Wednesday, July 1, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
There’s a lot going on in Paco Land this week, so I didn’t have time to do a proper book review; however, here are a few, er, notes toward a book review (or four, actually) that may be of interest to fans of historical fiction.
Salvador de Madariaga was a Spanish historian, diplomat and liberal (the good, classical type) who fled Spain during the Civil War, adopting what was basically a “plague on both your houses” attitude. He authored a biography of Cortez (very good), a history of modern Spain, and numerous essays; however, it is his novel, The Heart of Jade, that, of all his works, most appeals to me. It is an epic story of Spain in the early years of exploration and conquest, and is centered on the adventures of the hero, Alonso Manrique, a young Spanish nobleman, and the parallel story of Xuchitl, a Mexican princess. The novel features an abundance of well-imagined fictional characters, plus many actual historical persons, including Colombus, Montezuma and Torquemada. Fast-paced and historically accurate, it is one of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction (it has been out of print for years, and may not be easy to find, but it is well worth the search).
R.F. Delderfield wrote two remarkable novels about the Napoleonic Wars – one, Seven Men of Gascony, dealing with the French side, and the other, Too Few for Drums, the British. The former takes us along with seven French soldiers from the early successes in Western Europe through the horrors of the Russian debacle, and back again to the fateful encounter at Waterloo. The latter, set in the Spanish peninsula, recounts the story of ten people – nine British soldiers and one woman – who find themselves cut off behind French lines, and who struggle against long odds to return to their compatriots. Both novels represent the very best in story-telling, and provide a unique window on a tumultuous period of European history.
Treasure of the Vanquished, by Bernard Reilly, a distinguished scholar of Islamic Spain, is the enthralling tale of the collapse of the Visigothic kingdom in 711 A.D. before the onslaught of the Moorish armies of Tariq ibn-Ziyad, for whom Gibraltar is named (Jabel Tariq: Rock of Tariq). The novel describes the desperate flight of bands of Visigothic warriors to a sliver of the far north of the Spanish peninsula and the establishment of a tiny Christian enclave from which the Reconquista was to begin its centuries-long march. Professor Reilly’s vast knowledge of the period is combined with admirable plotting and skillful characterization in a sweeping story of defeat, hope and defiance.
These are all great reads, that provide not only entertainment, but an education in some of the most dramatic periods of European history.