July 15, 2009 / 12:45 PM / 10 years ago

Book talk: Spain inspires novelist Rabb to complete trilogy

GIJON, Spain (Reuters Life!) - U.S. novelist Jonathan Rabb chose the Spanish Civil War to round off a trilogy of novels in which the turbulent interwar years of the 20th century have buffeted Berlin detective Nikolai Hoffner.

Rabb’s new novel does not have a title yet as he only delivered the manuscript to his publisher two weeks ago, but the plot is well defined.

In this novel, Hoffner arrives in Barcelona in 1936, shortly after a military uprising against the Spanish government. He makes his way over two weeks to Badajoz in western Spain and realizes that an all-out and bloody civil war is under way.

The first novel in the series, “Rosa,” Hoffner investigates the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg in 1919, whose body did not turn up until four months after her murder.

In the second book, “Light and Shadow,” Hoffner teams up with legendary film director Fritz Lang to investigate a murder which delves into a Berlin where talking films are revolutionizing entertainment but Hitler’s brownshirts are also making inroads.

Rabb spoke to Reuters about his forthcoming novel on the sidelines of the annual Semana Negra book festival in northern Spain.

Q: You decided to set the third volume of your trilogy in Spain at the beginning of the Civil War. Why?

A: I needed to take Hoffner out of Berlin. It’s 1936, he’s a half Jew, it’s a year after the (racist) Nuremburg laws have gone into effect. He no longer fits into Berlin. This is a man who was 45 in 1919, he’s now 63.

I needed him to still be commenting on what is going on in that period. Spain at that moment is perfect, because the same topics and tensions he’s been grappling with for the last 15 years in Berlin are now playing themselves out in Spain.

Plus at the very beginning of the War, the influence of the Germans, the Nazis, and the Fascists on the (Spanish) Nationalists, is enormous and at the time, it was really secret.

For me, the most fun always in writing fiction is what the characters don’t know at the moment, so there’s an intimacy between the readers and writer, as we know.

Q: Can you remind us just what were the tensions that were playing out in Spain at that time?

A: The rising specter of Fascism, the way the Fascists are beginning to use violence in a way that Europe had not really seen.

In Berlin between 1919 and 1936 there’s been a feeling that from every corner of the political spectrum, people can grasp for power. Hoffner has been watching those tensions and in Spain they are now (in 1936) ripping the country apart.

Q: It’s become a full-blown civil war.

A: But it’s still the first two weeks. You’ve got to realize that I sent him (Hoffner) to Barcelona on August 1, 1936. Barcelona then was a party. The Anarchists have won, they think they have pushed back the (military) rebellion.

Q: Do you then subscribe to the view that the Spanish Civil War was a dress rehearsal for World War II?

A: Some of the main players of WWII were already in Spain in those first weeks, the Russians, the English, the French, and obviously the Germans and the Italians, but honestly I don’t think any of those countries were ready for a full-fledged war.

I don’t think it’s a dress rehearsal, I think they’re just trying to contain it, test certain things out. It’s really the Italians, Germans and Russians playing a game, within Spain.

Q: How is a book about the Spanish Civil War going to go down in the United States? How familiar are Americans with the topic?

A: For the most they know about it through (Ernest) Hemingway’s very stark brutal prose, which yet romanticizes it. They don’t know (George) Orwell, they don’t know (Arthur) Koestler, who wrote some devastating but wonderful pieces.

I don’t think as a writer you can write because “I want them to know.” You write what your passion (is), you write what you need to write and for me this is a story I needed to tell, and if it sparks people to investigate something, well good.

Look at “The da Vinci Code.” It got people reading about da Vinci. That’s fantastic. It gets people thinking, ‘That’s a moment I need to know about,’ and if I can convey that through narrative fiction, well, we’ll see.

Reporting by Martin Roberts, editing by Paul Casciato

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