Tuesday, May 29, 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?

From One Master To Another - Po-on by F Sionil José

Po-on is the novel that completed F. Sionil José’s Rosales project, in which, over five books, the members of a single family appear to live out the very detail of Philippine history. Po-on does not actually start in Rosales, the fictitious town in central Luzon that gives its name to the saga. Here we start in Ilocos, a northern region apart, with its own language and culture. At the outset, we learn from an old Spanish priest that a local Cabugaw sacristan, Eustaquio, shows much promise and is recommended for the priesthood. But we also come to know a local lad called Istak. He is a devout Christian, but also deeply rooted to the traditions of his people and family. As a devout Christian aspiring to the priesthood under a baptismal name, he remains an Ilcano allied to the faith of his colonial masters. Istak’s father has lost an arm. It makes life as a peasant farmer quite difficult. The circumstances of that loss have been unclear to the wider family. And, when the old priest moves aside to allow a younger, less paternalistically-minded man to assist with business, the family’s relations with the Church change. What unfolds is a metaphor for the whole relationship between Filipinos and Christianity, a description of a desire to become the church’s faithful servants being exploited by raw power employed cynically to secure economic and political gain. Status, of course, is at the root of everything, and a poor peasant tends to be short of that particular commodity. There is a fracas and the family has to move. They flee south, joining forces with others who have nothing to lose. They run the gauntlet of the Spanish military police, the guardia civil, and they survive. But there are real trials and tribulation along the way. It is, of course, Rosales where they settle. It’s a town that provides opportunity in the shape of a plot to rent and another that can be claimed after clearing. Thus, with a new identity in a new location, the displaced family can create a new life. And, just as they start to discover this new lease of life, their nation claims release from Spanish domination and Americans arrive to take control. But initial euphoria gives way to further struggle as the new masters declare their intention to change the methods, but still to retain the control of a colonial ruler. And, just as the family fled to Rosales, to new opportunity, there emerges for Filipinos as a nation to need to seek a new future where Filipinos will have control over its own destiny. Thus Po-on brings us into the American era and the early years of the twentieth century: Po-on is historical fiction at its best, in that it brings history alive, alive in the lives of its characters.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lucky by Alice Sebold

It is possible to start reading Lucky by Alice Sebold under the misunderstanding that it is a novel. As the opening pages unfold with their description of a violent rape, it might be just another crime novel. The horror is tangible, the sensations evoked predictably nauseating. A few pages later, when the reality of the book’s memoir becomes clear, however, the initial reaction seems to become one of embarrassed over-statement until, that is, the work’s true and admirable complexity begins to emerge. Alice Sebold was eighteen years old when she became a rape victim. An academic father and an unpredictable mother had been perfectly good parents, despite their own failings or limitations. Similarly, it seems, Alice Sebold became a complex victim, on the one hand the completely innocent and wronged party who had been wantonly violated by a violent criminal, but yet on the other a person who somehow, via her own quite unremarkable behaviour and lifestyle, could not immediately endear herself, even via her victim status, to those who might offer sympathy or assistance. Perhaps sympathy could never have been enough to diminish the grim reality of Alice Sebold’s experience. Only empathy might have helped, and that was largely impossible. But the subtlety of Alice Sebold’s account of her experience of rape and its aftermath is precisely her ability to empathise with others who had similar experiences and who had, at one stage or another, fallen victim to one of the pitfalls on the way to justice. There is the subject of consent, of course, an issue that cannot really be judged when no-one else was present at the time. There is the issue of identification and having to be confronted again by the assailant. There is the issue of character and trustworthiness of the victim, qualities that inevitably are clued from lifestyle, attitude and deportment. And where does consideration of such things lead when the act of rape was not actually conducted at knife-point, when the victim cannot identify her assailant and when she openly begins to sleep around, use drugs and get drunk? Alice Sebold’s Lucky deals with all these issues and deals with them with subtlety and interest. But overall the victim’s involvement is paramount and it is this sense of sharing in the experience that is the book’s greatest and perhaps enduring achievement. There is doubt and insecurity to be lived through, alongside the continuing pain, as well as revolting physical and mental horror. Lucky takes the reader frighteningly there in an engaging and compelling way. Sometimes life takes you where you do not want to go. We are not blessed by such experience, only by the ability, eventually, to cope with it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Girl With Green Eyes by Edna O'Brien

It is fifty years since Edna O’Brien published Girl With Green Eyes. It is conventional nowadays to regard the late 1950s and early 1960s as an era when sexual liberation was beginning. This may be accurate. Certainly the men in Edna O’Brien’s novel seem to bear no little responsibility for any of their sexual activity, whilst the women, who are usually willing partners, take all the risks and bear all the responsibilities. The girl with green eyes uses several versions of her name. They appear to be applied randomly. She is whoever circumstance demands. She is Cait, Caithleen, or even Kate, depending on who is speaking, or where and when the action happens. Cait was previously one of the girls who were Country Girls and the Girl With Green Eyes forms the second part of a trilogy following these young women’s progress from rural assumptions to urban freedom, of sorts. In Girl With Green Eyes the young women have moved to Dublin. Events take Cait, just twenty-one, and a mere student in today’s paradigm, back home to the country and then back to town again. She has taken up with Eugene. He is older than her and, God forbid, married – even with a child. The wife lives in America – where else for the separated? – but she always seems close at hand and something of a threat. Cait has completely fallen for her male elect and news gets out. A rescue party from the country arrives to whisk her off back to the protection of home in the west, where alcoholism and threats of violence keep the peace. Her father drinks all day, but then he’s a provincial sort. He may be excused, since he rules his fiefdom. He will hit anyone to protect what needs protecting and daughters are usually top of the list. Cait describes most of her experiences in the first person. Her friend gets pregnant and has to deal with the consequences. Despite all such practices being utterly illegal at the time, everyone seems to know where to go, how to secure the service and what it costs. In general, the women involved seem utterly dependent on securing a man to provide for them, and seem to live at least half in fear of the urges that propel them. There is this ambivalence within all the relationships. The men are keen to go where they want, but generally do not negotiate on the destinations. The women seem keen to explore, but never journey on their own terms, apparently preferring to be taken along with the ride. By the end of the book, there have been changes in Cait’s life. It seems that these changes anticipate the changes that will begin for women in wider society, but in Girl With Green Eyes such progress has achieved only limited changes in women’s expectations of life. The novel thus subtly mirrors what we must assume prevailed in wider society at the time. It thus presents a contemporary reader with a historical perspective that its author perhaps did not consciously consider at the time. It is surely a richer experience for this added dimension.