Caudillo de España por la gracia de Dios. Francisco Franco, by the Grace of God, the Leader of Spain, instilled his authoritarian dictatorship from 1936 until his death on November 20th, 1975. Generalissimo, or El Jefe, led his rebel Nationalists against the democratically elected Spanish Republic to victory in 1939. “Atrocities were committed by both sides in the war.…Tens of thousands of civilians were killed for their political or religious views…” (Spanish Civil War)
Franco’s Spain is the background for Víctor del Árbol’s novel The Sadness of the Samurai, a thriller, a whodunit, a brutal history lesson, and the author’s rumination over the force and temptation of power in all its forms—militarily, politically, religiously, socially, morally, and emotionally. The principle “an eye for an eye” is spoken and inhaled by several of the key players, becoming all-consuming, while the “sins of the father,” or more accurately “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the third and fourth generation” (Deuteronomy 5:9), and here including mothers as well, is interpreted literally and expressed brutally.
The Sadness of the Samurai opens in May, 1981, a few weeks after supporters of the late dictator attempt a coup. Star lawyer, María Bengoechea, is dying in hospital after an unsuccessful surgery to remove a brain tumor. Inspector Marchán still hopes for her confession to a murder he’s convinced she committed. She regards her father who sits in the room—seeing or not seeing, understanding or not, María isn’t sure—a survivor after putting a gun in his mouth, the trigger pulled. After all that she has learned of him and his past, she regards him with a “mix of rage and compassion.”
The story jumps back to the end of 1941 when Isobel Mola is trying to escape her horror of a life. Over 388 pages the reader learns how María’s story is mixed up with Isobel’s, and it’s not an easy ride. The history is fascinating and the characters well-written. The macho-heavy males are narrow-minded, oppressive, and for me wearying, but then I remembered the culture and the time about which I was reading. María is a woman breaking the glass ceiling, becoming a successful lawyer in a time when Spanish men still preferred their wives to treat them like kings, even if it was with feigned adoration.
The sins of fathers and mothers during the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and afterwards are felt by their children and grandchildren: instilling—in different characters—paralysis, shock, hatred, cynicism, horror, a consuming need for revenge, and the belief in the righteousness of any behavior. The original perpetrators become the hunted, even while they forge ahead, addicted to power, willing to do anything to maintain it and attain more, ignoring that the ideals with which they began their crusade have long since disintegrated.
The Sadness of the Samurai is a disturbing story, a picture of a horrid slice in Spanish history, but the beliefs, behaviors, and justifications for atrocities committed or compassion expressed are universal, and worth remembering.
The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol (Henry Holt & Company, 2011) can be found at the Pasadena Public Library (Central, Hastings, and Linda Vista Branches), as well as South Pasadena Public Library, or can be ordered from Vroman’s.