Home > 2010, 21st Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, Crime Fiction, Del Árbol Víctor, Polar, Spanish Literature > Spanish Lit Month: The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol

Spanish Lit Month: The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol

The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol (2011) Original Spanish title: La tristeza del Samurái French title: La tristesse du Samouraï. Translated by Claude Bleton.

Peu d’êtres humains supportent leur propre regard, car les miroirs déclenchent un phénomène curieux : vous regardez ce que vous voyez, mais si vous traversez la surface, vous avez l’impression désagréable que c’est le reflet qui vous regarde avec insolence. Il vous demande qui vous êtes. Comme si l’étranger, c’était vous, pas lui.

Few human beings can stand their own reflection because something strange happens in front of the mirror: You are looking at what you see, but if you dig a little deeper, beyond the surface, you are overcome by an uncomfortable feeling that it is the reflection that is looking at you insolently. You ask yourself who you are. As if you, and not the reflection, were the stranger.

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem.

In the prologue of The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol, we’re in 1981, in a hospital room in Barcelona where María is dying. She’s also under police protection and she’s about to write everything she knows about an investigation and crimes she was involved in.

Flash back to 1941. We’re in Mérida, Spain, not far from the Portuguese border of the Alentejo region. Isabel Mola is at the train station with her younger son Andrés. She’s fleeing Spain leaving her husband Guillermo and her nineteen years old son Fernando behind. Andrés’s tutor, Marcelo Alcalá has property in Portugal where she intends to hide until she can immigrate to England. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is finished and the aftermath is called the Blue Terror, a period of elimination of political opposition. Guillermo Mola has a high-ranking position in the Falange and has a lot of power in the Mérida region. Isabel Mola had an affair with a man from the opposition and this someone just betrayed her. He came to take her son back to his father and to make her disappear. Guillermo’s second in command, Publio, is the one who organizes Isabel’s murder and frames Marcelo Alcalá for it. Isabel’s affair and its consequences will set the future of the Molas, the Alcalás and her lover’s family.

María, the dying woman, is a lawyer and in 1976, she was the defense attorney of a client who had been tortured and beaten up by a policeman, César Alcalá, Marcelo’s son. He was investigating Publio’s shady past when his daughter Marta was kidnapped.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot because it’s hard to write about this book without spoilers.

The Sadness of the Samurai is well-constructed. We go back and forth between 1941 and 1980/1981. Isabel Mola’s death will set a lot of events into motion, especially after Marcelo Alcalá is condemned to death penalty for it. When María sends César Alcalá in prison decades later, she doesn’t realize that she’s just opened a can of worms that are forty-years old, well-alive and venomous. Isabel Mola’s betrayal and murder will resurface. In the young Spanish democracy, former Franco officials like Publio managed to find a place in the new regime. We see the same phenomenon in Balzac’s novels after the fall of Napoléon. It doesn’t mean that Publio and his crowd changed their methods: murder, violence and torture are the common tools of dictatorships. They mastered in them, why abandon them? And in 1980, when María puts her nose in this story, nothing was solved, nothing was investigated and the crimes from the past were swiftly put under the carpets of the brand-new democracy. And this young democracy will be tested during the coup d’état attempt on 23 February 1981.

The personal history of the characters is a web of connections, of betrayals and secrets. In 1980, three generations cohabit. The older generation, the one who was active during the Civil War and who is responsible for the conduct of the war and its subsequent terror. The Fascists won, a dictatorship of forty years started. The winners got the power, the losers were hunted and went in hiding. This generation is represented by Guillermo Mola, Publio, Marcelo Alcalá, Isabel Mola and her lover.

The children of this generation, the ones who were born in the 1930s is a sacrificed generation. Their childhood was tainted by war and its consequences. They suffered from hunger, they witnessed the violence and knew which side the adults were. They lived most of their lives in a dictatorship and were already middle-aged when democracy was instaured. This generation is represented by Fernando Mola (1923), Andrés Mola (1931) and César Alcalá (1933).

The third generation is the baby-boomers. They grew up under Franco but where young when he died.  María belongs to this generation and she doesn’t know anything about her parents’ past. What they did during the Civil War is not discussed.

Víctor del Árbol shows the fragility of the democracy but also a country that never healed their wounds. There’s a lot of unsaid between the generations and the events of the Civil War were not clearly acknowledged. The wounds festered. Hatred is a predominant feeling in this novel. Hatred and resentment against people who murdered a mother, who managed to keep up appearances and remained in power despite being the mastermind behind a lot of crimes.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by this side of the story. I was not convinced by this violent hatred that burnt so bright for forty years. Is it possible to keep it so strong all those years? Does it not fade a bit because one must live their life and it costs too much sterile energy to keep hating those who wronged you? It doesn’t mean that people forget but to be motivated by hatred the way these characters are was not totally plausible to me. A powerful sense of justice, a need to have the criminals convicted, yes, I would have understood that but blind hatred? I

It’s a minor flaw, though and not one big enough to stay away from The Sadness of the Samurai. Víctor del Árbol does paint a convincing portray of Spain and according to his speech at Quais du Polar, showing how many issues still need to be addressed in Spain regarding Franco’s time is a significant part of his writing. He was born in Barcelona in 1968 and he said that when he was a child, people threatened unruly children by saying that the Republicans would come and take them if they weren’t quiet. Isn’t that incredible that people still said that in the early 1970s?

This is the second crime fiction novel I’ve read that mentions the coup d’état attempt of February 1981. The first time was in A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. This is a major event in Spain’s recent history and as often, reading pushed me to dig further and learn new things.

Good news, contrary to One-Way Journey by Carlos SalemThe Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol is available in English!

This is my third contribution to Stu and Richard’s Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month.

 

 

  1. August 11, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    As you know, I got this at the same time as you but haven’t read it yet. Won’t have time this summer, but look forward to opening it in autumn. I am fascinated by that period of Spanish history. And you know, looking at Yugoslavia and former Soviet republics, it seems that hatred and thoughts of revenge can subsist for a long time…

    Like

    • August 12, 2017 at 1:12 pm

      I’ll be very interested in your thoughts on this one.

      I understand the thoughts of revenge and hatred on the back burner that never goes away but not one that prevents you from living or doing something positive for yourself. Your enemies win twice if you let it consume you.

      Of course, that’s very easy to think when like me, you’ve always had a very sheltered life.

      Like

      • August 13, 2017 at 2:25 pm

        I couldn’t agree more, but sadly there are plenty of cases when people let the past consume them…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. August 11, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    From the things I’ve read, yes, I’m convinced that blind hatred existed for so many years.

    Like

    • August 12, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      I guess I’m too naïve and that Víctor del Árbol knows better than me. He must have seen a lot in his days in the police force.

      Like

  3. Desiree B. Silvage
    August 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Reblogged this on LITERARY TRUCE.

    Like

    • August 12, 2017 at 1:22 pm

      Thanks for reblogging it.

      Like

  4. August 12, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    I’ve just read Lydie Salvyre’s Cry, Mother Spain which is about her mother’s memories of the Civil War in Spain (the family fled to France where Salvayre was born) so this period also interests me.
    Have you read Javier Cercas’ The Anatomy of Moment which is all about 1981?

    Like

    • August 12, 2017 at 6:33 pm

      I have your review of Cry, Mother Spain in my inbox. I remember when the book was released in France, I thought it should be interesting.
      I have never read Cercas (yet) Spanish literature was not really on my radar until a few years ago. I don’t know why.

      Like

  5. August 31, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Sadly I can believe hate can last that long too. I’m pretty flush with beach and transport books presently so I don’t think this will make my personal list. Interesting though. Spanish literature’s been off my radar too but clearly wrongly so.

    Like

    • September 2, 2017 at 8:21 am

      It’s good to have a stock of Beach & Public Transport books. We both have a demanding job and sometimes we can only read easy books.
      I feel the same way about Spanish lit. There’s a lot to discover there and I don’t know why I know so little about it.

      Like

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