut down by machine gun fire from the Republicans in reply, meaning no one makes up any ground.

Area of Cabrales in the El Mazuco pass area

September 10

Still under the thick fog, the Nationalists take the hill at Biforco, below the El Mazuco Pass, but the mountain of Llabres is still in Republican hands, where they machine gun Nationalist troops and roll down barrels of explosives. The day is marked with the first delivery of hot food for the Republican men. If the Nationalists cannot take this pass, they will be forced to climb much steeper mountains to claim El Mazuco.

on the hills at El Mazuco

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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.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 57: 14 – 21 August 1937

August 14

The Nationalists are ready to begin their massive new siege to take the north of Spain. The Army of the North of both sides have been assembled throughout the top half of Spain. General Fidel Dávila has 90,000 troops, 25,000 of them through three Italian divisions. They also have a massive cache of weapons, plus the German Condor Legion aircraft, plus Spanish and Italian planes. Their troops are fresh and the Nationalists are ready after the end of the battle of Brunete at the end of July. The Republicans have 80,000 in the region under General Mariano Gámir Ulíbarri. However, their planes are useless, and morale is low. The Basque soldiers included in the numbers are tired and devastated from a loss of their autonomous region and their capital Bilbao, and are already considering surrendering to Italian troops in order to survive.

 The Nationalist 1st Navarrese Brigade attacks the frontlines between Valdecebollas in the Palencia region and Cuesta Labra in order to block Republican troops south of the Cantabrian mountains. This is in preparation to start capturing Republican territories in the mountain region over the coming week and capture the entire Cantabrian region and Santander city on the coast.

August 15

The Nationalist troops advance through Barruelo up to Peña Rubia, Salcedillo, Matalejos and Reinosilla, all mountainous villages, without resistance, with the exception of the Republicans fighting back at nearby Portillo de Suano.

also August 15

The Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM) is created. Having SIM means that secret police activities are now in the control of the government again, rather than Communist and Soviet hands. Political meetings have now been banned in Barcelona, and the constant fighting is undermining the left-wing groups. Barcelona is the central hub for Republicans mixing, with anarchism, socialism, regionalism, and communism coming together to produce infighting. The Republican war effort is hindered by these internal arguments. Peace has not truly been restored in Barcelona since the outbreak of fighting in May.

August 16

The Nationalists take Portillo de Suano and the industrial factory area outside the town of Reinosa during the day, and take central Reinosa at dusk. Meanwhile, the Navarrese Brigade are advancing, furthering the Nationalists’ control of the region. Italian troops sent from Burgos are heading to Lanchares, 17 kilometres from Reinosa, and also San Miguel de Aguayo, a mountainous 14 kilometres trek north from Lanchares. The Cantabrian area is quickly being swallowed by Nationalist troops with little to no resistance in the sparsely populated regions.

August 17

The Republicans still hold Campoo, just 4 kilometres east of Reinosa, with 22 battalions camped there. However the Nationalists have now encircled them completely.

In Barcelona, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party sign a pact to ally as one group, to bring stability to the Republicans’ effort. The Communist party expected a merger, in line with international Communist groups. The Spanish Republican government does not like the idea of the Communists controlling the Socialist party, but the unity pact agreement leaves the groups independent but formally allied, meaning the Communists do not gain any extra control over the government.

Nationalists outside Reinosa

August 18

Nationalist forces take the town of Santirude as they surge further north through Cantabria, while the Italians claim San Pedro del Romeral and San Miguel de Luena, only 45 kilometres south of Santander itself.

August 19

Cabuérniga, Bárcena de Pie de Concha and Entrambasmestas all fall to the Nationalists.

August 20

Italian troops claim Villacarriedo and Navarrese forces advance towards Torrelavega and Cabezón de la Sal. Santander is now in sight, just 30 kilometres from Torrelavega. The Nationalists are destroying the northern part of Spain and the Republicans cannot do anything to stop them. The Nationalists have overwhelming support, troops and artillery. The Basque, Cantabrian and Asturian units cannot work together against the speed and power of the Nationalist army. The Basques, having already lost their capital Bilbao, are at the morale limits and begin to mutiny as the Nationalists sweep through Cantabria.

Franco at the Santander front

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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.

 

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 55/56: 1 – 14 August 1937

August 2

Embattled Falange leader Manuel Hedilla, arrested for defying Franco on April 25, has his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment in the Canary Islands. Since the death of Rivera eight months earlier, Hedilla has been in a battle with Agustín Aznar and Sancho Dávila for the role of leader of the Falange, the fascist ultra-right wing conservatives loyal to Franco’s cause. Hedilla has been more moderate throughout the war and does not believe in the Nationalists’ widespread use of horrific violence to take control of Spain. Franco had the Falange party merge with the Carlist groups in April, belittling Hedilla’s leadership, and he was arrested for speaking out. Franco’s brother-in-law suggested Hedilla be spared execution to keep Falange factions happy. Hedilla will only serve four years of his life sentence before being quietly let go, but will go on to write critically about Franco in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

August 6

The tiny town of Torrelavega, 27 kilometres from Santander in the north, sees heavy fighting resulting in the death of 12 Republican troops. Franco is preparing another huge siege in the north and tensions are mounting.

August 7

Private Catholic worship is again permitted by the Republican government. The Catholic Church, heavily involved in the war and supporting Franco, has suffered since the Second Spanish Republic began in 1931. Between 50-80% of priests in many areas have been murdered, along with nuns, monks and church laity, any suffering horrific deaths. Churches and cathedrals have been destroyed and relics have been burned. The Church has been especially cruel to the population for centuries and resistance has led them to take up against the government and support Franco and his fascists.

flag of the Council of Aragon
August 10

The Consejo de Aragón (Council of Aragon) is dissolved by Prime Minister Negrín. Led by Joaquín Ascaso since December from a capital in Caspe (100 kms east of Zaragoza, 200km west from Barcelona), the council ran the huge Aragon province and its attempts at social revolution and anarchist values. Now that Catalonia and its capital Barcelona are back in Republican hands instead of independent leaders, the government now wants all pro-Republican areas under their control. About 700 anarchists are arrested and the council agrees to disband the following day. Those arrested will only be imprisoned a few weeks as mostly communists troops take over the region on the government’s behalf.

August 13

The Nationalist are ready to begin their massive new siege to take the north of Spain. The Army of the North of both sides have been assembled throughout the top half of Spain. General Fidel Dávila has 90,000 troops, 25,000 of them through three Italian divisions. They also have a massive cache of weapons, plus the German Condor Legion aircraft, plus Spanish and Italian planes. Their troops are fresh and the Nationalists are ready after the end of the battle of Brunete at the end of July. The Republicans have 80,000 in the region under General Mariano Gámir Ulíbarri. However, their planes are useless, and morale is low. The Basque soldiers included in the numbers are tired and devastated from a loss of their autonomous region and their capital Bilbao, and are already considering surrendering to Italian troops in order to survive.

August 14

The Nationalist 1st Navarrese Brigade attacks the frontlines between Valdecebollas in the Palencia region and Cuesta Labra in order to block Republican troops south of the Cantabrian mountains. This is in preparation to start capturing Republican territories in the mountain region over the coming week and capture the entire Cantabrian region and Santander city on the coast.

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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.