The Siege – Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The white queen retreats in disgrace, seeking the protection of a knight who’s own position is far from safe – two black pawns are prowling with malicious intent. Stupid game. There are days when Rogelio Tizon loathes chess, and today is one of those days. With his king pinned, castling is an impossibility; already one rook and two pawns down, he plays on only out of respect for his adversary, Hipolito Barrull, who seems totally relaxed, enjoying himself thoroughly. As usual. The bloodbath on Tizon’s left flank was triggered by his own foolish error: a pawn moved unthinkingly, a narrow opening and suddenly an enemy bishop piercing his home ranks like a dagger, which within a couple of moves has destroyed a Sicilian defence constructed with great patience to little effect.

Welcome to Cadiz, Spain in 1811. A city embodying the last vestiges of a free Spain, not quite crushed under Napoleon’s boot. But it’s hovering over them. Cannons fire every day only the besieged city, and only it’s unfettered access to the sea keeps it alive. If regular cannon fire weren’t enough, young girls start turning up dead and flayed, and Rogelio Tizon, police commissioner, desperate to catch the killer, is caught in a game of chess with the killer, a game that he loses regularly on the board, but cannot afford to lose on the streets.

For some reason I had put this on a wish list for if I ever bought a kindle, but not having been tempted to the dark side just yet I decided to just buy it in paperback and dive in. Pérez-Reverte’s Cadiz is intricate and rich, populated by an array finely detailed characters who, after careful nurturing by the author, are best when mingling with each other on the crowded streets of the beleaguered city.

It is perhaps Tizon who can make a small claim on being the star, and we are introduced to him as he is overseeing a prisoner being tortured for information. For some reason this made me weary of him at first, I mean a divorced alcoholic married to the job is one thing, but a torturer? But I warmed to him, his obsession with the case, trusting his gut instinct when it is completely illogical, as he tries desperately to work out the pattern of the serial killer in his city’s midst. His good friend Barrull, provides justification to feel for Tizon, even if you don’t like him. There is a drive behind the Comisario, and the deaths of the young girls haunt him, reminding him of his own lost daughter.

Moving away from the window, he returns to the desk. Anxious. Prowling like an animal in a cage, he realises. And this does not pleas him. This is not his way. Within him he feels a fury, slender and exact, sharp as a dagger. Professor Barrull’s manuscript still lies on the desk, as though mocking him: ‘here and there I found traces I can identify, but there are others that perplex me’, he reads again. The phrase buries itself in Tizon’s pride like a jagged splinter. In his professional peace of mind. Three girls murdered in the same way within six months. Fortunately for him Governor Villavicencio cuttingly pointed out some weeks ago, the war and the French siege have meant that such crimes have been relegated to the background. But this does little to assuage the comisario’s unease; the curious shame that eats away at him each time he thinks about the case. Each time he sees the mute piano and realises that the murdered girls are almost the same age as the girl who once touched the keys would have been today.

It’s not just Tizon though that we spend The Siege with. Lolita Palma is perhaps my favourite character after the Comisario. A woman succeeding in a man’s world by running her families shipping company, and even her dealing with the Corsair Captain, Pepe Lobo she never loses sight of what is most important in her life, and although she sees the end coming for her and her class, she is still willing to sacrifice in order to save it.

Outside the city, and across the lines we hear from the French, most notably Simon Defossuex, an artillery captain who spends the entire novel trying to get his bombs to the far side of Cadiz to finally take down this last bastion of Spanish freedom.

Into the middle of this world steps the serial killer, who has a set modus operandi that Tizon thinks he has figured out, and tries to flush out. The two are involved in their own game of chess on the streets of Cadiz, a game people barely notice due to the incessant bombing, until the body count starts to mount up and Tizon starts running out of time.

I loved The Siege. Pérez-Reverte sinks you into Cadiz, down to the details of the clothes and daily habits of not just he main characters but the population of a city that knows it is impregnable but still fearfully looks over it’s shoulder. This Cadiz is filled with locals and foreigners, refugees from the war with France which further complicates Tizon’s work. When those in charge start clamouring for the murderer, he knows he is running out of time, but his own fear of never find out drives him deeper into the game with the killer. Meanwhile the other characters flit about their business in the city. Lolita Palma and her business partner commission Pepe Lobo as a Corsair to bring in booty, allowing some beautifully crafted passages on the boat out in the open sea. But even as Tizon closes in on the killer, he senses his time is coming to an end, it all is. The British are forcing the ports open in return for their help and this will ruin the merchants of Cadiz. When close to the end game, Don Cayetano Valdes comments on Tizon and his, methods, that will no longer be tolerated in a new world.

‘Spain has changed,’ he said, before dismissing them from his office. ‘There is no way back, either for you or for me. Perhaps it is best that we all know where we stand.’

Tizon knows he himself is the embers of this time, as does Lolita Palma.

I won’t give away the ending, which I found strangely satisfying, although scant time is paid to the actual murderer and motive when the time comes, and although I’m not sure the Epilogue is required, I can’t work out if I’m glad it was in there or not.

I fell I’ve waffled my way though this review, I just can’t say how much I enjoyed The Siege, Full credit to the translator Frank Wynne, who has done an extraordinary job so that this reads beautifully and engagingly throughout.
For me The Siege has movie written all over it, I’m not sure if a sequel would work, but there is definite scope for some prequels, or even other stories involving Tizon, or even Mojarra or Lolita Palma.

So if I were you I’d transport yourself to a besieged Cadiz in 1811, you, of course, can always escape, but you won’t want to.

Lolita Palma stares at her hands. They are still pretty: she has long, elegant fingers and her nails, though not manicured, are neat. Sanchez Guinea looks at her, his smile pensive. At length, he nods good-naturedly.
‘There’s something about this man…He has spirit, and he is a fascinating character. A little rough around the edges when ashore, perhaps, and you could hardly use the term gentleman. In his dealings with women, for example, he is reputed to be less than scrupulous.’
‘Good Lord, what a dashing portrait you paint of him!’
The old merchant raises his hands in protest
‘I am simply telling you the truth. I know men who despise him and others who worship him. But, as my son says, there are men who would give the shirt off their backs for him.’
‘And the women? What would they give?’
‘That you will have to judge for yourself.’




I’ve been working in Madrid for most of the last month, so I’m a bit behind on everything, but took a long weekend in Valencia at the end of it.



I’ve been busy moving into my new flat but I’m slowly managing to sort everything out but right before I moved in I had to go to Madrid for work, and so I took a day off and extended the trip over the weekend and went to Toledo.


Spain – The Centre of the World 1519 – 1682 – Robert Goodwin

His complaint would have resonated with the stereotypical Spanish hidalgo with a preference for poverty over labour, honour over trade, and an obsession with purity of blood. Worse still, the Netherlands seemed a naturally heterodox land, so flat ‘it affords the people one commodity beyond all the other Regions: if they die in perdition, they are so low, that they have a shorter cut to Hell…And for this cause, perhaps all strange Religions throng thither.’

Starting with Charles V becoming King of Spain and the first treasures from the America’s docking on Spanish shores, Goodwin charts the incredible journey of the Spanish empire, as, fuelled by the riches of the Americas, and it’s monarchy, driven and weighed down by destiny and dynasty, became the centre of the world.

Goodwin’s pen merely touches the new world, with an early view of Oviedo and Las Casas, advocates of very different views on ruling the burgeoning empire in the Americas. Charles however had pressing concerns, as he secured the crown to the Holy Roman Empire and had to suppress the increasing irritable Dutch, culminating in Charles declaring Luther a heretic and creating a slight schism within the Christian church. One of my early favourites, leaping of the page in a flourish of both sword and wordplay, mostly on the back of good press, is Garci Laso de la Vega, or Garcilaso as he was known by the common folk.I would like to read more on him,  and his life has Netflix original series written all over it.

During it’s golden age Spain had famous artists flowering amongst it’s opulence, such as Titian, whose painting of Dona Isabella of Portugal, the mother of Philip II was, and still is highly lauded, and who was a yard stick who time and time again was claimed had taught many followers, including El Greco, who came to Spain from Italy and took up residence in Toledo. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, which is subjected to a thorough discussion in the book, about it’s relation to the life and times into which the windmill fighting warrior trots on his battered horse.

Following the abdication of Charles, came the succession of Philips, starting with the bookish and beareaucratic Philip II, who commissioned and built the magnificent Escorial palace, from which he ruled the far reaches of the empire using paper. Goodwin manages to paint Spain in broad brush strokes while at the same time colouring in smaller details of it’s rulers and more humble residents.

At Lisbon, Philip was in melancholic mood: following the death of Elizaberh of Valois, he had married his niece, Anne of Austria, and fallen deeply in love; but she died suddenly, in 1580, and soon afterwards he lost his son Prince Diego to smallpox. Stoical in his sadness, he could gaze out from the windows of the Royal Palace and mediate on the massive sweep of the great harbour, watching the drama of the Indies fleets arriving battered by the Atlantic storms and the massive galleons coming home from the Far East; he saw them leave, filled with old hands, the merchants’ factotums and thousands of would be colonists.

Philip III and IV sat back and little interfered in the decline of the mighty empire, as their favourites ruled in their name and stead, often putting their own interests above that of the Empire. Still there was glitter as Goodwin points out, and the arts flourished even as the empire began to crumble.

And crumble it did. Throughout all this there were ongoing wars with the troublesome French, the sinking of the armada by the English, who ironically had built up their navy on the advice of Philip the II, the explosion of litigation through the law courts by all parts of Spainish life and the flourish of religious festival and tradition in Seville. Abroad Henry the VIII embraced Protestantism after Catherine of Aragon failed to provide him with an heir, the Ottomans pestered the edges of the Hapsburg empire and the America’s slowly slipped from the Spanish grasp. It could be argued that maybe the empire would have not have lasted so long if not for it’s King’s, but the line from Charles to Philip IV all had a hand in the eventual downfall of one of the most crucial Empires in the world.

A definite if you’re interested in Spain or it’s history, and even if you’re not. Goodwin makes the life and times of an incredible number of people accessible, highlighting the greatness as well as the pettiness and even ordinariness of Spain in it’s greatest period, shining a light on the glitter and the gold.

And so, the city fathers of Seville celebrated a papal ruling about the immaculacy of Mary’s conception with a grand fiesta involving plenty of gaily dressed noblemen, the sacrifice of a handful of bulls, a few dead horses, the odd gored human, a bullfighting dwarf and some very tall Africans. That is the world in which the protagonists of this story learnt to think and live.



Monsignor Quixote – Graham Greene

A vine is alive like a flower or a bird. It is not something made by man – man can only help it to live – or to die,’ he added with a deep melancholy, so that his face lost all expression. He had shut his face, as a man shuts a book which he finds he doesn’t wish to read.

An well meaning and unexpected promotion sends the humble Monsignor Quixote on a collision course with his Bishop, and he takes leave and drives across Spain in his old car ‘Rocinate’ with his good friend the ex-mayor, his Sancho Panza. Greene cleverly plays in this, re-writing the Cervantes classic, but at the same time acknowledging it within the story, the referring to the original Quixote as the Monsignor’s ancestor throughout was a playful touch, particularly as it enrages the antagonistic Bishop.

As the Monsignor and the Communist ex-mayor road trip across Spain, protected almost in equal parts by Quixote’s innocence and naivety and the Panza’s more practical and worldly nous, they explore each other’s beliefs, gently probing and teasing, with the tacit understanding of the fundamental differences between their two ideologies. What draws them closer, apart from the endless supply of manchegan wine, is the doubts they both share in the infallibility of what they hold dear. Quixote suffers terribly, in the way that Greene’s protagonists seem to do, with his own inadequacies, both in the church, and in life, as his travels expand his horizons well beyond El Toboso. Later, when he aids the thief, it is almost with a bewildered, cheeky delight that he tells Sancho.

Despite the intimate conversations between the two friends, Monsignor Quixote is shot through with dry humour, the moment when Quixote discovers his steak is horsemeat is a brilliant example of the simple humour that Greene wields so effectively

He explained the situation in which he had found the bishop.
‘But the steak ..’ Teresa said.
‘What about the steak?’
‘You can’t give the Bishop horsemeat.’
‘My steak is horsemeat?’
‘It always has been. How can I give you beef with the money you allow me?’

There are still touching moments between Quixote and Sancho, as they grow their friendship by gently pushing back the boundaries of their faiths, until they have small patches of common ground, meanwhile the Bishop and Father Herrera lightly scheme in the background, impotently outraged at Quixote’s promotion to Monsignor.

Despite being hauled back to El Toboso, Quixote once again hits the road in Rocinate, with Sancho faithfully by his side, but his horizons are expanded too far, and the innate sense of what is right and just, and how the church should act and be treated is tested and he perhaps becomes the Monsignor he was all along.

As my Green collection grows I find I am loving the sheer readability of his novels, particularly the comedies, that produce genuine laugh’s, while at the same time containing poignant pictures of life. Yet, despite the surface simplicity, Greene always seem to paint a bright picture that delights and amuses.

‘Dreaming or delirium?’ Father Leopoldo wondered.
Sancho said, ‘I seem to remember …’
‘You have no right to burn my books, Excellency. The sword, I beg you, not death by pin stabs.’
There was a short period of silence, then, ‘A fart,’ Father Quixote said, ‘can be musical.’
‘I fear,’ Father Leopoldo whispered, ‘that he is in a worse state than the doctor told us.’

The Carpenters Pencil [Manuel Rivas]

As she made her way towards the house she felt the trees in blossom were scrutinising her as well, next to the path of white pebbles.  As if the camellias were giving each other a nudge and the Chinese magnolias were whispering gently

Completing my Spanish themed quartet, The Carpenters Pencil took me back to where I started with Jason’Webster’s Guerra, the Spanish civil war.

Herbal recounts the early months of the war, when his life seemed inextricably linked to that of Dr Daniel da Barca, an inmate at a prison in Santiago de Compostela.  While fiddling with a carpenters pencil he kept after shooting it’s owner, Herbal tells a tale of two men, of the war, and through both of them, a beautiful love story that saves one of the men, while dragging the other in it’s slipstream.

Although a relatively short novel, there is so much that is conveyed by what Rivas doesn’t write.  Somehow he fully evokes the brutality of the civil war, in the background, while the spotlight of his poetic prose shines on Herbal and da Barca, yet illuminating the stubborn, unconquerable love of the doctor and Marisa Mallo.

While imprisoned the doctor survives the firing squads while Marisa asks her powerful grand father, on the opposite side to her lover, for help.  And all the while Herbal is in the background, sometimes watching, sometimes intervening, without always understanding why.  Indeed, it is the conflict within him, as well as the fierce devotion of Mother Izarne and the thoughtfulness of Sergeant Garcia, that show how people and their actions make wars more complex than the simple division between one side and another.

For all the majesty of the love story, it is just as much Herbal’s story, the ex Franco soldier, who recounts the tale to try and understand his relationship with the doctor, and perhaps his own life, and as he gives the carpenters pencil to Maria de Visitacao, he draws the final line under his past.

The two of them fell silent, drawn by the sun setting on the stage. It slid behind Mont San Pedro on it’s way to a quay of exile.  On the other side of the bay, the first watercolours from the lighthouse intensified the sea’s ballad.

The New Spaniards [John Hooper]

So I am wading through the thousand paged, unabridged classic, The Tale of Genji, but as it’s way to big to fit in my bag for work, I slipped in The New Spaniards by John Hooper to transport me away from my tube seat (when I’m lucky enough to get one).

Covering Spain’s most recent history and the breakneck pace at which it has, and continues to change, Hooper’s depth of knowledge and research is immense, yet the book flows along and is never bogged down by facts and figures, and through it you get a clearer picture of a country that must barely recognise itself sometimes.

From post Franco politics, the waning influence of the church, the strengths of the family and regional identity, royalty and the army to welfare, education, an absolute lack of ballet, law and the love of radio, all these are focused on as Hooper lifts the lid on the average Spaniard, their championing of the individual, propensity of easy money over hard slog, a fierce love and loyalty to their family over and above everything else along with their drive to embrace modernity as Spain moves forward.

There are a number of factors that will influence Spain’s future, not in the least the pull of the strong regional identities while the army sits in the middle waving the 1978 constitution, in which it is entrusted with the defence of Spain’s territorial integrity (and which one General has already alluded to, although he was quickly removed).  Yet as the immigrants pour in, and start to slowly reverse the decline in birth rates, Spain is becoming a more tolerant society, yet without losing it’s renowned Passion, and Hooper easily articulates how and why this is happening.

In much of South Amercia, gallego is synonymous with ‘Spaniard’.  Perhaps the most contemporary descendant of Galician immigrants is Fidel Castro, whose surname derives from the Galician word for a Celtic hill-fort.