What I’m Reading: C.J. Sansom – Winter In Madrid

Along with modernism came a certain loss in trust in the reliability of conventional narrative structures, and every major work of fiction from the twentieth century onwards has had to somehow come to terms with the insight that realism is just one literary trope among others and has no privileged claim to truth. Historical novels (and indeed, the writing of history itself) have not remained unaffected by this either, and the works of the likes of Alfred Döblin and William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon all are very far removed from the genre’s beginning in Walter Scott’s Waverly novels.

There is not a single trace of that in Winter In Madrid – it relies completely on a naive telling-it-the-way-it-was attitude,  untinged even by the faintest hue of self-awareness or critique of a representational model of mimesis. Although I will have to admit that it is my own fault to be disappointed by this – C.J. Sansom is apparently otherwise known as author of a series of crime novels set in Tudor England, and I suppose it was only to be expected that a novel by him on the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War would be just as cosy as his mysteries. And once I got over the novel being rather less ambitious than I had hoped it would be, I even found it enjoyable – told from the alternating viewpoints of one British woman and two men, it takes places mainly in the winter of 1940 (but with frequent and occasionally somewhat erratic cut-backs delving into the background of the protagonists), a time when Hitler was victorious on the European continent and it seemed only a matter of time until Great Britain would either be defeated by the German bombings or have to come to some kind of peace with the fashists. Against that background, the question of whether Spain will join the war on the German side becomes essential, and a lot of the plot revolves around British intelligence operations to prevent just that.

The other half of the story is mainly that of three men who went to a public school together and the woman between two of them – that portion is not terribly original and even a bit trite in parts, but does its job in serving mainly to offset the characters’ varying relations with and reactions to the events during and immediately after the Spanish Civil War. “Serviceable” is also the word that describes best Sansom’s use of language which is thoroughly unspectacular, but still manages to convey the oppressive atmosphere and paint a bleak picture of Spain ruled by the Fashists. It is a very nuanced pictures, almost drained of colour and toned in various shades of grey – while he shows no sympathy whatever for either Falangists or Monarchists, he does not romanticise the Republicans either and never loses sight of the flaws of either side. In fact, he seems sometimes almost too balanced and while he often states the atrocities commited and the misery suffered during and after the Civil War among all parties involved, one never really feels them in the even, neutral tone of Sansom’s voice. On the other hand, this might very well have been a conscious decision and narrative strategy on the author’s part, to  keep the tone of the novel as cold and drained of colour as the wintery scenery and frozen political atmosphere. In the same vein, there is no stark black and white in the depiction of characters either, but all are drawn in various shades of grey.

The novel takes its time setting things up, is spread out into a grand historical panorama, then gathers momentum at the same time as conflicts narrow down to the personal, and culminates in a finale that might be exaggerated to call action-packed but still has considerable tension. I have a bit of a gripe with Sansom rather predictably sacrificing the female foreigner in order for the British to survive, but he makes up for that by avoiding a “happy ever after” ending – something by far too rare these days even in literary fiction. It all has a quite cinematic feel to it, and I admit to some surprise that apparently it has not been made into a movie or at least a TV mini-series yet; it is very easy to imagine it while reading the book, with images in black and white or toned in bleached-out sepia .

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