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by Rebecca Pawel
Soho Press, February 2004
262 pages
ISBN: 1569473447

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A bit of terminology and history can enhance the pleasure of reading this most worthwhile book. The Guardia Civil was formed in 1844 at a time when Spain was wracked by unending violence over legitimacy problems of royal succession. This type of political violence, 'brother against brother,' had begun much earlier, such as during the Napoleonic conquest of Spain (see, for example, Goya's brutal painting, Tres de Mayo).

The Guardia Civil was a nationwide militarized police force often used as rough peacemakers. They were similar to the Italian Carabiniere and the French Gendarmerie, recruited largely from uneducated peasants, and commonly considered cruel. They can still, as far as I know, be recognized by their anachronistic uniforms, which include a stiff leather hat similar to a tricorner, but with the brim bent upward in back.

In 1931 King Alfonso XIII, after much political strife, went into exile and the country was taken over by various left-wing forces (republicans, syndicalists, regional secessionists, socialists, communists, anti-clericals) united only in being anti-monarchists. As the instability continued into 1936 various army generals revolted with their troops, and one, Francisco Franco, ultimately became the leader.

During 1936 to 1939 the opposing forces ruined large cities and small towns by unleashing a new type of mechanized warfare. The rebels under Franco became known by various names, but especially as nationalists and falangists. The governmental forces were known as loyalists, republicans, and other names, but the nationalists lumped all types together under the name 'reds.'

Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco with arms and airplanes (the prelude to WWII), while some other countries sent volunteer contingents to fight in Spain for the Republicans, such as the US Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The Soviets also helped the Republicans, but when they saw the war was lost to Franco, took all the Spanish gold they could get and, in spite of promises to the exiled Republican leaders, kept it for themselves.

One salient factor to the world then and to me now was the utter brutality of the Spanish Civil War. Goya's Tres de Mayo was repeated over and over again on both sides. When the war ended in 1939 the most common material necessities of life were scarce and extremely costly, but nothing was cheaper than human life.

When DEATH OF A NATIONALIST opens shortly after the Nationalists have won, a little girl comes across the body of a murdered Guardia Civil corporal. She runs home after dropping her notebook, a valuable item due to its scarcity. Her aunt goes to retrieve the notebook, but two men from the Guardia Civil are also there, one being Sergeant Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon, one of two protagonists of this story.

We see the prevalent mood of the victors in an order that was given when someone reported the body to the Guardia Civil. Lt Ramos tells Tejada, "Go take a look, will you? And arrest anyone in the neighborhood who seems suspicious. If they're Reds, put them up against a wall."

Tejada is not your ordinary everyday Guardia. He has a university degree and a mind that likes to think, although he can be very tough when he feels it necessary to carrying out his duty. Once during the War when he saw other Guardias laughing and raping the body of a woman they had just executed, he went into an alley and vomited, and later got horribly drunk. When the aunt looking for the girls' notebook denies killing the corporal, but speaks militantly, Tejada, motivated in part by knowing what would happen to her once he had brought her into the station and wondering if his young companion had ever seen a woman tortured, takes out a pistol and quickly kills her.

The executed woman had been engaged to a Republican who refused to accept his side's surrender, and he is thus hunted by the Guardia Civil. This is Gonzalo Llorente, the second protagonist. The story alternates between following Tejada carrying out whatever duties he is assigned, and Gonzalo, whose purpose is now to find and kill the man who shot his fiancee. Through their eyes and actions we see the Spain that immediately followed the end of the Civil War in 1939.

Tejada reflects to himself that perhaps someday the unrest will stop and with it the need for brutality, but in the meantime he will do his duty. The black market enters the picture, as does the little girl's school teacher, whom Tejada finds attractive. Various Guardia Civil officers play their roles, and we see other 'reds,' 'milicianos,' and black marketeers living by their wits and sometimes dying, quickly at best, slowly if they're unlucky.

The end is not really a surprise, but it would be spoiling the story to reveal it. In the first sentence above, I had said something about the "pleasure of reading this most worthwhile book." Pleasure is not quite the word to use her, unless one is a sadist, but I mean pleasure more in the sense of the pleasure of learning more about the human condition that surrounds us everyday. I consider it a necessary part of any thinking person's education to know something about the Spanish Civil War. And I also recognize that the immediate period following the end of the war would probably have been just as cruel and bloody if the other side had won

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, March 2004

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