Manuel Vilas: Ordesa

The latest addition to my website is Manuel VilasOrdesa. This book has had considerable success in Spain, both commercially and critically. It is essentially autobiographical, a tale recounted by Vilas after his divorce, in which he examines the lives of his parents, of himself and of his sons and links the events and circumstances of their lives to what is going on in Spain. It is uniformly gloomy and pessimistic, though not without some humour and a very strong affection for his late parents. Spain, however, does not fare well in this book, which will join the increasing number of books published in Spain about how dismal the country is, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis. Vilas does not hold back either on his criticism of Spain and of himself (alcoholic, divorced because of infidelities, guilt about loss of parents). Self-flagellation may be more a Spanish thing than the UK/US thing so it will be interesting to see how well the book does in English (to be published by Canongate in the UK (in April 2020) and Riverhead in the US).

Germán Sierra: The Artifact

The latest addition to my website is Germán Sierra‘s The Artifact. Sierra is a Spanish neuroscientist but this book was written in English, though his previous novels were written in Spanish. It is essentially a novel and treatise on the future of the species, dealing with artificial intelligence, quasi-life forms, new technologies and how we relate to them and a Ballardian car accident. There are two plots, one involving the narrator who loses an arm when his car is hit by an AI controlled drone and another when he is sent an MRI from a former student showing a brain with an artifact (an anomaly seen during visual representation in MRI. It is a feature appearing in an image that is not present in the original object.) However, what makes this book so interesting is Sierra’s discussion of a whole range of biological, quasi-biological, cybernetic, neurological and other developments in our species. It is one of the most original novels I have read for some time. Not an easy read but very well worth it.

Fernando Aramburu: Patria (Homeland)

The latest addition to my website is Fernando Aramburu‘s Patria (Homeland). This book has been hugely successful in Spain and has been translated into several languages and will appear in English in March 2019. It tells the story of two Basque families. In one, the father, Txato, is murdered by ETA, the Basque separatist group as he does not pay the revolutionary tax, a contribution demanded by the ETA from Basque businesses. The other family, initially close friends with the first, have a son, Joxi Mari, who becomes an ETA killer and who may or may not have killed Txato. We follow the lives of all the members of the two families – two children in the first case, three in the second – and their lives both before and after the murder of Txato, including Joxe Mari’s time in prison (a sentence of 126 years). Aramburu is clearly more sympathetic to the victims, particularly, Txato’s widow, Bittori, but understands even if he does not agree with the ETA side and their supporters. Aramburu tells a first-class story about what it means to be Basque during the ETA era and how it affected all sides.

Miklós Szentkuthy: Eszkoriál [Escorial]

The latest addition to my website is Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Eszkoriál [Escorial]. This book follows the life of Francis Borgia, descendant of those Borgias, later Director-General of the Society of Jesus and canonised nearly a hundred years after his death. He had a colourful life and Szentkuthy inevitably makes it more colourful, while being critical of Spain of that era (sixteenth century). Though the novel is primarily set in Spain, we spend a fair amount of time in legendary China, meet Francis’ great-aunt Lucrezia Borgia and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, among other notables, and follow the contemporary political situation. As always, Szentkuthy charges off on tangents, plays havoc with historical accuracy and chronology and has great fun condemning Catholic Spain.

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.