The brutality and carnage that comprise the legacy of Francisco Franco’s “Republican” regime reshape and afflict several lives in Catalan playwright and screenwriter Baulenas’s accusatory novel.
The present actions occur in 1949, when protagonist and narrator Genís Aleu, a sergeant in the Spanish Foreign Legion, returns to Barcelona following an eight-year exile—resolved to fulfill a promise made to his father Joan, who died in a prisoner of war camp. The past that burdens Genís is revealed in juxtaposed chapters that depict his family’s wartime experiences: how Joan, a commercial sign painter, was drawn into the chaos of Spain’s Civil War; the sufferings of his wife and son (then called “Niso”), when the latter was sent to a Dickensian Charity Home; and the burden accepted by Niso when his father, released and sent home to die, charged the boy with finding and reburying the body of Joan’s comrade Bartomeu Camús, who had been executed for loudly protesting the Franco regime’s many crimes against humanity. Baulenas gets good suspenseful mileage out of gradual discoveries made by the adult Genís (and hence the reader). The novel is especially compelling in scenes set at the charity home, and it’s also good at depicting the ironic circumstances of Genís’s return: He is assigned to lecture and recruit future foreign legionnaires at the combat-training facility built on the site of the former POW camp. There are vivid characterizations of Niso’s unflappable friend and mentor at the home, “No-Sister-Salvador”; of compassionate Sister Paula, who arouses both Niso’s social conscience and his embryonic libido; and of Genís’s Barcelona contact, flinty Major Cedazo, who will play a crucial role in the novel’s bitter denouement. But Baulenas repeatedly overstates his case, exposing his plot’s essential thinness while indulging in hyperbolic (albeit just, and perfectly understandable) excoriations of Franco and his murderous minions.
Initially, and fitfully engrossing, but the book turns into a harangue that just doesn’t know when to stop.