Tag Archives: Spanish Civil War

Book review: Midnight in Europe

midnight in europe by alan furst 24-8-141938. Spain at war, Europe on the brink of war. This is the first World War Two novel I have read about the overlap of the two wars, the impact of one on the other, and the approaching shadow of fascism. Nothing happens in isolation. The Spanish Civil War is notoriously difficult to understand: so many factions, changing names etc. Sensibly, Alan Furst concentrates on one aspect: the supply of weapons to the Republicans fighting the fascist army of Franco.

A secret Spanish agency in Paris sources arms and ammunition for the Republicans. Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris and working for a French law firm, is asked to help. Unsure what he is getting into, but resigned to help his mother country, he is soon looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed – he doesn’t know who by, it could be the Spanish fascists, the Gestapo, the Russians. Inter-cut with Ferrar’s story are excerpts from the front line in Spain where preparations are being made to fight the Battle of the Ebro. The need for the weapons is desperate, as bullets are counted out for each soldier.

Working with an odd mixture of diplomats, gangsters and generally shady characters, Ferrar first travels to Berlin where there is a glimpse of the pre-war country which with hindsight gives us a chill. The Gestapo follows them at every step. Then there is a nail-biting train journey to Gdansk, as an arms shipment goes missing. The climax is a thrilling boat journey from Odessa to Valencia. Ferrar, is a lawyer not a spy, he is simply an ordinary man doing what he can to help. An ordinary man who is, meanwhile, having a sprinkling of love affairs which may or may not be authentic.

If you have been put off before at reading novels about the Spanish Civil War because the politics is confusing, you will enjoy this novel. The shadow of war in Europe is cast over every page, the sense of approaching doom however does not seem to affect the nightclubs of Paris, or the shops of New York where the cheerful atmosphere seems unreal. Ferrar faces moving his family from Louveciennes on the outskirts of Paris, the picturesque country west of the capital which was painted by the Impressionists, to the safety of New York.

This is the first novel by Alan Furst I have read, picked up at random in an airport bookshop. I will read many more.

Click here for Alan Furst’s website.
To read an extract from the book, click here.
Watch this You Tube interview with Alan Furst, speaking about Midnight in Europe.

‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst [Weidenfeld & Nicolson]

An aged, bare tree

The Spanish have reverence for their elderly, the extended family still very much exists here and small children and their grandparents and great-grandparents are part of a close family circle and are important within their wider community. This is partly such a strong fact here, I think, because in the countryside people tend to live where they were born; families are not divided so much by commuting. But this is the campo, it is not typical of life in a Spanish city. Age though, is respected. bare tree1 26-3-13On the hillside, the trees are bare as winter seems to go on and on. Young trees beside old, the bark of young and old decorated alike with splashes of yellow lichen and green moss. This tree stands out from the rest because of its height, its breadth. It is, I think, a walnut. I will need to check again once the leaves appear which, if it is a walnut, will be among the last to appear, not until spring enters its second half. They grow well here, wild on the hillsides, as they are tolerant of drought. The average lifespan is 80 years though some live much longer, several times longer than the average human. bare tree2 26-3-13I wonder how old this tree is? Was it just a sapling as the Spanish Civil War was fought around it? bare tree3 26-3-13
5 to remember
la reverencia – reverence
una anciana – an elderly lady
una familia muy unida – a very close family
la comunidad – community
respectado/a – respected

Book review: The Blind Man of Seville

the blind man of seville by robert wilson 31-12-13aThe first time I heard of the Javier Falcón books was when the first was dramatized on TV, and unfortunately I missed it. So it was with anticipation that I turned to the first of the four books, The Blind Man of Seville. My first impression was that it was the longest detective book I’d read in a while, but the reason for this soon became apparent: the back story in Tangiers. In a note at the back of the book, Wilson directs his readers to the full-length diaries he wrote for Francisco Falcón, Javier’s late father, artist, Tangiers resident and key character in The Blind Man of Seville.

It is a complicated novel, entangling the Spanish legal system, bullfighting, the worlds of art and restaurants, Seville, Tangiers and the theme which lurks just below the surface of everyday Spain: the Spanish Civil War. There is something about the first murder which slowly tips Inspector Falcón towards mental breakdown. Like all detectives, the interest lies in his frailties, how he overcomes them and manages to do the day job, how he outwits the criminal mind.

Francisco’s diaries are fascinating; an insight into the Spanish Legion, its time in Morocco and Russia, the brutality and hardships, the sense of brotherhood. The diaries in their entirety are available to read at Robert Wilson’s website, here, but do not read them until you have finished the book. At times as Javier reads his father’s story, the story churns his guts; mine too. Anyone who has read anything about the Civil War will anticipate some of the brutality. Wilson skilfully weaves this storyline into the modern day hunt for a murderer.

This is far from a formulaic detective story. Wilson writes about heavy subjects with a confident hand, and creates atmosphere easily. “The hotel had suffered in the intervening half-century. There was a glass panel missing from one of the doors in his room. Paint peeled off the metal windows. The furniture looked as if it had taken refuge from a violent husband. But there was a perfect view of the bay of Tangier and Falcón sat on the bed and gaped at it, while thoughts of deracination spread through his mind.”

This is the first book of a quartet about Javier Falcón. The second in the series is The Silent and the Damned, to be reviewed soon.
‘The Blind Man of Seville’ by Robert Wilson

Book Review: ‘Ghosts of Spain’ by Giles Tremlett

Ghosts of Spain - Giles Tremlett 30-4-13Madrid correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, Tremlett’s authoritative voice brings to life the secret history of Spain’s Civil War. This was the first book I read about the pacto de olvido, the pact of forgetting. Tremlett puts this pact into context by explaining how Spanish history is riddled with division: religious, political and geographical. Why do the football supporters of Real Madrid and Barcelona hate each other quite so much? Why, it is rumoured, there are no signs to Barcelona from the Madrid ring road [I think this is more of a legend these days]. Why is Andalucía the ‘poor man’ of the autonomous regions? Did the Islamist Madrid bombers hope to return Spain to its Moorish roots? This is an easy book to read on a difficult subject. After this, I would read anything Tremlett writes about Spain.
5 to remember
autorizado/a – authoritative
la voz – voice
secreto/a – secret
el contexto – context
los hinchas – football supporters

Book Review: ‘Homage to Catalonia’ by George Orwell

homage to catalonia - george orwell 29-4-13Probably the most famous account of the Spanish Civil War in the English language, Orwell actually chose the wrong place to go to in Spain. By going to Barcelona to fight with the International Brigades, instead he became embroiled in the struggle there between communists and anarchists and a multitude of other factions, a long way from the front line. He observes the in-fighting with a clear eye, seeing with a kind of innocence how convoluted the Spanish Republican loyalists could manage to make their strategy against the fascist Nationalists.
He does see a little fighting, is on the front for a few months at a time when there is little action. ‘In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter on the Saragossa front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.’
His clarity of language brings his experience to life as you read the words on the page, and his disappointment at not being in the thick of it is apparent in every paragraph. ‘The things that one normally thinks of as the horrors of war seldom happened to me. No aeroplane ever dropped a bomb anywhere near me. I do not think a shell ever exploded within fifty yards of me, and I was only in hand-to-hand fighting once [once is once too often, I may say].’
The life is repetitive, boring, in the most unsanitary conditions. ‘A life as uneventful as a city clerk’s, and almost as regular. Sentry-go, patrols, digging; digging, patrols, sentry-go. On every hilltop, Fascist or Loyalist, a knot of ragged, dirty men shivering round their flag and trying to keep warm.’ He writes of the real wretchedness of a badly-planned war, with few weapons, and little support. In every word, Orwell’s journalistic credentials shout out.
Everyone should read this book.
5 to remember
el/la comunista – communist
el/la anarquista – anarchist
la facción – faction
las luchas internas – in-fighting
el enemígo – enemy

Book Review: ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ by Javier Cercas

soldiers of salamis - javier cercas 29-4-13You could be forgiven for reading this novel and thinking it is a historical account of an incident in the Spanish Civil War. Written by the Salamanca university lecturer of my Spanish tutor, it is a story about war which seems so unbelievable that it cannot be true. Cercas puts this very sentiment into the mouth of one of his characters:
‘Did you know lots of people thought it was a lie?…’
‘Doesn’t surprise me.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because it sounds like fiction.’
‘All wars are full of stories that sound like fiction.’

A man escapes a firing squad, Republicans are shooting Nationalists at the end of the war. He escapes into a forest, thinking he is safe. But there he runs into a militiaman, who inexplicably turns and walks away instead of shooting him. The escaped man, a fascist, becomes a national hero and the soldier disappears into history. This is their story. Cercas examines memory and forgetting, winners and losers in war. Who is the hero, the escaped man, or the soldier who let him live? I have read it three times, and each time I get more from it. Unmissable.
5 to remember
el soldado – soldier
la adivinanza – riddle
increible – unbelievable
verdadero/a – true
la ficción – fiction

Book Review: ‘The Story of Spain’ by Mark Williams

the story of spain - mark williams 29-4-13
This is the best book I’ve found to date about the history of Spain, starting with pre-history and taking in the Romans, the Moors and the Christians, the Reconquista, Felipe II’s palace El Escorial and the long line of royalty, the Spain of Cervantes and Don Quixote to today via Goya, Velazguez and Picasso. Don’t be put off by the fact that it looks a little like a school textbook. The story is told in chronological order, and each chapter has a summary of key sites worth a visit. Williams is a journalist and this shows in his writing style and balanced reporting. Full of names from history that feature of street names in towns and cities around the country, the book is an accessible telling of a complicated history. He brings to life the true story behind two of Goya’s most renowned paintings, ‘The Second of May’ and ‘The Third of May’ in 1808, a year Williams says is equal in national importance as 1492 – the year the Moors left Granada, and Cristóbal Colón set forth to the New World.
5 to remember
los romanos – the romans
los moros – the moors
los cristianos – the christians
el palacio – palace
la familia real – royalty