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Most readers with at least a passing interest in 20th Century European history will be aware of the connection between the Soviet Union and Spain in the 1930s. But very few, aside from those who have made a special study of contemporary Spanish history, will remember much aside from Guernica and Homage to Catalonia. For these readers (and I am one of them), Víctor del Ábrol's monumental historical thriller A MILLION DROPS will be a revelation.
As the book opens in 2002, Gonzalo Gil, an unambitious lawyer whose wife is the daughter of the leading attorney in Barcelona, learns that his elder sister Laura, whom he adored when a boy but from whom he is now estranged, has killed herself, apparently after murdering the man she held responsible for the mob hit on her little son. Laura had been a police officer and was investigating mob activity; her little boy had presumably been killed in retaliation. Her police partner, Alcázar, believes that Laura's suicide was framed, that she was herself a murder victim. He wants to enlist Gonzalo in his attempt to prove Laura's innocence. It should be noted at the outset that Gonzalo and Laura are the children of an iconic figure on the Spanish left, Elías Gil, who died also a bit mysteriously in 1967.
Then del Ábrol shifts to Moscow in1933.The looming central figure of the narrative, Elías Gil, left Spain in that year to study engineering in the Soviet Union. Son of a miner, he'd been encouraged by his father to seek an education in the home of the revolution and, despite the suspicions of some of his more experienced fellow students, sees only progress and hope. But Stalin rules and the paranoia that marked his policies has already begun to set in. Within months, Elías and the other students are swept up in a raid, part of a program to relocate large numbers of people to Siberia to settle and develop it. Suddenly, they are ripped from their comfortable student quarters and shoved into cattle cars to travel north to Nazino Island. Here they and thousands of other innocents are dumped on an island in the middle of a river along with a load of flour and left to fend for themselves. Along the way, Elías makes a lifelong enemy of the gangster Igor Stern, by standing his ground against him and losing an eye in the process. He also falls in love with another prisoner, Irina, who has a little girl, Anna.
The events on Nazino are founded in historical fact, a story that was long suppressed, for obvious reasons. It is a record of unparalleled savagery that includes rape, murder, cannibalism, and the deaths of perhaps 4000 people and del Ábrol does it full justice. In escaping from it with his life, Elías is forced to recognize the moral depths to which he is willing to sink to preserve himself. It is a recognition that leads him not to abandon his alliance with the Soviets as one might expect, but to spend his whole life serving Soviet interests, especially those of the head of the Secret Police, the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria. In later chapters, we will see him back in Spain in the dying days of the Civil War where he is doing Beria's bidding, as a political refugee in a French concentration camp, as a NKVD agent at the Siege of Leningrad, where he interviews and sometimes shoots Spanish volunteers fighting on the German side. Ultimately, he returns to Spain, where he devotes himself to the anti-fascist cause. And, it must be admitted, to a few other things as well.
The chapters detailing Elías's life history alternate with those dealing with his son, set in Barcelona in 2002. Both histories detail the profound changes in self-knowledge that flow from being forced to acknowledge a radically different external reality from what had been hoped or merely unquestioned. Gonzalo to some degree replicates his father's course, but he comes to a vastly different conclusion.
This is a very long book as the epic sweep of its scope demands and far too long and too complex to do justice to in a short review. While the historic chapters, especially those describing Nazino, are inevitably more gripping than Gonzalo's struggles with his family relationships, the two narratives are closely linked and both grasp hold of the reader, who will be reluctant to put the book down for any but the most pressing of reasons. It is, moreover, a serious book, one which poses a hard and uncomfortable view of politics, history, and individual character.
It is being marketed as crime fiction, and there are the requisite murders and mysteries to justify the name. There are, as well, much larger crimes - the Stalinist atrocities represented by Nazino, the war crimes of the Civil War and the Second World War, the mob activities that Laura was investigating when she died. But it has a larger purpose and one of interest not only to Spanish readers, its initial audience. Few adults escaped the 20th century with their innocence intact and the prospects are not looking rosier for the 21st.
This book is being published at the beginning of the summer season. This may seem a curious choice since summer is the time we are supposed to relax, kick back, and read for amusement. Still, if you have some uninterrupted days to give yourself over to a serious yet thoroughly involving work of fiction, you should give A MILLION DROPS a place on your reading list.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2018
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