Superb novel of the Spanish Civil War, ranking among the best of the many books written about that conflict.
The war of 1936–39 remains an unhealed wound, and Molina (Sepharad, 2003, etc.) runs a certain risk—as, recently, did Javier Cercas with Soldiers of Salamis—in revisiting it. He does so from the point of view of an architect, Ignacio Abel, who has risen from the ranks of the working poor, his bricklayer father scorning and pitying him for his lack of macho strength, living a life in which “feeling the blow of the slap that hadn’t yet struck his pale face” constitutes business as usual. Ignacio is a socialist but no firebrand; even so, he feels himself in danger, and throughout the narrative, even in flight, he wrestles with the question of whether he should stay in Spain and fight or move on to some place such as New York, where he has both a reputation and a lover. Problem is, even as he’s wrestling with rationalizations (which “sounded like the lie of someone who’s going to desert”), his lover is bent on going to Spain to join the loyalist cause herself. Ignacio is something of a cipher, even as others in his circle do their best to remain safe and anonymous—and for good reason, since Molina delivers a scathing, Goya-esque view of war: “Now the long whistles of mortars, and a few seconds later the earth rose in the fields along the highway like streams of lava in an erupting volcano.” Molina writes with the epic sweep of Boris Pasternak, claiming the space hitherto occupied by the non-Spanish novelist Ernest Hemingway; his story is long but without a slack moment, as it carefully builds a portrait of a world that has disappeared and a moment that is about to: “Think of how big the world is,” as Ignacio says, “how complicated it is for two people to meet. We’ve been lucky twice—there won’t be another time.”
A simple love story at one level, a broad portrait of a nation in flames at another, and a masterwork through and through.