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This novel is long, challenging and very original. I had better come clean and say that I made three attempts to read it, and only on the third did I reach the end. However, that I made the three attempts says a lot about what was compelling about the novel and its subject. It is set in Spain in 1940, and posits that the Civil War is not yet over. Here, Madrid is still besieged, the front line lapping at its outskirts, Franco’s forces have sway in the West, and the privation of the people in the cities and the countryside knows no bounds. The Republic is still struggling to prevail, with American help.
It is a novel containing some brilliant writing and a masterly control of the material, but requiring a great deal from its reader, in terms of knowledge of the factual history and background that is fictionalised (I resorted to Wikipedia), and concentration and attention to the extraordinarily dense narrative. It is not a book to put down and pick up again later. I had to hang on tight to navigate the immense complexity of the action and the cast of characters. I almost had to make myself a little chart of factions and their synonyms – fascist, falangist, nationalist; republican, anarchist, communist – and which characters fitted where. Spanish nomenclature and punctuation conventions just add to the complexity for the reader, and I was glad that I had some experience of both.
The pivotal character in the novel is María del Carmen Rodriguez, widowed, existing rather than living in a Madrid that is in the process of total collapse as a city. There is hardly any civic life; the front line of battle is the university. María’s husband Ramón was a falangist, shot after a failed nationalist uprising in 1936. She has two young sons – one, Francesco (known as Paco) has followed his father’s footsteps and is a dedicated soldier of the Nationalist forces; her other son, Julian, is fighting in Aragon (as far as she knows) on the Republican side. She learns over the course of the novel that she is alone, and no longer to think of herself just as a mother, but as an independent person.
María is an extraordinarily brave and resourceful woman. We see her courage forged in her work of running supplies as part of a Red Cross team to refugees from the Nationalist-held countryside. She tries to live un-noticed, but comes to attention by various acts of cool nerve and bravery, including a risky journey across the front line to visit her Nationalist soldier son and find out that his fascist beliefs are immutable, which places them definitively on opposing sides. She survives an attack on the supply truck, betrayed by one of the team. Run to earth by the maverick Captain Gregorio Velayos and his impassive Sergeant Izaguirre, she finds herself a corporal in the Republican army, part of a wildly irregular unit, bound for Granada and a mission that is close to the Captain’s heart, to discover Lorca’s final secret.
This is a novel about war and the destruction it brings not only to the physical environment but to people’s lives, and the potential for the tenuous yet tenacious survival of honour and culture. The narrative attempts and largely succeeds in conveying the tenor of war – what is the phrase – 80% boredom, 20% terror? The writing is minutely detailed, with much technical detail of guns and trajectories and tactics, as well as beliefs. The author skillfully handles the intercutting of description of the terrain and the action, the sometimes terse, sometimes florid communication between characters, and María’s own internal monologue on what she sees and experiences. Her story is unfolded in this stream of thought and commentary. (A challenge for the reader is that the Spanish convention of punctuation for speech is used – no inverted commas – and speech, thought and narrative sometimes need to be disentangled from the same paragraph).
The novel proceeds by a series of set-pieces; all of them are substantial, and I found myself thinking after the first two or three massive chapters that they could almost stand alone as short stories. I suppose this makes A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts a picaresque novel, which is nothing if not appropriate as a novel about the Spanish experience. The nature of the final mission is revealed only in the latter part of the novel, and it is the focus for a final short-story scale chapter of battle action, at the end of which the reader has to decide whether the end justified the damage and loss. I am in two minds. All these episodes are powerfully wrought, but for a novel, my feeling is that there is a need for the author to find a way to retain that power, and the sense of all that detail, but to find a quicker way of getting to the heart of the matter.
What kept me reading was the character of María, and my need to know how she survives. The reader however has to make some quite large assumptions, for instance, that in all her risky encounters and dangerous journeys, María, a woman alone, manages to find herself protected by men of honour, and comes through respected and unmolested. We have to accept some long coincidences when considering how María was singled out by the Captain. We have to believe that she cares about the final mission, that the name of Lorca has a resonance for her, even when she does not know his work first hand until she encounters it on the way to Granada (but, on a personal note, I cannot resist a novel that contains a mobile library in the very midst of a war zone …..). She is a compelling character, but perhaps stands out a little too much in her perfection. She leads rather a charmed life, despite her tribulations, as she navigates the book with character, bravery, integrity all intact.
This novel is a challenging read, that I think arguably tries to do too much in terms of telling one person’s story against the backdrop of an attempt to describe authentically the terrible experience and effects of civil war. Adding the element of a Lorca inspiration for the final mission to this mix felt a little like a bolt-on to me, and I should have been satisfied without it as a novel that convincingly portrays the grinding tribulation of war.
Colin Fisher: A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts. Published as an ebook only
LULU Books, 2012.
Available as a Kindle edition, and through the iTunes Store.