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May 21, 2007

Book review – Winter in Madrid

Spain’s a strange and interesting place.  It was a rehearsal ground for part of World War II; it suffered both from both fascist and communist tyranny in the course of a single decade.  Then it stayed out of the war and stayed locked in a dictatorship into the 70s.  Now it’s a vibrant country – except that regions like Catalonia where Barcelona is and the Basque area don’t really consider themselves part of the country at all.

C. J. Sansom, whose historical fiction usually takes place during the reformation, has written a wonderful novel about Spain in the terrible time just after General Franco had defeated the remnants of the Republic and established himself in Madrid.  Franco is being courted by Germany to enter the war and pressured by Britain, still able to maintain an effective sea blockade, to stay out.  Winter in Madrid takes place in the winter of 1940.

Although I’m a fan of Sansom’s Shardlake series, the characters are more fully developed in this book.  There’s Harry who survived the recent evacuation of Dunkirk and has been recruited by the British Government to spy on his old schoolmate Sandy.  Sandy is a con man who is promoting a mining scheme to the Spanish government which is desperate for cash to buy food but which might become self-sufficient enough – if it had cash – to join that generation’s Axis of Evil and take on the British.  Sandy is living with Barbara, the former girl friend of Bernie – a third schoolmate of Harry and Sandy – who may or may not have been killed while fighting for the Republic.

If it sounds like it has the making of a soap opera, it does.  But the book is anything but soap.  The characters change in the cold crucible of this terrible winter.  As in the best historical fiction, the story of the characters is inextricably the story of the time they lived in, the forces in play both grand and small.

Some of the historical background I forgot or never knew is:

The Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1931 when King Alfonso XIII abdicated following years of the worse class struggle in Western Europe.

In 1936 a radical left-wing coalition was elected to power.  This triggered a military uprising although much of the military stuck with the government.

The coup might have failed but Hitler and Mussolini sent planes and ammunition to the insurgents while the conservative British government, more afraid of communists than fascists at the time, convinced France to seal its borders.  Many idealistic volunteers from around the world (including Hemingway) volunteered to help the Republic.  The Republic could get arms only from Stalin and paid the high price of importing Soviet style tyranny and repression along with the arms.

According to an afterward by Sansom: “There is still a myth in Spain, fostered by the Franco regime, that the army rose to forestall a communist coup, but the Spanish Communist Part before 1936 and the tradition among Republicans, Socialists, and Anarchists was strongly anti-authoritarian.”

The Franco government itself was split between the fascist Falange and the pro-British Monarchists.  Franco balanced the two forces to his own advantage.  As a reward for staying out of the war, the victorious allies supported his remaining in power long after the war.

Many of the roots of what Spain is today were planted in the bitter time.  Although most of the main characters in Winter in Madrid are English and not Spanish, the novel is a lucid portrait of a terrible winter.

I hadn’t read Winter in Madrid when I wrote about Fall in Barcelona in The Interpreter’s Tale but I would have understood the city better if I had.

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