Thursday, May 17, 2012

Historical fiction I didn't hate!

I can best describe this book as a successful version of Clara and Mr Tiffany, which longtime readers will remember I disliked.

The story is framed as a sort of pseudo-memoir, but functionally it's more just a first-person story. Sira, the main character and narrator, is a seamstress in Madrid, engaged to an ordinary guy, living with her mother in a poor neighborhood, when she's swept off her feet by a sexy typewriter salesman. A very sexy typewriter salesman, the sexy typewriter salesman of your sexiest dreams. When he leaves her destitute in Morocco, she has to start again from scratch, reinventing herself as a high-class dressmaker. This mixes her up with influential people and she eventually returns to Franco's Madrid as a haute couturier and British spy.

Maybe it's a matter of reading the book in translation, but I thought Sira's character was a little disappointing given the dramatic twists and turns her life takes and how successfully she handles them. She comes across as a little flat somehow; you'd expect her to be a little livelier and more confident or something. Despite all the changes in her circumstances I had a hard time seeing how her perspective or personality was changing. It's very possible that this is just me, though. The scene where Sira is confronted by her old fiance was genuinely gripping, even though I thought the book gave that phase of her life short shrift.

One of the main aims of this book is, of course, to tell the story of early 20th century Spain, particularly the Civil War and the Second World War, and more precisely to tell the story of Juan Luis Beigbeider and his English lover Rosalind Fox. Yes, there are some clumsy fact-dump conversations, but they have the benefit of being about things I'm unfamiliar with and therefore inclined to give a pass. On the whole I'd say the history aspect is well-balanced with the novel's plot.

Not to say that the book didn't share some of Clara and Mr Tiffany's quirks. If I hadn't been reading this on the Kindle, I would go back and calculate how many of the chapters end with something like this:
But for that we had to wait a few weeks yet, six or seven. And over that time, things happened that--yet again--transformed the course of my life forever.
My estimate is that something like 40-50% of chapters ended with "little did I know that my life was about to change yet again." But the good news, and the #1 thing that differentiates this book from Clara and Mr Tiffany, is that this only happens once:
     I hadn't yet finished my fruit but I accepted. He filled the cups, having first unscrewed the top part of a metallic receptacle. Miraculously the liquid came out hot. I had no idea what it was, this machine that could pour out the coffee that had been there for at least an hour as though it had just been prepared.
     "A thermos, a great invention," he said, noticing my curiosity.
I always assume that translated books must be good, but in honesty I have to think this one was translated largely because English people feature so prominently as Good Guys. But overall it was an enjoyable read and worth picking up if the history appeals to you.

One final detail: in this book, like Mysterious Benedict Society, the spies communicate using Morse code. Why do authors do this? It's not like they have to work out an actual code, they just have to write "I encoded the message". In this book, the rationale is presented as "the Germans keep breaking our codes, so we'll use Morse" -- i.e., since they keep figuring out our codes anyway, we'll just save them time and use one we know they know! In France, I'm pretty sure SOE used book codes, but maybe -- and I have to bow to the author on this -- in Spain they just used Morse. Anyway, I warn you now that the next book I read that features Morse code as a super-secure top secret method of communication will probably get laughed at more than it deserves.

1 comment:

  1. I am not reading this, but I respect you having read it. And for communicating most of what it's about.