Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review of The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor (2019, Bitter Lemon Press; 2003 Italian)

Spain, summer 1937. Martin Bora is twenty three, a lieutenant in the Spanish Foreign Legion sided with Generalissimo Franco’s nationalists, and a member of German intelligence. He’s based on the sierras of Aragon in a quiet sector, facing the republicans across a dry valley. Each day Bora wakes early and sneaks down to the river in the valley floor to wash. One morning he discovers the body of a man, shot in the back of the head. He’s curious as to the identity of the man and who murdered him. More so when it turns out to be Federico Garcia Lorca, a famous poet and playwright. On the opposite side of the valley, Philip Walton an American member of the international brigades is also curious about his friend’s death. Two outsiders, Bora and Walton circle each other trying to determine the truth, while negotiating simmering tensions of the civil war and sharing a lover.

The Horseman’s Song is the sixth book of the Martin Bora series to be translated into English (and the fourth in the original Italian series). It is the earliest in time, set in 1937 during the Spanish civil war. A young member of German intelligence, Bora has joined the Spanish Foreign Legion and after training in Morocco has been posted to the sierras of Aragon. There he takes command of a nationalist outpost on a quiet sector of the front, where a handful of men oppose each other across a valley. When Bora finds the body of a famous poet, Federico Garcia Lorca (who did disappear during the war) he decides to investigate, ruffling the feathers of his Spanish commander. An American member of the international brigade, and a friend of Lorca, is suspicious of Bora’s motives. The two men enter a battle of wits in the heat of the Spanish summer and civil war. It’s a slow moving affair (perhaps too slow at times), written in nice prose, with Pastor charting the lives of Bora and Walton, their politics and motivations, their relationships with their men, and with women, and Bora’s inquiry as he starts to come of age as an army officer and investigator. There’s strong character development and well developed sense of place and history. The plot is understated and realistic, avoiding melodrama and plot devices designed to create pace and tension. The result is a literary, atmospheric mystery.

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