martes, 29 de mayo de 2012

Winter In Madrid by C J Sansom

C J Sansom’s Winter In Madrid goes a long way beyond the habitual territory of the historical novel. Not only does it present fiction alongside documented history, it also depicts some real people, and not only figureheads such as Generalissimo Franco. On the contrary, the people concerned become real characters in Winter In Madrid. But this book also has its own position to present in relation to the events of the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath, whose horrors form not a backdrop but an integral part of the novel’s plot. Three boys – Harry, Bernie and Sandy – do time together at an English public school. They are very different characters from equally different backgrounds. Harry is an orphan raised rather distantly by an aunt and uncle. Bernie is the son of a working class London shopkeeper family. He attends the private school by virtue of a scholarship. He has socialist leanings. Sandy is the rebellious son of a bishop. From the start he has the air of a cad and a bounder. When, later, all three become involved in the Spanish Civil War, they predictably side with different actors in the conflict. Bernie, as you might expect, becomes a communist and joins the International Brigade. Harry, having studied languages and already visited pre-war Spain, is eventually lured into an apparently establishment position as a translator in the British embassy in Madrid. But alongside his linguistic services, he has another, less communicated job to pursue. Sandy, on the other hand, presents a more complex picture. No, he did not merely join the nationalists and thus oppose the other two: he was always far too driven by individualism to follow such a predictable course of action. Sandy goes into business in Spain, cultivating links with the fascist Falange. At the same time, and with obvious paradox, he also assists Jews fleeing Nazism to find passage from France to Portugal and thus further afield to safety. It may be that his brand of disinterested individualism renders his business activity merely pragmatic. On the other hand… And then there are two women, Barbara and Sofia. Barbara is British, a former Red Cross employee. Briefly she met Bernie during the war, and then he returned to the front to disappear, presumed dead. After years of change, Barbara met Sandy and, in his own way, did much to boost her damaged confidence. They are also living as man and wife, but – in a country where holding hands in public is outlawed – they are not married. Along with his assistance for fleeing Jews, this second layer of risk provides a flaw in the construction of Sandy’s character. Surely he was a sufficiently mercenary operator to have seen these potential pitfalls and taken steps to avoid them? But then it’s fiction. Harry and Barbara met in his earlier visit to Spain, when he also became involved with a family from a poor, republican area of Madrid. When he revisits the area, he meets another family being supported by the efforts of Sofia, who remains a left-wing sympathiser. Harry and Sofia find their relationship develops. The existence Sofia’s murdered clerical relative provides yet another interesting layer of complication that really does bring home the brutality of civil war. As the plot of Winter In Madrid unfolds, the novel provides the reader with a strong desire to uncover its secrets. Sansom is a real story teller and the book works extremely well on the simple level of a thriller. But it also remains a faithful – largely faithful – to events as they happened and the individuals who perpetrated them. And it achieves its end of describing the complexity of relations in Spain – political, economic and social – with great success. In addition, it manages to sustain a clear position of its own and without the use of polemic. Winter In Madrid thus attempts significantly more than most populist fiction dare even try. What is more, Winter In Madrid achieves its aim with remarkable success, even if, on occasions, its plot devices may seem a little artificial. But they what plots, including those that happen in war, are not artificial?

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