While book lovers all over the Internet are comparing modern times to George Orwell’s 1984, I was compelled to reread 2009’s The Return by Victoria Hislop. It’s a novel about Englishwoman Sonia, who is drawn to a cafe in Grenada, Spain. Through that, she learns much about herself and about Spain’s Civil War.
Sonia, our modern-day protagonist, leaves her stuffed-shirt husband at home to celebrate her best friend’s birthday in Spain for a few days. They book salsa classes in advance of the trip but Sonia is also drawn to flamenco. She is enraptured by some old flamenco posters at a cafe she happens upon. Miguel, the elderly cafe owner, takes a liking to Sonia, and she to him. Dance and the cafe become central to her visit. In the course of the novel it all ties together, even Miguel’s youthful involvement.
Sweet, knowledgeable Miguel tells her the story of the family that owned the cafe. The Ramirez family: Concha and Pablo, their daughter and three sons. Each suffers differently through the 1930s Fascist takeover of their country. The book opens showing Grenada in a rosy light, all plazas and music and dancing. Freedoms are stripped away, discrimination against gypsies and gays becomes institutionalized, flamenco goes underground. Teachers and intellectuals are arrested. Food becomes scarce.
The three Ramirez sons are young adults as the story begins. Daughter Mercedes is a teen. Their parents are devoted to each other, to their family and to the business that supports them all. In that order, I suspect. They are free thinkers, each a well-rounded person in the book.
Family members turn on each other – or show superhuman heroism. The Fascists, aided by Germany and Italy, bomb, murder and imprison the populace. Your basic World War II atrocities.
I appreciated that Hislop made each family member a full, unique character. It made their sacrifices more personal. They fought for all kinds of freedom: national, artistic and individual.
We follow a couple of characters as they become refugees, having fled wartime Granada for a chance at survival. It’s not an easy existence.
I will reread Owell’s 1984 again someday. It’s interesting that he himself fought Franco’s Fascists in Spain as a younger man. Full circle indeed.
The Return is also a cautionary tale. Uber-nationalism, defining a culture in restrictively narrow terms, is dangerous. Destroying people for being different from the proscribed norm is hideous. We would do well to think of the fictitious Ramirez family and their travails.
Rereading this book also strengthened my determination to someday travel through Spain.