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Winter in Madrid: a spy novel

13 June 2013

While I have posted the core of this review on Good Reads, I’m expanding it a bit here, because it gave me a lot to think about. It is a spy novel, but not the usual spy novel. There was a glut of spy novels during the Cold War, from about 1960-1990, so that one almost came to think of the genre as belonging specifically to that period. But this one is set 20 years earlier, in 1940, just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, so it also belongs to the genre of historical novels.

It has been also described in the blurb as a thriller and a love story, and I suppose that it is those too, though I didn’t find it a page turner. I took quite a long time reading it, one or two chapters at a time, because each chapter gave me something to think about.

I first learnt of the Spanish Civil War as a child, from reading Biggles in Spain. Biggles and his friends were charter pilots, and found themselves in Spain working for and suspected by both Republicans and Nationalists. They find the political issues too complex, and when asked which side the hope will win, they say “The side that represents all true Spaniards”, or something to that effect.

I read and enjoyed other spy novels when I was at school — John Buchan’s books Greenmantle and The thirty-nine steps, though when I tried to re-read them when I was older I found them rather dull and pedestrian.

spy-vs-spyIn 1960, just before the great spy novel boom began, Mad Magazine had a cartiin strip caled “Spy vs Spy”, which I enjoyed reading, and I always pictured it as being set in Spain, around the time of the civil war. But, like Biggles, and like Harry Brett in Winter in Madrid my inclination was like many outsiders, and not only fictional characters, to remain neutral.

I was also interested in the book because the place and the period are the setting of one of my favourite recent films, Pan’s Labyrinth. This novel helps one to get the flavour and feel of that setting, and having read  it, I would like to see the film again.

It also has something of the flavour and feel of South Africa during the apartheid era, though with some notable differences. I think the main difference is that in Spain the Nationalists, who were victorious in a civil war, were able to impose their system suddenly and forcibly, by military means. In South Africa the Nationalists won an election by a slender majority, and it took them twelve years and three more elections to really get up to speed.

But what is the book actually about?

Winter in MadridWinter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harry Brett is a British soldier who was invalided out of the army after the retreat from Dunkirk, but he still wants to do his bit for the war effort, and is recruited by the intelligence services as a spy. He is a rather reluctant spy, however, especially when he discovers that he was recruited mainly to spy on a former schoolfellow, Sandy Forsyth, who is now a businessman in Spain.

He goes to the British embassy in Spain, ostensibly as a translator, but actually to find out what his old schoolmaate is up to. Harry had been in Spain before, where another school friend, Bernie Piper, was missing, believed killed, serving in the International Brigade on the Republican side in the civil war. Just before he went missing, Bernie Piper had had a love affair with a British Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, who had asked Harry’s help to look for him. But when Harry returns, Barbara was living with Sandy Forsyth, astensibly as his wife, though they were not legally married.

As a historical novel it is very well researched, and I think it does give an authentic flavour of post-war (civil war, that is) Spain, and the early years of the Franco regime. The British are anxious to keep Spain neutral, and are concerned that Sandy Forsyth’s business deals, rumoured to involve a gold mine, might make Spain’s economic survival less dependent on British goodwill. But the German and Italian ambassadors are obviously more favoured by Franco’s government, especially since they had helped the Nationalists to win the civil war.

In the heyday of the Cold War spy novels, most of them had no moral ambiguities. Those witten in the West either assumed, or set out to show that the Soviet Union and its allies were indubitably the bad guys. Only a few questioned this paradigm. This book, however, makes it clear that atrocities were committed on both sides, and that in such situations there are no “good guys”. And in that it chimes with my own vicarious experience.

When I was a student there was an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, who was a kind of spiritual father to me, a guru, if you like. He gave me books to read, and discussed various kinds of philosophies. At one point I told him that I was attracted to anarchism as a political ideal, and he said he could never be an anarchist because he had seen what anarchist bombs had done during the Spanish Civil War. That rather shocked me, because I saw myself as an anarcho-pacifist, and the thought of promoting a political ideal by throwing bombs was very far from my thoughts. He did not say much about it, but I think he was there, like Barbara Clare in the novel, as an ambulance worker rather than as a combatant.

So the book shows something of the horror of civil wars, and how people from other countries who intervene (like the Germans, Italians and Russians in the Spanish civil war) only make things worse. And even those that don’t intervene, like the Bristish, also just make things worse.

Though the Spanish civil war was over before I was born, the wars of the Yugoslav succession were much more recent, and were also a kind of civil war. There were no good guys, but Western fiction written in that setting, like the Cold War spy novels, assumed that the Serbs were the bad guys, or tried to persuade readers that they were.

But in Winter in Madrid there are no good guys, and the bad guys are everywhere. Everyone betrays everyone else, and perhaps the biggest traitor of all is the Spanish Church, which betrays the Gospel, and calls to mind Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

I recently read a book by an old friend, John Davies, who was at one time Anglican chaplain at Wits University. The book is The faith abroad and is a treatise on Christian mission for English Christians. He notes that W.E. Gladstone (British Liberal prime minister in the late 19th century) was influenced by the Tractarians, and was Prime Minister when the Privy Council declared that the Anglican Church in South Africa was a voluntary society having no legal identity with the Church of England.

For him, one of the great lessons of the case of the Church in South Africa was the “dispelling of the dangerous and mischievous idea which undoubtedly weighs upon the minds of many of this country… that when you take away the legal sanction from spiritual things, then spiritual things lose all their force and vitality.”.

The force of Mr Gladstone’s warning applies in any establishment context. If religion does depend on legal sanction, then what is important in religion must what is felt to be important by those who have acquired the power to make the law, the secular power-bearers. So religion can become a kind of spiritual police, operating in the interest of the authorities. In that case, it will probably fail to be good news to the poor — which is the decisive question for the followers of Jesus. It is no use having Good News unless we ask, Good News for whom? A church which is overtly a device for congratulating the powerful on being powerful will have its work cut out to persuade the powerless that it can be on their side also.

This is a predicament for the white-based churches in South Africa. Even if, as in the case of the Anglican Church, a majority are black, and even if the church is well-known as a critic of government, when white leaders protest against bad laws they are inevitably contributing to the greatest of all South African fallacies, namely that politics is a matter of white people arguing with white people about black people.


And, as Winter in Madrid clearly shows, during and after the civil war the Spanish church had become “a kind of spiritual police, operating in the interest of the authorities”. But that is not a temptation that was peculiar to the Spanish church in 1940. It is true anywhen and everywhere.

View all my reviews

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 June 2013 6:52 pm

    Dear Steve,

    I noticed a hit from your blog on mine, and followed it, and I see with surprise that you have listed The White Lily Blog in your blogroll. This is mystifying to me, as I hope to die a martyr’s death fighting liberalism, liberalism of any kind whatsoever, however many distinctions are made between this kind and that kind, etc. I am wondering if you didn’t visit the blog and saw something you liked, and thus added it, when in fact I don’t think you would like my solution to the problems of the world, which is to roll everything back to the economics, culture, and moral teachings of the Catholic state, which, though they include the principle of tolerance, do in no way embrace religious freedom, anymore than they would endorse free love.

    The only other thing I can think of to explain it is my one post on Nadine Gordimer, on whom I wrote my master’s thesis.

    Best wishes, though, in the name of tolerance, and genuine admdiration for all who are trying to find the Truth. May it bring you back to the Church Christ founded–not the one presently masquerading in the Vatican but the one we are fighting to restore. SSPX is in Africa, perhaps they have a chapel close enough to you, google SSPX chapels and follow the links to the international site.

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