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Book Review : Treachery, Pain in Revolutionary Spain

December 13, 1985|MORTON KAMINS | Kamins is a free-lance writer and critic who has lived in Spain and is working on a historical novel set in that land. and

The Spanish Gambit by Stephen Hunter (Crown: $15.95)

Spain, 1937: Robert Florry, an English journalist, has been blackmailed by MI-6 into seeking out, amid the blood and chaos of civil war, an old schoolmate now suspected of being a Soviet spy. His mission: Kill Julian Raynes.

We have here a "genre" novel--the espionage thriller--and the two questions on everyone's mind are, of course: (1) Is the book a successful example of its genre? and (2) Does it transcend its genre? The answers are yes, and no.

Hunter does write well--none of those Ludlum-like lead-footed locutions here. He resists the temptation to cram too much history into his tightly plotted and fast-paced narrative, choosing to run the risk that a reader may occasionally forget who's who among those contending left-wing factions uneasily joined together under the Loyalist banner.

He has created Florry, a fine protagonist, partly out of flotsam from George Orwell's life--an Eton grad, a former Burmese policeman, a journalist wounded fighting in Spain--and sent him out to navigate through perilous battlefields of love and perfidy. Raynes, meanwhile, is less convincing, a type: the effete, upper-class British '30s aesthete.

Hunter excels most, I think, in his vibrant portrayal of revolutionary Barcelona in 1937. The fireworks, parades, explosions--all the manic perfervid energy of that unique time and place--live for us as only good writing can make it live. If the picture is historically incomplete (no hint of the 1937 food shortage or the increased war-weariness of the population), few readers will care.

Very fine, too, is the pervasive atmosphere of treachery and betrayal, with Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists and other assorted revolutionaries having at each other with as much hatred as they had for the Fascists. But to portray the Communist Party in 1937 Spain as merely a repressive force, and the Loyalists as populated almost exclusively by naifs and their betrayers, is at best historically debatable.

The book goes truly wrong for me in precisely that area which the publisher, in the advance publicity, chooses to laud--a plot "as ingeniously calculated and as painstakingly executed as a championship game of chess," a tale riddled with many "astonishing twists and turns." Reader, those words are on the money; it's just that all those switchbacks and last-second miraculous escapes from the jaws of death finally leach the story of its life and strain to the breaking point one's semi-willing suspension of disbelief.

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