I was hoping that this was going to be about the International Brigades; but unfortunately it was just a rather silly story, poorly-written and littered with irritating errors (“expatriate” was repeatedly spelt “ex-patriot”!), about a girl running off to take photos of the Spanish Civil War and getting involved with two men and a baby. However, it did raise the never-ending question, very relevant in a week in which there’ve been reports of Syrian children dying of cold and hunger in refugee camps, of whether or not the international community should intervene in civil wars.
I’m not sure that the Life on Marbs idea of British expatriates (or indeed “ex-patriots”) living in the Marbella/Estepona/San Pedro area was really a thing in the 1930s. However, OK, there would have been some Britons living there – although someone should really tell the author that they would not have referred to themselves as “Brits”, a term which didn’t exist until the Second World War. Amongst them is our heroine, Elizabeth Marshall, a young woman in her 20s from a well-to-do middle-class family, living with her parents and brother. With civil war raging and the Nationalists about to take Malaga, it’s decided that all British citizens in the area should be evacuated to Gibraltar, and then to Britain. The evacuation of non-Spanish nationals was certainly true enough.
The dialogue’s poor, the characters are wooden, and silly mistakes such as the spelling of the Spanish housekeeper’s name as “Conception” rather than “Concepcion” are annoying, but the book does make some good points with its descriptions of the bombing of Malaga by the Nationalists, with German and Italian assistance, and the desperate attempts of civilians to try to escape from a city bordered by water and mountains.
When the Marshalls reach the coast, they wait for a ship … and Elizabeth decides to run away, to take photos of what’s going on. It’s supposed to sound brave and heroic, but it’s not really very convincing. However, she gets to Malaga, where she rescues a baby who’s been abandoned in the street. This is presumably meant to be very poignant, but the storylines just don’t work very well. She meets up with a Spanish aristocrat, Juan, and an Englishman, Alex … and Juan checks her into a posh hotel so that she can get milk for the baby (as you do). Then the baby dies anyway. I’m not sure what the point of that storyline was. And Elizabeth and Juan become lovers.
They all decide that they need to get out of Malaga, and head for Almeria. En route, they’re caught up in a brutal attack by Franco’s forces on civilian refugees. It’s thought that up to 5,000 people were killed in the attack, and many other citizens of Malaga were raped and murdered when the Nationalists took the city. German and Italian forces bombed the refugees from the air, and Nationalist ships attacked them from the sea. They couldn’t get away: there was no means of escape. This isn’t a very good book, but this is something that’s largely been forgotten, and the book’s coverage of it is pretty accurate. Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor working with the Republicans, did indeed rescue as many of the injured as he could. As far as the story goes, Juan, who’s been badly injured, is taken to Almeria by Bethune. Elizabeth and Alex follow on foot. When they reach the city, he’s nowhere to be found, and they’re left to assume that he’s died and been buried, alongside many others, in an unmarked grave. However, the reader learns that he’s still alive and has joined the Republican army, hoping that Elizabeth, who’d refused to leave without him, will go home to Britain and safety.
Then, just as it’s getting interesting, we suddenly jump forward to the 21st century! We learn that – why does this always happen, in books?! – Elizabeth, having duly returned to her family, had found out that she was expecting Juan’s baby, and had accepted Alex’s offer of marriage. It could have been quite good. Elizabeth’s photos could have been published and she could have made a name for herself. Juan could have turned up a few years later – and we learn that Alex went back to Spain, found out that Juan was alive, and never told Elizabeth.
But we don’t get any of that. Instead, we get a rather boring story about how, after they’re all dead, Elizabeth and Juan’s granddaughter Kate finds out that Alex wasn’t her biological grandfather, goes to Spain, and, within about five minutes, has found Juan’s surviving relatives and been welcomed into the bosom of his family (who’d tried to cover up the fact that he existed, because they were Nationalists). There are a lot of references to golf. Kate meets two different men, but neither relationship is really developed properly.
None of the storylines are developed properly, really; and, as I’ve said, the characters are wooden and the dialogue poorly-written. But this is the first time that I’ve ever come across a novel which covers this little-known massacre: Spanish Civil War novels in English are usually set in Catalunya, and usually refer to the massacre in Guernica, in the Basque country, and never mention Andalucia.
We’re told that Elizabeth is angry and distressed about why other countries are doing nothing to help, especially when there are British ships at Gibraltar. (We know now that the Gibraltarian authorities secretly aided the Nationalists – not during the massacre, obviously, but in general.). There was a lot of debate at the time, especially in Britain, France and the USA, about whether or not to intervene. A Non-Intervention Committee was formed, and no-one was supposed to be getting involved, except as observers and to protect international shipping, but Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and to some extent Salazar’s Portugal all aided the Nationalists, whilst the Soviet Union and to some extent Poland and Mexico provided support to the Republicans.
There was huge international press coverage of the war, and of course the International Brigades – who are now seen as being quite romantic – were formed. Opinion in Britain and elsewhere was deeply divided. It was feared that involvement by foreign powers could spark a pan-European war. And “boots on the ground” in other countries’ civil wars … well, think of Korea, of Vietnam, of Iraq. It never ends well. But can it ever be OK to stand by and do nothing when you know full well that civilians are suffering, horrifically. We know what’s going on in Syria. We know what’s going on in Yemen. We know what’s going on in the sadly misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo. There aren’t any answers, but the Spanish Civil War was the first time after the formation of the League of Nations that the subject came up. The war killed about 500,000 people, similar to the estimated death toll in the Syrian Civil War.
There are no answers, but there are a lot of questions. This book isn’t very good, but it does ask some of those questions, and make you think about them.