The title is taken from Federica García Lorca’s poem Canción de Jinete and the poet’s work permeates the novel as a motif and it is his unsolved murder which sparks off the plot of this thriller. However initially, there’s a sort of fug of too many characters: nationalist, internationalist and Spanish, blocking the story from freeflow.
There are longueurs and consecutive streams of minutiae such as page-long descriptions of rolling a cigarette. And, regarding a minor character a volunteer from Catalonia Josef Aixala, do we need to know that “the rows of buttons studding the breeches gave his calves the strange outline of an overgrown insect?”
Such writing is over-indulgent. However, it is worth persevering to the final third of the novel when emotions and tensions are ratcheted up as two detectives on opposing sides go in pursuit of the murderer of Lorca.
It is July 1937 when Martin von Bora, a German agent and detective is assigned to the nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. A lover of Lorca’s poetry, he is shocked when he discovers the body of the poet on an Aragonese mule track with a bullet wound in the back of his neck. Mystified, he proceeds to investigate.
The more he does so the more he begins to question his nationalist colleagues and suspects they have had a hand in the poet’s death. They were suspicious of Lorca’s possible republican sympathies, and as the poet was gay, other motives for his killing could have been attributed to homomphobia.
Parallelling this on the republican side is American volunteer and war veteran Philip Walton who had befriended Lorca when the poet visited New York in 1929. The two men were to meet the night the poet was murdered, and Walton too begins to probe for factual insights into the circumstances of the death of Lorca one should consult Ian Gibson’s monumental biography of the poet.
With their common goal, the inevitable meeting of Walton and Bora takes place and, despite their opposing ideologies, a strange chemistry evolves between them. They make love to the same woman: the strange Remedios who is reputed to have prophetic powers and is referred to locally as a bruja or witch.
Also with their mutual admiration of Lorca, both men begin to question the morality of war itself.
Bora says, quoting the poet:
Little black horse/where are you taking/your dead horseman
One feels however that there is sometimes a forced gravitas imposed by the author on the novel and not entirely earned with Bora, who also quotes from philosophers such as Kant, in his existential preoccupations written in random diary entries. Ben Pastor is the pen name of Maria Verbena Volpi. She was born in Italy and lived and lectured for many years in America.
Writing in English, she is capable of some wonderful lyrical descriptions in the novel particularly of the arid Spanish landscape and shows profound knowledge of historical and military matters pertaining to the Spanish Civil War. She is also gifted in being able to perceive the world in its sensuality through male eyes.
For example, when Bora is with Remedios and, fearing he is going to die, he finds “her waist, her hip, a curve like a snowdrift he could huddle against and be safe”.
What is unconvincing is, after his infatuation with Remedios for whom he would “scale mountains”, Bora will just up at the end and return to marry his little known German girlfriend Dikta on the basis of scant communication and only one letter received from her while he was away.