Cristina Sánchez-Andrade is a prize-winning author from Spain, and in this intriguing novel she explores the haunting secrets that derive from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). If what I read in Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain (see my review) is right, this makes her writing brave, because there has been a ‘pact of forgetting’ about the Civil War within Spain, with a consensus that outlasted Franco‘s death in 1975 that the past was better left alone.
Two sisters who fled the violence as children, return as adults to the village of Tierra de Chá in Galicia. It is the 1950s but the villagers are still living a traditional lifestyle, raising chickens, milking cows, and harvesting turnip-greens. Electricity and plumbing is on the way, but nobody sees the need for a telephone. After years of teaching the children without interference, Uncle Rosendo is studying for a compulsory exam to get a newly-required qualification and the priest, Don Manuel is still in competition with superstition and gossip. But until the arrival of sisters the gossip has not included talking about the past… they are called the Winterlings (Las Inviernas) because they bring the chill wind of truth with them.
In a wry, detached style of writing, Sánchez-Andrade fills in the sisters’ back story, always stopping short of revealing their secret.
In the darkness of their bedroom, in their little iron beds, the Winterlings let themselves speak of their secret.
A voice (or is it the wind?) scratches away at the silence.
And the other replies:
‘That day, do you think…’
‘Do you think we did the right thing?’
‘We did what we had to do, Dolores.’
And then after a while:
Saladine lights the oil lamp. She stretches an arm towards the other bed and takes her sister’s hand.
‘What, Dolores, tell me…’
Her skin gives off waves of heat, the light, the beating of their hearts, and the touching of flesh soothes the women. Dolores’ answer lurks in the darkness.
There is an unforgettable scene in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, where Pilar tells Robert Jordan about the atrocity in her village. The villagers round up the local fascists in the church and then release them one-by-one to walk between two lines of jeering village men to the cliff face and their deaths. Spanish readers, for whom the Civil War is recent history in the same way that WW2 is the war our fathers and grandfathers fought in, will read this scene with some idea of what it might mean. Is what these sisters have done some sort of crime that anyone might commit, or is it something to do with the reason they fled? And what is the reason for the silence about what happened to their grandfather?
But readers can also see the cruel absurdity of this war and its long-hidden atrocities in Sánchez-Andrade’s portrayal of unsophisticated village politics:
They were times of lies and confusion. One day was white, and the next was black. One day, the villagers got up as supporters of the Left, and the next, without any scruples at all, they belonged to the Right. One day a few of them banned the priests from accompanying the dead to the cemetery, and the next day, the very same people would declaim with fervour to the other that if it didn’t rain in Tierra de Chá, or if a frost settled on the cabbages, it was because nobody prayed and God was upset. And so they’d get to praying. (p.20)
Sánchez-Andrade, is not, however, a cynic. The dry retelling of village naïveté also reveals the terrible suffering:
People said that if the Popular Front won, the rich folks would have to share their wealth. The poor folks liked the sound of this. But once the war started, there was no sharing out of anything; instead hunger and fear became routine.
In people’s homes, anything that could be added to the bread dough that wasn’t poisonous was added: straw, wood chips, toads, and stones. The village was dying of hunger; no one had anything to eat, and even still, people complained about the bread and how hard it was. Folks lost a lot of teeth trying to chew on it. The Winterlings remembered that sensation too; they’d forgotten many people’s faces, but they remembered the bitter taste of bread. (p.21)
The sisters have been in England, so they have a level of sophistication that is out of place in Tierra de Chá, and one day, Dolores (the pretty one) discovers that Ava Gardner is coming to Spain to make a film and that there are opportunities for doubles to shoot the scenes that she doesn’t want to do (i.e. the nude scenes). Having come back to Tierra de Chá for a quiet life (and to stay under the radar), Dolores now wants to resume what she thinks is her acting career. (She had had a bit part in a British documentary about refugee children from the Spanish Civil War). Saladina (the ugly one) is not just jealous, she is also uneasy about Dolores leaving what she thinks is the safety of the village.
Peopled with idiosyncratic characters, and written with sly but generous humour, The Winterlings keeps its secrets to the last pages.
That compelling cover design is by Jenny Grigg. I like the sense of strength and determination captured in the movement of the women.
Title: The Winterlings (Las Inviernas)
Translated by Samuel Rutter
Publisher: Scribe, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Scribe
Available from Fishpond: The Winterlings