Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom – book review

by Amelia Gordon

Winter in MadridSo frequently a novel brings history to life in a way that straight history cannot do. Think War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago. So it is with Winter in Madrid, a breakaway best seller in Europe for its author C.J. Sansom.  Sansom is well known for his Shardlake series, a group of mystery novels set in the time of Henry VIII, whose protagonist is the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Now he has taken his considerable talents to the field of the 1930’s Spanish Civil War.

The horrors and brutality of the Spanish civil war  are frequently buried in the greater horrors of World War II. But brutal they were and they are brought brilliantly to life by Sansom’s pen. Canadians tend to associate the International Brigade who came to the assistance of the Spanish republic, and the war itself, with Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune who volunteered there and pioneered the invention of mobile blood transfusion units during that conflict. He later died in China while participating in Mao’s Long March.

There is  much more to the war though. After the monarchy was toppled and its king went into exile in 1931,the new Spanish republic slowly descended into chaos until in 1936 the army staged a coup led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. So began a struggle that lasted until August of 1939 with the two sides battling for the land and soul of the country. The rebels – the fascist Nationalists – emerged victorious, restored the monarchy and Franco ruled as Spain’s dictator for the next 36 years until his death in 1975. In that war, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy intervened on the side of the rebel Nationalists, while Britain prevented France from helping the republicans, who were forced to turn to Stalin’s Soviet Russia for assistance, thus giving rise to a perception that the Nationalists were “fighting communism”

Into this tragic war, Sansom thrusts 4 Brits, three of them school mates from Rookwood, an English public school (equivalent to a private school in Canada). Bernie Piper, Harry Brett and Sandy Forsyth were teens together at Rookwood although only Harry initially bought into the ‘ruling class’ ethos of the place. Bernie, a scholarship student from a modest background,  became a committed communist; Sandy was a nascent hustler, a survivor  and vengeful bad boy who was expelled from the school for a nasty trick on a master. They grew up and all ended up in Spain during the civil war, although not together. Add to this the principal female protagonist, Barbara Clare, a Red Cross nurse volunteering in Spain,  who knew them all.

The year is 1940; World War II is in full swing and it looks as though Britain will be defeated. Franco has triumphed in Spain and Britain is trying desperately to keep him out of the war on Hitler’s side, a real possibility. The British government’s major tool is the partial British naval blockade of Spain which Franco realizes could starve Spain into submission should it enter the war on the German side. Britain is concerned that Franco is developing an internal source of wealth with which to buy needed supplies which would free him from the constraints of the blockade. The British Secret Service recruits Harry Brett, a shell shocked soldier,  survivor of the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk and an academic, to spy on his old schoolmate, Sandy Forsyth. Forsyth is  now a businessman who has significant interests in Spain. Bernie Piper, whose supposed death as an international brigadist,  shot at the battle of Jarama, opens the novel turns up alive but imprisoned in a Spanish concentration camp.

The spying and the development of a plot to free Bernie form the central themes of the book. The personalities are well drawn and the dialogue realistic. Sansom uses vocabulary current at the time and in that context. The attitude towards women is reflected in the secondary English characters who refer to women dismissively as loveys and girlies, although the female protagonists are among the bravest and most innovative in the book.

The real inspiration in this novel, however,  is the evocation of wartime Spain. The reader can feel the depression, the desperation, the hatred and the abject poverty of post civil war Madrid. Feral starving dogs, formerly pets,  wander the streets, attacking pedestrians. Abandoned children become feral too, and fear and the rigidity of the regime is everywhere. Against this backdrop, the machinations of the comfortable British and the vanity, timidity and superciliousness of the British ambassador Samuel Hoare – a real person by the way – reflect the British sense of class superiority in the most objectionable way.

Sansom relied on a significant number of historical accounts as well as reports of journalists in Spain during and after the civil war in evoking war time Spain. He interprets the real life senior British embassy officials, Ambassador Samuel Hoare and Captain Allan Hillgarth, head of intelligence, in his own way as he states in an historical note at the back of the novel, but consistent, he says, with published accounts of the men. The historical notes are worth reading but don’t read them before reading the novel. I made that mistake and it spoiled one of the major surprises of the book.

This is an excellent spy thriller, especially for those who love English thrillers –  they do not race about, they develop the plot through the small ordinary gestures of life, believable but loaded with suspense.

Winter in Madrid is published by Vintage Canada.