Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Can I hear the echo from the days of 39?

Although books about World War 2, fiction and non-fiction, are a dime a dozen, books about the critical predecessor, the Spanish Civil War are few and far between. This may be due to the limited participation of Americans and British, but I suspect it also has to do with the murkiness of the conflict. While there is a strong element of heroism in World War 2, the Spanish Civil war was marked by class warfare, atrocities, factionalism and authoritarianism on both sides. This confused picture makes for a great setting for a spy novel, which CJ Sansom has used to excellent effect in Winter in Madrid.

The novel is set in 1940, with Britain greatly worried that the Fascist Franco might join with his ideological ally Adolf Hitler and seize the strategically vital Gibraltar. Invalided soldier Harry Brett is recruited to spy on his former classmate Sandy Forsyth (a character with more than a dash of Harry Lime) whose gold mines may help Franco escape Britain's limited leverage over Franco. Another former classmate Bernie Piper, who volunteered to serve with the Republicans, rots in a prison while his girlfriend Barbara Clare seeks him out. Complicating matter is that Barbara now lives with Sandy.

Harry is a less than ideal spy, breaking secrecy more than once and missing the political under-currents in Madrid. The political picture is not obvious. The British seek to support the right wing Monarchists, who oppose the right wing Falangists, in hopes of reducing the possibility of war expanding into Iberia. The more experienced diplomats have an amoral realist view of British policy that doesn't really consider the Spaniards at all, which appalls Harry.

Sansom paints a suitably grim picture of Spain under Franco, but also leads one to believe that life under the Soviet-controlled Republicans would have been little better. It would just have meant a different group of people would have been tortured to death. Sansom leans towards a realist policy that would have supported the Republicans before they took their extremist turn under the Soviets.

For a spy novel, this book is quite long and the plot can be meandering. This lack of speed and direction plays into his overall theme of ambiguity and paranoia, which I quite liked. Sansom writes principally about 16th century Britain, but I hope he returns to the modern era as he does it very well.


Becky said...

I love books that deal with war, spies, espionage, etc. For instance two weeks ago I read a book on World War II titled, and then last week read a great spy book titled, "Deadly Exchange," by Geoffrey M. Gluckman. Just so you know, "Deadly Exchange," was an excellent thriller. I would love to take a look at your suggested book also.

Thanks for the great tip!

Anonymous said...

How about the mysteries by Rebecca Pawel? At least a few of them are set in Spain during this period.

Tripp said...

Right, I had forgotten about Pawel, thanks for the reminder. I love the cover art for Death of a Nationalist.