REPUBLICAN ARMY INVADING SPAIN UNDER FRANCO, A BOOK REVIEW

Grandes, Almudena. Inés y la alegría, El ejército de la Unión Nacional Española y la invasión del valle de Arana, Pirineo de Lérida, 19-27 de octubre de 1944 (Buenos Aires: Tusquets Editores, 2013) pp. 729. [Espanol abajo]

This book was mentioned in a Spanish newspaper and my interest in the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939) compelled me to read it. It was not an easy read, as I explain below, but it was good for my better understanding of the war. There is no English version yet.

It is the first of a series named Episodios de una guerra interminable. Simply known as Inés y la alegria it concentrates on the little known “invasion” from France into Spain, specifically the Valley of Arana, by a Spanish Republican army in 1944 as the subtitle indicates. Spain was by then under the full control of General Francisco Franco who overthrew the Republican government about five years earlier. The invasion sought to oust Franco.

The war began in 1936 with the uprising of Spanish soldiers led by Franco against the Republican government supported by labor unions and other pro-worker organizations including the Spanish Communist Party. What is unique about the war is that Hitler supported Franco with armaments and military personnel while Joseph Stalin subsidized the Republicans in a similar manner. The war became an ugly and slaughterous chapter in Spanish history with little reconciliation to this day, reminiscent of Confederate bitterness in the U.S. even today. The Spanish war is considered a dress rehearsal for World War II.

Spanish officials including Catholic clergy with visiting Nazis 1937

I view Inés y la alegría as a testimonial for the communists who are described here as obstinately dedicated to their liberation from traditionalist, elitist-minded leaders like Franco himself. In fact, the author employs the word alegría in the title to highlight the communist’s joy to rise, fight and die on behalf of the Spanish working class.

Inés, the main character in the novel, is the daughter of a well to do family in Madrid who becomes radicalized with Franco’s takeover of the country and the murderous elimination of suspected resisters. Details of her family life help us understand the pious and unquestioning atmosphere that helped generate support for Franco’s pro-Catholic dictatorship also considered as a prime example of fascism.

Inés’ voice predominates in this novel but hers is not the only one. Her lover, Galán, one of the soldiers in the invading army, is also given a voice along with the author’s own historically critical observations. This writing structure made the story line difficult to follow Another compositional feature in this work is the attention given to food preparation explained by the fact that Inés supports the Republican cause by cooking for the commanding staff and so the reader is provided with an abundance of gastronomic detail suggesting that communist military leaders didn’t suffer in that respect.

I see Inés y la alegría as a belated and emotional censure of the decision to invade in the first place and the subsequent judgment to cancel the attack, a determination that may have come all the way from Moscow, not examined by the author. This is how the names of Spain’s leading communist leaders come into play, like Jesús Monzón, Carmen de Pedro, and Dolores Ibárruri, also known as La Pasionaria (a strange charismatic figure to say the least), although these characters remain in the background.

Inés y la alegría was tedious due to the frequent bouts of verbosity (it seems to be a popular style among some Spanish writers) but beneficial because it provided depth in understanding the role of the Spanish Communist Party in the civil war and what Marxism may have meant to the Spanish leftists of those days.

Este libro fue mencionado en un periódico español y mi interés por la Guerra Civil española (1936-1939) me impulsó a leerlo. No fue una lectura fácil, como explico abajo, pero me ayudó a entender la guerra un poco más. Parece que no hay versión en ingles todavía.

Esta novela es la primera de una serie llamada Episodios de una guerra interminable. Conocida simplemente como Inés y la alegría, se concentra en la poco conocida “invasión” de Francia a España, específicamente al Valle de Arana, por un ejército republicano español en 1944 tal como indica el subtítulo. España estaba ya bajo el control total del general Franco, quien había derrocado al gobierno republicano unos cinco años antes. La invasión buscaba destituir a Franco.

La guerra comenzó con la insurrección en 1936 de los soldados españoles liderados por Franco contra el gobierno republicano apoyado por sindicatos y otras organizaciones populares, incluido el Partido Comunista Español. Una de las peculiaridades de la guerra es que Hitler afirmó a Franco con armamento y personal militar, mientras que Joseph Stalin favoreció a los republicanos de una manera similar. La guerra se convirtió en un capítulo espantoso y mortífero en la historia de España con poca reconciliación hasta hoy, algo que nos recuerda del rencor por parte de los confederados del sur de las EEUU que aún sigue. La guerra española se considera un ensayo de la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Considero a Inés y la alegría como un testimonio de los comunistas que se presentan aquí como dedicados obstinadamente a liberarse de líderes tradicionalistas de mentalidad elitista como el propio Franco. De hecho, la autora emplea la palabra “alegría” en el título para resaltar la alegría del comunista de poder levantarse, luchar y morir en nombre de la clase trabajadora española.

Inés, la protagonista de la novela, es hija de una familia acomodada en Madrid que se radicaliza con la toma del país por parte de Franco y la eliminación asesina de presuntos resistentes. Los detalles de su vida familiar nos ayudan a comprender el ambiente piadoso e incuestionable que ayudó a generar apoyo a la dictadura procatólica de Franco, también considerada como un excelente ejemplo del fascismo.

La voz de Inés predomina en esta novela, pero la suya no es la única. Su amante, Galán, uno de los soldados del ejército invasor, también tiene voz junto con las propias observaciones históricas y críticas de la autora. Esta estructura literaria me hizo difícil seguir la trama. Otro rasgo literario es la atención que se le da a la preparación de alimentos explicada por el hecho de que Inés apoya la causa republicana cocinando para el estado mayor y así el lector cuenta con abundantes detalles gastronómicos que sugieren que los líderes militares comunistas no sufrieron en ese sentido.

Veo a Inés y la alegría como una censura tardía y emotiva a la decisión de invadir en primer lugar y el juicio posterior de anular el atentado, una determinación que parece haber venido desde Moscú, algo no examinada por la autora. Es así como entran en juego los nombres de los principales líderes comunistas de España, como Jesús Monzón, Carmen de Pedro y Dolores Ibárruri, también conocida como La Pasionaria (una extraña figura carismática por decir lo mínimo), aunque estos personajes quedan en un segundo plano.

Inés y la alegría se me hizo tediosa debido a los frecuentes episodios de verbosidad (parece ser un estilo popular entre algunos escritores españoles) pero beneficiosa al mismo tiempo porque me proporcionó una mejor comprensión del papel del Partido Comunista Español en la guerra civil y lo que el marxismo puede haber significado para los izquierdistas españoles de esos tiempos.

“The Alienist” or Youth homicide in New York City, a book review

Carr, Caleb. The Alienist (New York: Random House, 1994), pp. 498. Corruption and youth homicide in New York City in the late 1890’s play an intertwining role in this book. The author also writes about the city from various angles and so his knowledge comes to the fore in this gripping tale about influential men exploiting boys while city authorities look the other way. And although Teddy Roosevelt plays a minor role in this story, as the police commissioner, his part, nevertheless, fits in quite well. In this novel he is considered a reckless upstart reformer as he begins his government career giving undercover support to search for the murderer. History informs us that Teddy transferred this zeal to the highest office of the nation.

A famous clinical psychologist, a New York Times reporter, an aspiring woman detective and two police investigators partial to the latest findings and methods in forensic science make up the rest of the heroic team. The author’s knowledge of the city contributes to a plethora of urban detail that is interwoven into the search for the murderer of teenage male prostitutes who work in the city’s brothels. His remarkable grasp of criminal psychology also adds to the ring of authenticity that makes this tale nonstop reading.

JOIN ME FOR A DISCUSSION ABOUT MY BOOK, “WE BECAME MEXICAN AMERICAN”

YOU ARE INVITED TO HEAR ME SPEAK ABOUT MY BOOK, “WE BECAME MEXICAN AMERICAN,” ON NOVEMBER 16th AT NOON. See digital poster below and the corresponding URL link where you can register.

The “Palabras” Archive of the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (Washington D.C.) and the WASHINGTON CENTER FOR THE BOOK interviewed me recently to speak briefly about my book, “We Became Mexican American: How Our Immigrant Family Survived to Pursue the American Dream.” I will speak about what the book means to me.

I was chosen along with five other Latino authors from Washington State. See the poster below.

Here is the link for members of the public to register for the event:

https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_0kYzNLIdTPCYDyZEg6B_tw

The Girl Who Played with Fire, a book review

Larsen, Stieg. The Girl Who Played with Fire (New York: Vintage, 2009), tr. Much like the author’s first book in this Swedish trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, With Fire kept my interest and enjoyment high all throughout the 630 pages. It was a pleasure. And, exciting too.

Lisbeth, the main character in both novels, cuts a daring portrait once again with her slight, teen like body contrasted with an ability to kick, ride a motorcycle, and otherwise defend herself physically, juxtaposed with an awesome ability to investigate via the Internet. She is a deadly hacker. Her adversaries are misogynistic men who maligned her when she lived in an orphanage, and afterwards.

Although she is a confirmed loner, Mikael Blomkvist, a partner from The Dragon Tattoo also appears here in a gripping yarn that also involves her father who turns out to be a blackguard villain. I prefer books with a historical dimension and this one contains very little, but it is an entertaining read. The novel was made into a movie in 2010.

A CHINESE CITY IN SOUTH VIETNAM, A BOOK REVIEW

De Poncin, Gontran. From a Chinese City in the Heart of Peacetime Vietnam (Palo Alto: Trackless Sands Press, 1957) tr., pp. 256.  “A portrait of a civilization,” wrote the editors of The New Yorker. And right they were. This is a wonderful travel account by a gifted writer, in French, translated into English. “A French traveler describes “the spirit of ancient China” as it is manifested in a city in South Vietnam.

The Chinese city in question is Cholon, a small urb near Saigon in 1955, now it’s Chinatown. It was mentioned many times during the Vietnam war and here it is delightfully described in its pre-war condition. It is only in the last chapter that the author includes war time events by describing the arrival of bombings and other acts of a guerrilla-driven conflict which, in this case, marked the struggles against French colonial forces. U.S. involvement beginning about ten years later cost millions more lives including those of thousands of American soldiers.

The main topic of the book, however, is not the war but the people of Cholon. The author, a dedicated traveler-journalist-sketch artist, describes and sketches the people of Cholon, a Chinese enclave. In order to provide the best possible description and explanation he takes residence in a hotel there and slowly immerses himself ever more deeply and studies the language and the culture at the same time.

Even though I am not an expert on China but having read many other travel accounts for other parts of the world I concluded that De Poncin’s work comes very close to an anthropological and sociological account of the people he encountered: waiters and waitresses, bartenders, hotel managers, rickshaw and taxi drivers, prostitutes, professionals of various sorts, and so on. His descriptions and narrations are nothing less than exceptional for their detailed portrayals, all aided by his selected sketches. He concludes that the Chinese population of Cholon, at this time, were representative not only of Chinese people in general but, more importantly, Chinese society before the rise of Communist China.

The Moor’s Last Sigh, a book review

Rushdie, Salman. The Moor’s Last Sigh (New York: Vintage International 1995) pp. 434.

I got tired of the author’s writing, famous though he may be, so I did not finish this book.

It is the story of a dynasty of Indian traders from the Malabar Coast of India beginning sometime in the late 1800s. 

The pages I read are so filled with the narrator’s ancestors’ psychopathic relationships that they became tiring for me; the narrator is the Moor. He describes his grandparents and their two sons in a way that reminded me of the old Charley Chaplin movies mixed with doses of maniacal magical realism some of which lightened the text a bit, but not enough.

Rushdie’s writing also vexed me because he writes sentences that are excessively long, filled with parenthetical thoughts and/or complex verbal embroidering. And his style is snooty, high literary. I bet the reviewers who gushed over The Moor’s Last Sigh didn’t stay to the end either. But I admit he is regarded as one of the best writers of our time and a very controversial one too, but I think he is overrated.

LIFE IN MADRID DURING THE FRANCO DICTATORSHIP, A BOOK REVIEW

Grandes, Almudena. Las tres bodas de Manolita (Barcelona: Tusquets, 2014), pp. 766 (See English below) . Esta obra ofrece las experiencias de la gente desposeída de Madrid durante la década de los 1930 pero más que nada la clase popular que resistió la dictadura del General Francisco Franco.

Manolita es una madrileña joven, modesta, arrimada y sin pretensiones que se involucra sin querer con gente que se opone al mando franquista, jóvenes en especial, unos dedicados activistas rebeldes y otros no tanto. Todos sus conocidos incluyendo a su hermano, su madrastra y sus amistades caen en las redes de agentes del gobierno o logran esconderse como Toñito, el hermano. Si no son encarcelados, muchos desaparecen o son fusilados sumariamente.

El hermano de Manolita le pide ayuda en un proyecto de resistencia que la lleva a una prisión donde se enreda con un joven presidiario. De esta manera el lector llega a conocer las esposas o amantes que visitan a sus hombres prisioneros para llevarles comida y ropa. Así es como llega a casarse con el solo interés de ayudar la causa antifranquista enamorándose de su pareja y después casándose de nuevo con él por razones del amor.

Esta obra es la tercera entrega de la serie, “Episodios de una guerra interminable,” todos escritos por la autora. En un ensayo provechoso al final de la obra la autora, ya fallecida, explica porque eligió este tema y las fuentes que logró utilizar para fortalecer el cuento de Manolita y el mundo que la rodeaba. Se hace notable que la autora dedicó su don literario a evocar la gente que Franco quiso pisotear durante su régimen. El estilo literario de la autora es copioso.

This novel concentrates on the ordinary people of Madrid during the 1930s, especially those who resisted the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Manolita is a young, modest, unassuming, orphaned girl from Madrid who inadvertently gets involved with people who oppose the Franco regime, young people in particular, some dedicated rebels and others not so much. All her acquaintances including her own brother, her stepmother and her friends fall into the hands of government agents or they manage to hide like Toñito, her brother. If they are not imprisoned, many disappear or are summarily shot.

Her brother asks her to help a group of resisters which takes her to a prison where she becomes involved with a young convict. This is how the reader gets to know the wives and girlfriends who visit their imprisoned men to bring them food and clothing. In doing this she gets married to him with the sole purpose of helping the anti-Franco cause, falling in love with her partner afterwards and then marrying him again for love. This book is the third installment in the series, “Episodes of an endless war,” all written by the author. In a helpful essay at the end, the late author explains why she chose this theme and the sources she was able to use to strengthen the story. I find it remarkable that the author dedicated her literary gift to memorialize the people that Franco trampled on during his regime. I would describe the author’s literary style as profuse.

A MULATA SLAVE GIRL GOES FROM HAITI TO NEW ORLEANS, A BOOK REVIEW

Allende, Isabel. La isla bajo el mar (New York: Vintage Español, 2010) pp. 511. See English below.

Fácilmente esta es una de las mejores lecturas que he hecho recientemente. La portada de este libro anuncia que la autora es “una de las narradoras mas populares de nuestro tiempo” y yo lo confirmo.

La autora nos ofrece la historia de Zarité, una esclava mulata traída como niña a la isla de St. Domingue ahora conocida como Haití donde crece y sirve a Toulouse Valmorain, un finquero francés que le da un hijo y una hija. Los detalles que pintan el mundo de Zarité como esclava sobresalen ante mis ojos porque los encuentros históricamente auténticos. Esto incluye el papel que matiza la autora acerca de los esclavos cañeros dirigidos por un agrio capataz y el rol de las mujeres esclavas curanderas.

La relación entre dueño y esclava antecede la revolución haitiana que sabemos fue provocada por la revolución francesa. En todo caso, logran sobrevivir el caos sangriento y el desgobierno consecuente. Y como miles de finqueros de azúcar y esclavos, Valmorain traslada sus bienes y su familia a Cuba y después a Nueva Orleans incluyendo a Zarité.

Alli Valmorain establece una nueva plantación de azúcar y esclavos pero diferente a la que tenía en Haití. Las relaciones entre dueños y esclavos, por ejemplo, sufren ajustes requeridos por la esclavitud norteamericana que resulta un poco menos malvada que la versión haitiana. Allende nos ofrece también excelentes detalles de lo que fue la esclavitud en Luisiana.

La isla bajo el mar es nada menos que un tesoro literario debido a la historia humana que presenta y además está bien preparado y escrito, fácil de leer. [May 2022]

Allende, Isabel. Isla bajo el mar (New York: Vintage Spanish, 2010) pp. 511. This is easily some of the best reading I’ve done recently. The cover of this book announces that the author is “one of the most popular storytellers of our time” and I confirm it. The English language version is known as Island Beneath the Sea. I read the Spanish version.

The author brings us the story of Zarité, a slave mulatta brought as a child to the island of St. Domingue, now known as Haiti, where she grows up and serves Toulouse Valmorain, a French plantation owner, who gives her a son and a daughter. The details that sketch out Zarité’s slave world stand out in my opinion because they appear historically authentic to me. This includes the living and working conditions of the slaves who cut sugarcane driven by a testy foreman and the merciful role of female slave healers.

The relationship between Valmorain and Zarité predates the Haitian revolution which we know was triggered by the French revolution. In any case, they manage to survive the bloody chaos of the revolution and the consequent misrule. And like thousands of other sugar slave owners, Valmorain moves his family and everything he owns to Cuba and later to New Orleans, including Zarité. There he establishes a new sugar slave plantation. However, the relations between everyone, including owners and slaves, are subject to adjustments required by an American slavery system that turns out to be a little less evil than the Haitian version.

Isla bajo el mar is nothing less than a literary treasure because it offers a story of human relations which is also well-written, easy to read.

Sugarcane with Salt, review of a novel about Malawi (Africa)

Ng’ombe, James. Sugarcane with Salt (Essex: Longman Group, 1989) pp. 124, Longman African Writers series. This short and sweet book takes us to Malawi in contemporary time where the main character, Dr. Kumbo Dala, returns home after obtaining a university degree in London. It is a story about the power of family and community overriding “modern,” individualized values and of competing cultural standards, English vs. Malawian.

Dala’s brother dies shortly after Dala’s arrival and so the financial and personal entanglements ensnare Dala in ways that he would have preferred to avoid. The main gist of the story hinges on Dala’s responsibilities toward his brother’s pregnant wife whose livelihood is now in question, community custom dictating he marry her. In the meanwhile, Dala’s English girlfriend arrives to bolster their relationship at this crucial moment in Dala’s life. So, what will he do?Sugarcane with Salt seems to be the only novel written by the author, a London educated Malawian who also returned home—a novelized memoir more than anything else? A Google search revealed him as a professional business consultant doing well in his home country, no longer writing, apparently. I don’t blame him.

Unusual crimes in the land of the Basques, a book review, or Crímenes inusuales en tierras vascas, una reseña de libro.

García Sáenz de Urturi, Eva. El silencio de la ciudad blanca (Nueva York: Vintage Español 2019), pp. 480. (See English below) La contratapa de este libro avisa que el contenido representa una “novela negra,” y se puede decir que así es. Trata de una serie de homicidios inusuales que se llevan a cabo en la ciudad de Vitoria, en el vascongado español contemporáneo.

La figura principal es un detective fornido llamado Unai que se entrega cuerpo y alma a encontrar al criminal, lo que no sucede hasta las últimas páginas, por supuesto. Dos mujeres acompañan al detective, su compañera y su jefa y este se enamora de esta última.

En las páginas finales la autora nos informa que escribe con gusto de su terruño querido el que da el trasfondo al cuento. Esto le ofrece la oportunidad de incluir y identificar lugares que resaltan por su antigüedad y creencias y costumbres arcaicas regionales, el tema del eguzkilore, por ejemplo. En ese sentido El silencio ofrece una dosis aceptable de prácticas y creencias vascas lo que a mi más me interesó. Es una lectura larga pero lo suficiente intrigante. Es la primera entrega de una trilogía.

The back cover of this book translated into English as The Silence of the White City advises the reader that it stands as a “black novel” and, in fact, it is because it deals with a series of unusual homicides that take place in the Basque city of Vitoria, in contemporary time.

The main character is a burly detective named Unai who throws himself heart and soul into finding the criminal, which doesn’t happen until the last few pages, of course. Two women work with the detective, his partner and his boss, and he falls in love with the latter. The author informs us in the final pages that she writes of her beloved homeland which forms the background of her story offering her the opportunity to identify places of ancient worth and uniquely archaic customs and practices, the matter of the eguzkilore, for example. In this sense, El silencio offers an acceptable dose of Basque practices and beliefs of greater interest to me. It is a long read but captivating enough to stay with it. It is

The Murder Trial of the Last Lakota Warrior, a book review.

Linstrom, Steve. The Murder Trial of the Last Lakota Warrior (St. Cloud: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc. 2014). The historic and tragic battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota at the end of 1890 sets the background for this engaging tale written by a local author. It hinges on the actions of two men who survived the famous battle, a U.S. Cavalry Lieutenant and a young Lakota warrior.

The novel begins when the surviving Indian fighter kills the American officer in a meeting that takes place a few days after the infamous clash, and this triggers the wheels of U.S. justice, even out in the wild hinterland of the Dakotas. The judicial steps, ending with the trial, that are set in motion along with the role of the press, play an intriguing but secondary role in the story. I expected the young Sioux warrior to be hung from the nearest tree sooner than later but it does not happen.

At the center of the story is a visiting would-be-divorcée from back East who uses her influence to secure a fair outcome for the young Indian.

Employing a respectable combination of historic details, limited though it may be, and a literary imagination conditioned by local lore, the author provides a realistic context for life in the western Indian frontier. It is a good start for a new novelist too.

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