SEMANA SANTA by David Hewson

4 05 2011

I had read books set in many different countries, but nothing set in Spain – at least not later than the year 1400! Who better to ask than my colleagues at Medieval Mysteries, James Munro and M.B.Gilbride, both of whom have lived and worked in Spain and are well-known Hispanophiles.

JM came up with David Hewson’s Semana Santa, which is set in the southern city of Seville during Holy Week. That David Hewson, I wondered, the author of the Nic Costa series set in Italy? Yes, that’s right. This is an earlier work, bur brilliant, unforgettable.

MBG recommended The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson. Another set in Seville, and again it takes place during Semana Santa, Holy Week.

I have now read and enjoyed them both, but I’ll leave Robert Wilson’s book for another post.

Two women dominate Semana Santa, one in the background, one very much in the foreground.

In the background is Caterina Lucena, Doña Caterina, an aristocratic old survivor of the Civil War, during which every member of her family was killed by Franco’s thugs and only she somehow escaped. (I will not tell you how.) She lives alone, in poverty, in the delapidated family mansion, dreaming of the past, and keeping the wolf from the door by letting some rooms to two artists, twin brothers notorious throughout Europe for their way of life.

A foul smell in the building forces her to call the plumber. The plumber calls the police. The artist brothers have been lying dead in their apartment for two weeks, ritually murdered by the look of it in some kind of imitation of a bull-fight.

Enter the other woman, Maria Gutierrez, who, despite being clearly the protagonist (there is no other) remains in a sense an outsider, an observer (though far from detached) throughout the book.

Maria is a widow in her early thirties, a university professor from Salamanca, in the north of Spain, where she lives in a tower block, “bright, clean, antiseptic. The tower blocks are the precise number of feet distant from their neighbours specified by the city authorities. […] Rubbish collections do not occur at three in the morning. Singing, all-night parties, and loud family rows are discouraged. No one knows each other: they get up in the morning, go to work, come home, go to bed. […] In the north, emotions know their place. Below the surface, below stairs, where they cannot touch you.

In the south it is different.”

Indeed it is, but she only comes to Andalusia, to the crowds and the heat and the passion, to carry out an academic research project on the working methods of the police. And to escape from the death of her husband.

But finds herself inexorably caught up in a Holy Week like no other, even for the locals – including the local CID, a motley array of characters who see her as a cold (probably frigid) busybody from the north and refer to her as the Ice Queen. But she is far, very far, from being that, as they slowly discover.

An aside here. I must say I find this constant contrast between the North and the South intriguing. It is so relative. Certainly in the south of Spain they find the people of the north of Spain cold and unemotional, just as they do in Italy, I suppose. And in India, I know, there is a marked difference. But then India is enormous, the equivalent not of Spain but of Europe. To someone from Britain or Scandinavia or Germany, the people of the whole of Spain are passionate and no doubt disorganised and unreliable southerners, while to the people of the whole of Spain, the English and the Germans are, well, cold is the least of it. No, in my view, Northern and Southern stereotypes, like national and racial stereotypes, are too facile and too deceptive (like statistics!) to be of any real use to a novelist trying set a scene or define a character. 

But back to our (relative) northerner in the south of Spain. The very macho Andalusian detectives include Rodriguez, the captain, much admired and looked-up-to by his own men; Menendez, the lieutenant, his cultured second-in-command (who, being somewhat less one-of-the-boys is not so much admired or liked); Torrillo, the Bear; and Quemada, the male chauvinist who makes Maria’s life a misery, at least at first. But Maria, it transpires, spent three years in Seville as a student, and is familiar with aspects of the city the police know nothing of.

She is also the only person old Doña Caterina, now on her death bed, will talk to about what lies behind these killings, what really happened at La Soledad, the local death camp, during the Civil War.

A fantastic story (thanks, Jim!) and one to make the reader long to visit the place, see for herself. I shall – though perhaps not during Semana Santa!

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13 05 2011
THE BLIND MAN OF SEVILLE by Robert Wilson « Kanti Burns, Book Reviews and more

[…] this other book set in modern Seville (see my recent review of Semana Santa) there is no one character I find it easy to identify with, so I enjoyed it less than Semana Santa, […]

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