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Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom

Posted by Sherry on 7/2/2008 in 1940, 20th Century History Project, Adult Fiction, General |

Helen MacInnes, but more lugubrious and hopeless.

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, same setting a few years later, but more complex sentences and British characters.

Alistair Maclean, with less action and more dialogue.

John LeCarre, but set in Spain and less confusingly plotted. (Semicolon review of one of LeCarre’s novels here.

I picked up Winter in Madrid at the library because I read two of Mr. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries and enjoyed them very much. (Semicolon review here.) This book is not a mystery, but rather as I indicated by my opening comparisons, it’s a spy novel set in the winter of 1940 as Britain is enduring Hitler’s bombing blitz and hoping that Spain under Generalissimo Franco will not join the Axis powers in declaring war on the Allies.

Harry Brett, the protagonist of the novel, is a survivor of Dunkirk, recently recovered from shell shock and hysterical deafness, who finds himself in Spain working for the Secret Service and spying on an old (public) school friend. That’s public in the British sense, private upper class snob school for us Americans. The friend, Sandy Forsyth, who is the subject of Brett’s somewhat clumsy spying efforts, is a businessman involved in a project that may or may not affect Franco’s decision about whether or not to enter the war. Hence the British interest in Sandy and his project.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the way that Sansom showed how the belief system of each of the characters in the novel was torn down and destroyed or at least undermined by the realities of life and especially of war. Harry is a conservative, a public school/Cambridge graduate who believes in honor and in traditional British upper class values. But the complications and the sheer messiness of the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and of being a spy make Harry’s value system at first difficult to follow and later impossible.

Harry’s friend Bernie is a dedicated Communist, probably the most idealistic of the characters in the novel. He, too, becomes disillusioned and confused when he sees his beloved Party under Stalin in alliance with the Fascists that Bernie just lost his freedom and nearly his life in fighting. He manages to hang on to his socialist ideals and his belief in the Communist Party and the coming day of socialist brotherhood, but it’s a confused persistence in a futile hope.

Then, there’s Sandy the dedicated rebel against authority who believes mostly in himself and his destiny to be the “bad boy” who always somehow comes out on top. Sandy doesn’t like anyone telling him what to do, and yet he works with the Facists in Spain who are the most authoritarian and controlling partners in business a man could possibly have.

Christianity, too, is portrayed as corrupt and bankrupt as the Catholic Church and its priests work with the Fascist regime to oppress the people and control them. In the historical note at the end of the book, Mr. Sansom says, “I do not think my picture of the Spanish Church at the period is unfair; they were involved root and branch with the policy of a violent regime in its most brutal phase and those like Father Eduardo who found it hard to square their consciences seem to have been few and far between.”

What Mr. Sansom does best in this novel is create a sense of place and time, showing the confusion and hopelessness of a Spain that’s coming out of the chaos of civil war into the brutal tyranny and suppression of a Fascist dictatorship. Franco did bring order to a country that was a killing field before his Nationalists won the civil war, but the question of whether or not the “cure” was worth the injustice that imposed it is still open. In fact, one of the questions that the novel comes back to time and again is: Can cruelty and injustice be used to fight greater cruelty and injustice? What happens to the character and moral sense of those who use deception and brute force to fight against evil? If there is such a thing as a just war, then must we use all the weapons at our disposal to fight that war, even the weapons of lies and violence and treachery? If we don’t fight withall our might and without mercy, then aren’t we enabling those who are truly dedicated to evil to win and to oppress and murder others?

Winter In Madrid is described on the back cover as an “action-packed thriller,” but the pace of the novel doesn’t live up to that description. It’s really much slower and more thoughtful than a typical thriller, full of moral dilemma and brilliant characterization. The winter setting is a metaphor for the bleakness of the entire plot, and although I usually don’t like novels that end with very little hope or faith for the future, the ending felt right for this novel. It’s a Candide-ish sort of ending in which the main characters, those who are left, decide to cultivate their gardens as the world moves on from catastrophe to catastrophe.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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