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Richard Eder

A Conspiracy Novel From the New Spain : RED DOLL by Juan Luis Cebrian; translated by Philip W. Silver (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $15.95; 166 pp.)

December 06, 1987| Richard Eder

Fifteen years earlier, Juan Altamirano had been one of a group of young Madrid intellectuals who put out an irregularly tolerated independent journal and who were arrested from time to time by Franco's police.

"Now I am the police," he reflects in the novel "Red Doll," "with a chauffeur waiting downstairs, a red telephone for being important, planning betrayals for the national good." He is an adviser to the democratically elected prime minister, charged with keeping an eye on security matters of special political sensitivity. He is cynical and weary, and his designation by the press as the 13th most influential person in the government gives him both sardonic satisfaction and a pang of self-doubt.

Altamirano is the principal character in the novel, whose theme is the uneasy accommodation of democracy with the old Spanish passions. Its author, Juan Luis Cebrian, is the editor of Spain's leading newspaper, El Pais. He is a battle-scarred liberal and one of the architects of what, a dozen years after Franco's death, is still called the Democratic Transition.

This gives the bleak tone of "Red Doll" a significance it might otherwise not have. As a tale of conspiracy, political murder and an enigmatic love affair in a Graham Greene-like mode, it is thin, barely this side of awkward, and set back by a tinny translation. As a portrait of a still-unresolved national mood, it is more suggestive.

Its most remarkable depiction is of the troubled conscience among those who knew the exhilaration, along with the risks, of being the democratic opposition under a dictatorship. Now, in power, they find themselves using amoral and contorted methods to defend the new democracy against attack from extreme left and right.

Altamirano, whose marriage has worn down to the mutual infliction of unhappiness, begins a passionate affair with a young woman whom he nicknames Baltushka. He refuses to use her real name, Begona, one of the Spanish titles given to the Virgin Mary. Spain has too many "Our Lady of's," he maintains.

Altamirano's superiors show him reports, obtained through one of the more dubious intelligence services, claiming that Baltushka is a KGB agent. Along with the reports are a number of photographs showing the couple making love. No direct blackmail is exerted; but he reluctantly accepts an assignment to meet in Brussels with an emissary of the Basque terrorist group, the ETA.

A negotiation begins between Altamirano and the Basque. Before it gets very far, the emissary is murdered. The conspiratorial miasma is such that the murderers could variously be fellow-ETA members, a foreign intelligence service, right-wing agents in the Spanish police or military bent upon eliminating an ETA leader or, more complicatedly, upon preserving a state of bloodshed in Spain that could at some point lead to a military coup.

Altamirano agonizes over these uncertainties. At the same time, his affair with Baltushka is strained by the accusations, which he neither believes, nor entirely dismisses, nor communicates to her. In the portions of the narrative that the author assigns to Baltushka, we see that the charges are untrue, though she has links with the extreme left. At one point, fed up with Altamirano's twitchy self-absorption, she takes a trip to Cuba.

By the time she returns, Altamirano is dead. Again, it is not entirely certain whether the assassins were on the left or the right, though the latter is strongly suggested.

Baltushka is a touching but barely fleshed-out figure. Her narrative lacks autonomy; it seems to be little more than what a male character--or the male author--supposes such a person might think. Altamirano's superiors, evasive and pragmatic, are sketchy shadows. His meetings with the Basque emissary should be dramatic, but they are not, mainly because to Altamirano's closed-in sensibility, the other man is an abstraction.

Altamirano himself, occupying the major part of the story, is real only in his problems and compunctions. The book, in effect, is about his perception of the ominous state of affairs in Spain; one assumes that it is the author's as well.

The picture of confused forces working beneath the surface of the new democracy has real interest. The fact that they are not clearly seen, and that the book's major actions could be the work of any of a number of antagonistic groups, lends both authenticity and a sense of obscure menace.

Even more interesting is the protagonist's own difficulty with the new way things are managed in Spain. In part, of course, it is his declared disgust with the use of "dirty" methods by the democratic politicians. But there is an additional unease, as well.

In the days of the illegal opposition, in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon to hear Spaniards speculate, more or less in these words: "We shall miss Franco when he is gone." The sense of purpose, the sense of incurring a certain amount--not a lethal amount--of danger, the splendid cleanliness of a still-to-be-occupied future; all these were exhilarating and wonderfully free of any need for the burdens of accommodation.

Altamirano, the jaded democrat, feels betrayed by what in another society might be the normal grubbiness of everyday life and politics. If he represents the author's own disillusion, the reader may conclude that perhaps, in the most ironic of ways, Franco is not entirely gone.

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