”’Some people will do anything for money,” the Communist sneered, with the fine scorn of someone who would do anything for a cause.’ – Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel

November 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  Last week, Pauline led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of the novel Death of a Nationalist. Rebecca Pawel’s novel takes place in Spain in 1939. The Nationalist cause has triumphed, and a number of its adherents are focused on Madrid, a former Republican stronghold. They are bent on extirpating any and all opponents of the new regime.

Pawel tells the story of a group of individuals caught up in the terrible events of that time and place. At the outset, we are introduced to the Llorente family.  They’re living in a cramped apartment in the city and struggling to obtain food and other necessities of life, all the while keeping clear of the guardias civiles, the police agency tasked with rooting out any and all Republican sympathizers. The household consists of Carmen Llorente, her brother Gonzalo, Gonzalo’s lover Viviana (beautiful name, that), and Maria Alejandra, called ‘Aleja,’  Carmen’s seven -year-old daughter.

On her way home from school, Aleja witnesses a murder. Terrified, she makes her way back to her family and into the comforting arms of Viviana. It soon emerges that in the chaos of the moment, Aleja dropped her school notebook in the street. She needs it back: paper, along with so much else, is in short supply. Viviana decides to return to the scene of the killing in order to retrieve the precious object

This turns out to be a fateful decision. Viviana’s proud defiance is set against the brute authority of several members of the gardias civiles. Their leader is Sgt. Carols Tejada Alonso y León, subsequently referred to simply as Tejada. From this scene flows the rest of the novels content, embracing an ever widening cast of characters, including the Spanish nation itself, torn apart by warring factions whose competing atrocities foreshadow the horrors of the Second World War.

Pauline had a wealth of background material to impart to our group. This was accompanied by a five page handout, which included among other things a comprehensive list of characters and maps of the various regions of Spain.  Truth to tell, we needed all of it. Most of us had virtually no prior understanding of the causes of the Spanish Civil War. Even more so, the various parties to the conflict were hard to sort out. To simplify greatly, the principal warring factions were on the one hand, the Republicans, and on the other, the Nationalists. The Republicans constituted the legitimately elected government; however, they were intent on enacting certain reforms that were fiercely opposed by powerful vested interests. These included the church, wealthy landowners, and the military. The Nationalists represented those interests. They were aligned with the church and the monarchists and were synonymous with  the Fascists. (I’m not sure if that last statement is entirely accurate. At any rate, I remember that we were perplexed about the monarchists and the Fascists being  allies.) It being the late 1930s, Mussolini and Hitler emerged as natural allies of the Nationalists, while the Communists were enlisted in the Republican cause.

Many other factors were at work in this bloody conflict. One of these was the need to keep Spain unified. The Basque Separatists were a particularly fractious group in this struggle. (I remember as a child hearing and reading about the nefarious activities of that regions home grown terrorist organization, the ETA.) In 1937, the German were induced by the Fascists to bomb a town in the Basque province.  At the time, the village was primarily made up of women and children, the men having gone to fight in the Republican cause. This attack on defenseless and innocent civilians was thorough and brutal and has ever since been a symbol of the arbitrary viciousness of war.

The town was called Guernica:

[Click to enlarge]

This famous painting, made by Pablo Picasso in 1937,  resided in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art for 42 years.It was in that august institution, in the 1950s, that I first saw it. It took up an entire wall of display space. Guernica said everything that needed to be said about the horrors of war.

After Franco’s death in 1975, this masterpiece was repatriated to Spain, land of the artist’s birth, in accordance with his expressed wishes. It is currently housed at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

‘Guernica is to painting what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is to music: a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace. It is a reference when speaking about genocide from El Salvador to Bosnia.’

Alejandro Escalona, on the occasion of the painting’s 75th anniversary

The story of Guernica is told by Russell Martin in his book Picasso’s War. 

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On her website, Rebecca Pawel, a lifelong New Yorker, tells us that she studied flamenco and Spanish dance while in junior high. While still in high school, she spent a summer in Madrid and fell deeply in love with all things Spanish, going on to major in Spanish language and literature at Columbia University. Currently a teacher in what she terms the city’s “much maligned school system,” Pawel returns to Spain whenever possible. It was on just such a return journey in 2000 that, with the encouragement of a friend with whom she was corresponding, she decided to write Death of a Nationalist.

There are four novels in this series.         There will be no more, although Pawel has chosen to make available in e-book format a story collection  featuring Tejada. Entitled What Happened When the War Was Over, it can be accessed on a site called Smashwords. Pawel has taken this action, which she calls “an experiment both with new technology and with self-publishing,” partly in response to her frustration with commercial publishers (a frustration which, I hasten to assure her, is shared by many readers as well).

As to why there will be no more novels in this series, Pawel has her reasons, which she enlarges upon in the FAQ section on her site.

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In last month’s issue of the British magazine Literary Review, two books concerning the Spanish Civil War were reviewed together: I am Spain: The Spanish Civil War and the Men and Women Who Went To Fight Fascism, by David Boyd Haycock; and Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, by Richard Baxell.  Both authors write about the International Brigades: men  (and a small number of women) from fifty-three countries who came to Spain to fight along side the Republicans. One aspect of this conflict that has always puzzled me is the participation of all these incomers from other nations. Caroline Moorehead, author of this article, mentions that “George Orwell pawned the family silver to pay for the journey.’ Moorehead continues:

No war had ever attracted such a concentration of intellectuals. Many of them had visited Spain before and brought with them romantic memories of olive trees and bullfights. They revelled in the huge, hot landscape, the intensity of the political conflict, and the spectacle of revolutionary socialism in action – workers with rifles over their shoulders and cars painted with slogans. The anarchy was alarming, but it was also extremely exciting.

In addition, Pauline explained to us, the U.S., France, and Britain all declined to interfere in the conflict, leaving the field open to the Italians and Germans on the Nationalist side, and the Communists on the Republican side.

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Somehow I was under the impression that the books in the Tejada series were out of print, but in fact they are all four currently available  in soft cover editions from Amazon. They can also be purchased directly from Soho Press.  (Thanks Soho; you’re one of my two favorite American publishers of crime fiction, the other being Severn House.)

Toward the end of this exceptionally stimulating meeting, Pauline asked our group the ever-perilous, bottom line question: Did we like the book? We answered in the affirmative – all ten of us! Pauline seemed not to have expected this response and was obviously gratified by it. Several of us added that while the plot was somewhat hard to follow and the cast of characters large and challenging to keep track of, the novel builds in power and intensity and ends by being quite gripping. All of this greatly helped by Rebecca Pawel’s superior prose style, which is elegant and incisive and laced with a fine irony.

I should add that it is very typical of Pauline to be modest about the fact that her own erudition and enthusiasm were key factors contributing to our enjoyment of this discussion and this novel.

Death of a Nationalist won the 2004 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. (It was also a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity Awards in the same category.) Below is a picture of Rebecca Pawel accepting the Edgar.

Stuart Woods, left, Rebecca Pawel, and Jonathon King

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The Spanish Civil War is a fiendishly complex subject and Death of a Nationalist nearly matches it in complexity, as I’ve already mentioned. I’ve only skimmed the surface  of both of these topics in this post. Thanks once more to Pauline and all the Usual Suspects for such an invigorating evening. Any errors contained herein are my own; if you spot any, please let me know.

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