The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

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This book is set partly in Madrid, partly in and around Lisbon, partly in Tangier, then a multicultural international zone associated with everything from artists to espionage, and mostly in Tetouan, which served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1913 to 1956. Four fascinating cities, and an interesting story set mainly during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, with a mixture of real people and fictional characters.

It’s not a spy story – I don’t really do spy stories, apart from James Bond! – but a lot of it does involve the Special Operations Executive. I generally associate Special Operations Executive with Occupied France – and I’m afraid that that’s just made me think of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but never mind – and the Norwegian heavy water sabotage, and don’t think very much about Spain and all the other countries where operations were taking place; and I think there’s also a tendency to think of Spain and Portugal as being outside mainstream European history during the period of the fascist dictatorships there, despite the well-known links between Franco and Hitler.

Also, despite the Rif War and its effect on Spanish politics in the 1920s, and for all the ongoing rows over Western Sahara (why does no-one make a fuss over the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?), and the fact that Spain holds Ceuta and Melilla, it’s easy to forget that Spain was, and still is, involved in North Africa – it wasn’t all about France, Italy and (in Egypt) Britain. As the book points out, Spain didn’t really get involved in the Scramble for Africa, but it did, after losing control of Cuba and the Philippines, make an agreement with France which gave it control of a couple of bits of Morocco.  Tetouan, a city with a complicated history (involving a lot of pirates, back in the day!), and a mixed population of Arab Muslims, Berber Muslims and Sephardi Jews, was the administrative centre of the southern bit.

I’m not sure that we really got the distinction between Arabs and Berbers, though: there were just a lot of references to “Moors”. I was slightly bemused in Sicily recently to see a sign warning people to beware of “Saracens” in cafes.  I assume that it was in the sense of the old-fashioned English term “street Arabs”, but you just wouldn’t dream of using that term in English now, and you wouldn’t really say “Moors” when talking about the 20th or 21st centuries.  Anyway, things are presumably different in Spanish and Italian … and I have now got off the point.  I just have a lot of sympathy with the way that the Berbers have been treated in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere.  And, having said all of this, there were quite a few references to “Riffians”, and Riffians are Berbers.

OK, OK, back to the point!   Amongst the Spanish officials there in the 1930s were the pro-British Juan Luis Beigbeder y Atienza, later Franco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Franco’s pro-German brother-in-law, who would eventually replace Beigbeder as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramon Serrano Suner.

So some pretty influential people. Both of them, especially Beigbeder, feature in the book, as do Alan Hillgarth, the British adventure novelist who was an intelligence agent in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rosalinda Powell Fox, Beigbeder’s lover and a British spy.  Churchill’s supposed to have said that “the war might have taken a very different course were it not for Rosalinda”.

None of them are very familiar figures. It’s not a part of twentieth century history that gets a lot of attention.  Too much else going on at the time, to be fair!

The main characters, though, are the fictional ones. The first person protagonist, the seamstress of the title, is Sira Quiroga.  The early part of her life’s a bit like a cross between Evita and a Georgian melodrama – she’s the illegitimate daughter of a Madrid seamstress and her married former lover, grows up in poverty, and dumps her nice boyfriend for someone who is clearly bad news.  Her long-lost dad reappears on the scene, gives her a load of money and jewellery, and suggests that she get out of Spain because trouble (the civil war)’s coming.  She and the new boyfriend go off to Morocco, and, whaddaya know, he runs off with her money and jewellery and leaves her with a huge pile of debts.  She gets involved with various shady characters, and sets herself up as a high-class dressmaker in Tetouan, where most of her customers are the wives of Nazis hanging around there, but where she also meets and becomes friendly with the aforementioned Rosalinda Powell Fox, and is recruited by the British Special Operations Executive.

She goes back to Madrid, and is sent on a mission to Lisbon, and there’s a lot of chasing around and jumping off trains … it is all a bit James Bond, but it’s largely a historical novel, full of information about what was going on in the Spanish protectorate and in Spain itself at the time. What would have happened if Spain had joined forces with the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy?  It could well have happened.  Maybe it’s best not to think too much about it.  It sounds a bit weird that a book should start off as a tale of poverty and dodgy boyfriends and then turn into a wartime thriller, but it does work really well.  I love the idea of writing notes in Morse code, made to look like the stitches for a sewing pattern!

And it’s been made into a TV series, under its original title – El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) – in Spain, but unfortunately it’s never been shown in the UK. Sky Arts used to show some good Spanish drama series – I really enjoyed Grand Hotel and Isabella – but they don’t any more, which is a shame.

The ending is really annoying, though. We see Sira reunitedwith Marcus Logan, a British spy with whom she’d become involved in Tetouan and then (as you do) just happened to bump into whilst she was on her secret mission to Lisbon.  After they’d dramatically got off the train together to escape the agents of the Spanish double agent who’s working for both the British and the Nazis (I did say it was all a bit James Bond), and it’d turned out that he knew her long-lost dad (yes, OK, it did get a bit far-fetched), but we don’t actually find out what happens to them after the war – we’re told that it’s all a mystery.  Sorry, but that’s a rather silly way to end a book!

But, apart from the ending, and the fact that some of the spy adventure stuff is a bit bonkers for a book that isn’t actually a spy story, it’s very entertaining, and very interesting. It really is easy to think of Spain and Portugal as having been outside the mainstream of European history for much of the twentieth century, and maybe even the second half of the nineteenth century too.  They weren’t.  And Tetouan – I love Morocco, but I knew nothing about Tetouan before reading this book, but what a fascinating place it sounds!  And, come on, Sky Arts, give us some more Spanish drama!