Emilio Calderon’s first book for adults – The Creator’s Map – (after a succession of successful children’s books) is an espionage story with too strong a romantic twist for my liking, but it’s worth it for the sake of the main point: there is no room for bystanders when it comes to politics.
Set in Rome in the 1930s/40s, Calderon introduces the world to José and Montserrat, two young, academically-minded Spaniards who have had no real interest in the civil war that has been tearing their homeland apart. They side with neither Franco’s forces nor the Republicans, but if pushed would probably naively lean towards Franco with his more “traditional” values and his supposed support of the Catholic Church which, they are assured, will prevent Spain from going Communist. They are both blindly uncommitted politically though they have suspicions that all is not well.
As time goes by José becomes enamoured with Montserrat who remains cool and aloof and perhaps slightly attracted to Prince Junio, a supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. Through Junio the two are unwittingly dragged into espionage against the Fascists (or in support of them?) not knowing who they can trust and surrounded by people who begin to get bumped off. In their naivety they are played by everyone, even the Vatican Secret Service.
Bit by bit José and Montserrat become aware that all in not well in Europe and that fault lies with the spreading Fascist movement swallowing up the continent. They see where Nazism and Fascism are leading and their political commitment is born and intensifies, attracting danger and discovery, but also deepening their passion for each other, although Prince Junio seems to want to make things into a bit of a threesome. Where Junio fits in is a bit of a mystery to the end when he is exposed as a shallow opportunist.
The story’s strength for me is in its depiction of how people who leave politics to politicians make room for ruthless dictators and only realise what they have allowed to happen after the fact. Once the politicians have exceeded their legitimate role and limits the only way back to sanity is by the heroic commitment of ordinary people.
But why let things go that far? Why let Hitlers and Mussolinis and Francos get the upper hand? It’s only when every ordinary citizen becomes politically alert, involved and commited that disasters like the rise of Nazism and Fascism can have a chance of being avoided.
A great read, even if a bit girly in places (though not overly so), but then José and Montserrat are hopeless romantics.
A comparable story might be found in Antonio Tabucchi’s “Declares Pereira” set in 1930s Portugal, where a man who eschews politics, and unlikely hero, is galvanised into action.