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

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SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Sentinel’ by Mark Oldfield

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Madrid 13 January, 1953:  The Spanish Civil War has been over for 13 years, but Franco swore he would never forgive or forget his opponents. And he hasn’t.  At dawn tomorrow, 15 enemies of the state will be rounded up and executed. Shot in the head if they are lucky, garrotted if they aren’t.  Their bodies wont be found for 57 years, tangled bones in a disused mine. For Ana María Galindez a forensic investigator with the Guardia Civil, it will be her first encounter with the work of Comandante Guzmán. But not her last.
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As soon as I heard about Mark Oldfield’s ‘The Sentinel’, I was desperate to get my hands on a copy. The subject is a personal favourite, 1950’s Spain and life under Franco – I could hardly wait. What makes the story special is that it is spread over two time periods, 1953 and present day, and a third small period set in Civil War Spain, which gave a smattering of clues along the way.

The 1953 storyline is superb. The cold misery of Madrid is ever present – it is icy and dark; the scene set is a perfect companion to lives filled with fear and desperation. One could not imagine the sun shining on Comandante Guzmán, the head of the Brigada Especial, assigned with the task of rounding up the last of dictator Franco’s enemies. The man is an exceptional character. No matter how cruel or apathetic he is, every moment is enjoyable. A series of characters surrounds Guzmán – all stupid, greedy and egocentric, but he has no trouble with being one step ahead of the lot of them. Guzmán is, no doubt, involved in a violent responsibility but seems constantly at ease with his life in the Brigada Especial. It has been a long time since a male character has felt so honest, realistic or enjoyable to read. It doesn’t matter if Guzmán is shooting ‘rojos’ that he has rounded up, belittling his subordinates, or threatening every man, woman and child who stumbles across his path, the reader feels on his side. There are no excuses made for Guzmán’s behaviour, no ‘extenuating circumstances’; he continues down a violent path and seems proud of himself. Franco and his minions count on Guzmán, and Guzmán is determined not to fail, and determined not to be killed in the process. Watch out for a memorable meeting between Guzmán and his mother. It was a scene that certainly stood out.

The story gives itself a totally different pace with the chapters based in present day Spain. Ana Mariá Galindez is a guardia civil forensic scientist, who stumbles across Guzmán while investigating the discovery of 15 bodies, murdered and dumped back in 1953. At first, Ana comes across as jaded; a woman in a man’s world in every respect. She is intelligent and independent, and seems like a character that a reader could sit down and enjoy. Ana has a past, no fault of her own, but it has scarred her in a way that she seems permanently cynical. Ana’s romantic relationships with other women are all sustained by her professional life – these women are intertwined in her search for Guzmán and his 1953 disappearance. She has a penchant for picking terrible lovers; the women are annoying and weak at best. Ana’s redeeming feature is that she believes people like Guzmán are not a product of their situation, but rather that they have their own opinions, beliefs and evil machinations. She believes that Guzmán is merciless on his own, and not just a Franco puppet. Her chapters fly by at a rate that the reader can barely keep up with the timeline, with an ending that leaves the reader begging for the second instalment from the author.

At almost 600 pages, the book gives two thoughts: one that it is a book on Spain that could keep a reader going for weeks and another that they could face a wordy, overworked story packed with unnecessary fluff. Fears are unfounded. It is easy to sit down and read 100 pages without so much as glancing up from the pages. The swapping between the time periods could make a reader zip through Ana Mariá to get to more Guzmán. All the way through, the ending seems visible, and then more surprises rear their heads. The end can give a sense of feeling let down, but this was no fault of the author, but rather because it is easy to become invested in the outcomes for the characters, which rarely happens.

Ultimately, the story is different from expected. A fan of female lead characters could feel disappointed. Ana Mariá has all the attributes of a brilliant lead, but she seems stiff and cold to those around her. She lacks a soul, although the situations she finds herself in do not allow for sentiment. So much is at stake, even her life, but in the end, it may not be possible to worry about whether she lives or dies.  Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

The Civil War chapters seem to have no purpose in the story, until near the end where the puzzle comes together, and it feels like a slap in the face – they are, in fact, valuable and insightful. As a Spanish Civil War fan or not, a reader should welcome any chapters on the subject, and in the end prove their worth and light up Guzmán’s life even more. They are fantastic treats and an astute way of recalling how Guzmán became the ‘hero of Badajoz’.

Guzmán is the star. He is undoubtedly malicious, spiteful, selfish and calculating, but not heartless if it suits him. No need for knowledge on the history of Spain to enjoy this book, but if a reader is educated on the subject, they will be delighted at the accuracy and the detail thoughtfully put in by the author. There should be high anticipation for the second ‘Vengeance of Memory’ novel. Thank you, Mark Oldfield, for bringing Franco’s Spain back to life.

My score – 4 out of 5 stars. Definitely worth the read.

‘The Sentinel’ is available on Books4Spain and Amazon