Javier Marías: Berta Isla

The latest addition to my website is Javier MaríasBerta Isla. This is, in my view, by far his masterpiece. It tells the story of Tomás, half-English, half-Spanish, with a gift for languages and the eponymous Berta Isla. They meet and fall in love in Madrid. Tomás goes to university in Oxford, while Berta stays in Madrid. In Oxford, he risks a prison sentence and can only escape if he joins the British Secret Service, which he does. Returning to Madrid, he marries Berta and nominally works in the British Embassy in Madrid. However, his work requires increasingly long absences and it is only during one of these absences that Berta has reason to suspect his double life. He will neither deny nor confirm it. He then goes off at the beginning of the Falklands War and then disappears for years, without any word. Berta has to worry firstly what has happened to him and also whether, as she says at the beginning of the novel, is he the man she married. The power of the state, the horrors of war and, in particular, dirty war as well as the effect of Tomás’ double life on the couple are the key themes of this book, which is superbly written and tells a very original story.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Mac y su contratiempo [Mac and His Problem]

The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-MatasMac y su contratiempo [Mac and His Problem]. Mac is a bankrupt builder who plans to rewrite the (very poor) novel, in the form of interrelated stories, written thirty years ago by a Barcelona neighbour, now a moderately famous writer This novel is narrated by a ventriloquist and, to show the ventriloquist’s different voices, the author has written each story in the style of a different famous short-story writer. Things get more complicated when the stories start overlapping with real life, including one story which turns out to be about Mac’s wife from the period before he met her. As usual from Vila-Matas, there is lots of literary learning, a fair amount of post-modernism and a witty and imaginative story.

Max Aub: Campo de los almendros [Field of the Almond Trees]

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo de los almendros [Field of the Almond Trees], the sixth, last and by far the longest in his Magic Labyrinth series about the Spanish Civil War. The war is almost over at the start of this book, with the Republicans barely holding on to Valencia and Alicante, and Franco about to enter Madrid. Much of the book is about the ensuing chaos as the Republicans endeavour to converge on Alicante, where they expect French and British ships to take them into exile. The French-Spanish border is now virtually blocked by the Francoists. More and more arrive and more and more wait as Aub superbly describes the chaos as well as the rumours. A British ship does come but refuses to take criminals and murderers. A French ship is rumoured to be arriving but is frightened off by the Francoists. In the end, most of the Republicans end up in the Field of Almond Trees of the title, a concentration camp. It is a sad story to the end of a war and Aub keeps the story going with, inevitably, the endless discussions by those waiting about the war, what went wrong and what will happen to them, as well as about any number of other topics. It is also a fitting end to the whole series, if not the greatest Spanish Civil War novel, certainly one of the the longest.

Max Aub: Campo del Moro [The Moor’s Camp]

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo del Moro [The Moor’s Camp]. This novel, the fourth book in Aub’s Magic Labyrinth series on the Spanish Civil War to be published, though the fifth in the series, is set during Fall of Madrid, which will end the Spanish Civil War. It opens on 5 March 1939. We follow the stories of several characters, some real and some fictitious, most of whom have a colourful background or who have had a colourful war. However, the main focus is on the dispute between Prime Minister Juan Negrín who, together with the Communists, wants to carry on fighting till the bitter end, and Colonel Casado and the politician Julián Besteiro, who want to make a deal with Franco. They essentially carry out a coup d’état and Negrín, not wanting anti-fascists fighting anti-fascists, goes. However, the result is that the remaining republicans – socialists, communists and anarchists – spend their time fighting and, indeed, killing one another, while Franco waits for the city to surrender. He will only accept unconditional surrender. For Aub, the actions of Casado and Besteiro were betrayal and they do not come off well in this book. We are left with a sad and nasty end to a sad and nasty war.

Max Aub: Campo francés [French Camp]

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo francés [French Camp]. This is the fourth in Max Aub’s six volume Civil War series, El laberinto mágico (The Magic Labyrinth), though it was the fifth to be published. This one is set primarily in France, starting with the period immediately after the end of the Spanish Civil War. It mainly involves Juan, a Spaniard who had not been involved in the Civil War but had lived in Paris, running a small shop that sold and repaired radios. He is arrested by the police in a round-up of Communists but released when he shows that he has been mistaken for his brother Juan, who was involved in the Civil War. However, once World War II breaks out, he is re-arrested and this time, despite his pleas and the pleas of his wife and even with Juan giving himself up, he is not released. He and the many other prisoners are moved to the Roland Garros stadium where they wait in vain for their case to be heard. When World War Ii breaks out, they are shunted down to the South of the country and things do not improve. Clearly Aub, who wrote this novel in 1942, well before it was finally published, felt very bitter about this and all of his ire is aimed at France and the French authorities. It is somewhat slighter than the previous three in the series but nevertheless an interesting view of an aspect of World War II most of us will be unaware of.

Max Aub: Campo de sangre [Field of Blood]

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo de sangre [Field of Blood], the third in his Magic Labyrinth series about the Spanish Civil War. The book opens in Barcelona on New Year’s Eve 1937. Barcelona is under bombardment by the Francoists. As in the previous book, we follow the lives of a few ordinary people on the Republican side, as they struggle with life and with the war. There is a doctor, a judge, a failed writer and a communist, who meet on New Year’s Eve. We also meet others, including an actress, a prostitute and a woman who has fallen on hard times, when her rich father was arrested and shot. The second part is about the Battle of Teruel, which the Republicans will take with great difficulty and again we follow a few individuals involved. Finally, we are back in Barcelona, where the bombing is now much heavier and the situation is looking difficult, if not desperate. Aub once again tells a first-class story of the ordinary people on the Republican side caught up in the war and their struggle to cope.

Max Aub: Campo abierto [Open Field]

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo abierto [Open Field], the second book in Max Aub’s Magic Labyrinth series about the Spanish Civil War, though the third to be published. This one is set in Valencia in the first part (where Aub grew up) and Madrid in the second part, leading up to the fall of Madrid to the Francoist forces. The book is a series of stories about the various individuals caught up in the Civil War, mainly, though certainly not exclusively on the republican side. We follow a revolutionary theatre group, in particular two young people, Vicente and Asunción, who are in love but too involved in their theatre and politics to tell one another. We also follow various individuals who get shot, because they are on the wrong side, in the wrong place at the wrong time or, in a few cases, fighting against the enemy. Summary executions occur all too frequently. When we move to Madrid, we follow the approach of the Francoist forces as they gradually get closer, with the poorly armed republicans unable to resist Franco’s tanks. Vicente and Asunción both move to Madrid, he fighting with the forces defending Madrid, she with the theatre group. The book ends as Madrid is about to fall to Franco. Aub tells an excellent story, showing the dissent within the republican forces, both the enthusiasm of many of the ordinary people as well as the horrors they have to face and the inevitable defeat, which they cannot believe will happen.

Max Aub: Campo cerrado (Field of Honour)

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The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo cerrado (Field of Honour). Aub was born into a French Jewish family but the family moved to Seville when he was eleven and he adopted Spanish as his language. He is best-known for his series of six books called the Magic Labyrinth, set in the Spanish Civil War. This is the first, and the only one translated into English. It tells the story of Rafael Serrador, a young man from Castellón, near Valencia who, aged sixteen, moves to Barcelona. He gradually becomes involved in politics. He is very unsure of himself and what he believes and ends up joining the Falange, i.e. the Fascists. He starts becoming disillusioned when the leader tells him that he is interested only in ideas and not people. When the Spanish Civil War does break out, at the end of the novel, we follow events in Barcelona as the workers resist the take-over of the city by the Fascists and Nationalists. At this point, Rafael realises the error of his ways and fights with the anarchists rather than the Falange. It is an excellent book, though the language is sometimes difficult (in the Spanish; I have not seen the English version) and Aub does get carried away with both his descriptions and dialogue.

Espido Freire: Soria Moria

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The latest addition to my website is Espido Freire‘s Soria Moria. This is the story of well-to-do English families living and working in Tenerife as the beginning of the last century, just prior to World War I. The Hamiltons have three daughters. Two are married but we mainly follow the youngest, the fourteen-year old Dolores. She is friendly with isabella de Betancourt. Isabella’s cousin Scott and his friend, Thomas, recently exiled from Cuba, after the Spanish-American War, are to visit and all four children are invited to the Hamitons’ house in Fuerteventura, along with Lucía Berriel, whom the girls know but do not particularly like. Indeed, once they get there, the girls pick on Lucía, playing tricks on her and the whole incident ends in tragedy. They return to Tenerife, where they are brought together and play at Soria Moria, a Norwegian fairy tale, which has the boys becoming dukes and the girls duchesses. Inevitably this leads to a certain amount of sexual tension and the two girls fall out over their interest in Scott. However, it is 1914 and war will take the boys away. I did not find this novel as convincing as Freire’s earlier ones and the Soria Moria episode in particular seemed somewhat forced and not something that fourteen-fifteen year olds would have indulged in.

Milena Busquets: También esto pasará (This Too Shall Pass)

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The latest addition to my website is Milena Busquets‘s También esto pasará (This Too Shall Pass). Busquets is the daughter of well-known (in Spain but not in the English-speaking world) publisher and writer Esther Tusquets. Tusquets died in 2012. This novel is about a forty tear old woman, Blanca, whose mother has just died. Though her relationship with her mother was far from perfect, she mourns her mother and misses her. At the same time. she has something of a chaotic life. She is twice-divorced, though still having sex with her first husband (they love each other but cannot stand one another). She has a son by each husband. She is having an affair with Santi, a married man with children, who cannot divorce his wife. He is an architect and his firm has no work so he cannot afford to divorce her. She also has an eye on a dark, handsome stranger she sees at her mother’s funeral. After the funeral, she decides to go and stay at her mother’s (now her) holiday home in Cadaqués. She takes with her her two girlfriends (who both have children and both have romantic problems), the babysitter, both ex-husbands and her children. In Cadaqués are Santi and his family, the mysterious dark stranger from the funeral and other friends. Chaos is inevitable, as Blanca cannot decide who she is sleeping with, finds her life is in total chaos, cannot cope with being forty and misses and mourns her mother. It is very enjoyable, lively and colourful novel and, unusually, has already been translated into English.