Monday, April 25, 2011

Death of a Nationalist - A Tale Without Heroes

In the small New England town where I grew up we had a neighbor from Spain. She possessed a warmth that tempered her vivacious personality, and she spoke English with a thick accent that made her sound like she was always clearing her throat. But this woman had the singing voice of an angel and her songs were all about the Spanish Civil War. I grew up with a romantic vision of that conflict, which the song lyrics painted as a noble struggle between good and evil, the good guys being the Communist-backed Republican fighters (the heroes of the songs) and Franco’s fascist Falangists, also known as nationalists, cast as the villains.

But there is nothing romantic about Death of a Nationalist, Rebecca Pawel’s Edgar Award-winning suspense novel set in the aftermath of Spain’s bloody civil war. She paints a grim picture of a battered country where hope is as scarce as food. The Fascists have won and are busy purging the country of Republican carbineros, not bothering with the inconvenience of a trial. It’s a world where being caught without proper papers can result in “going for a stroll,” a euphemism for summary execution. Or where a suitcase filled with meat and potatoes, stolen at gunpoint from a black marketeer, helps one family survive another day.

Against this brutal backdrop, Pawel spins a tale of two men who stand on opposite sides of Spain’s unbridgeable political gulf. Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon is a nationalist, a Guardia Civil with an unwavering belief in the fascist cause. He views the “Reds” as beneath contempt, barely human. “They don’t even marry their women,” is his contemptuous assessment at one point.

Gonzalo Llorente is a former carbinero, recently released from the hospital after suffering a serious war wound. He’s hiding out in his sister’s apartment, for if the Guardia Civil finds him, his lack of papers will mean that he too will “go for a stroll.” Gonzalo had been a socialist before the war and a Republican fighter during the conflict, but ideology is not what drives him. He just wants to build an ordinary life with his great love, Viviana.

The tale begins with Tejada shooting Viviana as she bends over a murdered Guardia Civil (the dead nationalist from the title). Tejada doesn’t bother with the particulars of ascertaining whether she really was the nationalist’s killer, nor is he overly bothered by the fact that the object she is holding is a child’s school notebook, not a subversive treatise. She’s a Red, and nothing else matters.

For his part, Gonzalo’s grief over the loss of Viviana drives him to embark on a single-minded mission. He’s going to find the Guardia Civil who murdered her and make him pay for the crime. It’s almost a suicide mission, since Gonzalo cares little for his own survival and pays almost no thought to how his actions will affect his sister and her seven-year-old daughter, the only family he has left. Understandable as his selfishness is, it’s hard to see anything noble in this man’s actions.

As the Guardia Civil and carbinero embark on the collision course driving them together, Tejada tracks down Aleja, Gonzalo’s young niece, who witnessed the murder of the nationalist. It was the loss of her school notebook, which she dropped in fright and which Viviana had gone to retrieve, that set the book’s events in motion. However, Aleja’s terror of Tejada in uniform shakes him to his bones. He may be capable of shooting an innocent woman for no discernable reason, but he doesn’t see himself as a monster who sets out to terrify small children.

Soon after, Gonzalo is arrested after hooking up with a small group of like-minded former carbineros. Gonzalo knows he’s not likely to leave jail alive, and his death will come after lengthy and brutal torture. But he nevertheless vows to hold out for twenty-hour hours before his tormenters break him, giving his new friends time to escape.

In Rebecca Pawel’s bleak tale there are no clear-cut heroes or villains like the ones I’d heard about in my neighbor’s Spanish songs. Instead, everyone in this book is a bit of both, capable of kindness and generosity as well as cruelty and selfishness. Tejada, our antihero, believes in the nationalist cause and Spain's brutal dictatorship, but he is, in his heart, a deeply honorable man with an unshakeable sense of justice. I can't condone the fascist ideology he subscribes to, but honor and integrity are always appealing.

Both Tejada and Gonzalo are realistically drawn men with human flaws that influence their actions. It is this depth of humanity that turns Pawel’s story into something larger than an engrossing adventure: a novel worthy of a major award. Death of a Nationalist won the 2004 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

For a complete list of the Edgar winners, visit The Edgars.


  1. Talk about the "traveling culture" - my favorite topic. This is so similar to how the Soviets referred to their revolution - always romantic, always poetic, when in fact there were no heroes - exactly the same way. I don't think there can be heroes in a civil war.

    I never read a book - any book - about the Spanish civil war... it's interesting that someone thought of it as a premise.

  2. It was interesting to me that Pawel set this story after the war was largely over. The ongoing suffering and mistrust is so well drawn, it reminds me that wars like this never really end, or at least not for many decades. They just move to a different stage.