Spain is a bloodstained rose blooming at our breasts. -Nazim Hikmet
Recently I spotted Rebecca C. Pawel’s 2003 debut novel Death of a Nationalist at my public library in the section marked “staff picks”. Besides being recommended by the library staff, the book looked considerably worn, and thus well-circulated. So, based on that information, I took it home with me to read. Considering it was the first novel from Pawel, a 26-year old high school Spanish teacher, I enjoyed her book. I found it readable, well-written and populated with surprisingly interesting characters.
Set in Madrid during the chaotic days following the Nationalists’ victory over the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, her Edger-award winning mystery novel starts with the murder of a Civil Guard soldier on a Madrid sidewalk, witnessed only by a young school girl from a Republican household. The novel’s protagonist, Sargent Carlos Tejada Alonzo y Leon in attempting to solve the crime, encounters corruption; betrayal; black marketing dealings and forbidden romance. Complicating all of this is a Madrid teeming with Republican sympathizers and an active political underground. While the war might be over, the hearts and minds of Madrid remain defiant and have surrendered in name only.
Maybe I was drawn to this novel because of its historical setting. I’ve always had a slight fascination with the Spanish Civil War. Sandwiched between two World Wars and confined to just one nation, it’s easy to see how the conflict could be forgotten by many and relegated by history to a passing footnote. Besides being called the “dress rehearsal’ for WWII, it pitted the Nationalist/Fascist right against the Republicans and an alliance of communist/socialist left. It also involved the hallmarks of modern war such as aerial bombings and tank warfare. In addition, the war was considerably seminal from an artistic standpoint inspiring Pablo Picasso’s monumental mural Guernica, as well as the writings of both George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway. Lastly, the war would eventually give birth Franco’s authoritarian regime, which not only ruled Spain for over 30 years, but became the template for a host of military dictatorships throughout Latin America.