As soon as I heard about Mark Oldfield’s ‘The Sentinel’, I was desperate to get my hands on a copy. The subject is a personal favourite, 1950’s Spain and life under Franco – I could hardly wait. What makes the story special is that it is spread over two time periods, 1953 and present day, and a third small period set in Civil War Spain, which gave a smattering of clues along the way.
The 1953 storyline is superb. The cold misery of Madrid is ever present – it is icy and dark; the scene set is a perfect companion to lives filled with fear and desperation. One could not imagine the sun shining on Comandante Guzmán, the head of the Brigada Especial, assigned with the task of rounding up the last of dictator Franco’s enemies. The man is an exceptional character. No matter how cruel or apathetic he is, every moment is enjoyable. A series of characters surrounds Guzmán – all stupid, greedy and egocentric, but he has no trouble with being one step ahead of the lot of them. Guzmán is, no doubt, involved in a violent responsibility but seems constantly at ease with his life in the Brigada Especial. It has been a long time since a male character has felt so honest, realistic or enjoyable to read. It doesn’t matter if Guzmán is shooting ‘rojos’ that he has rounded up, belittling his subordinates, or threatening every man, woman and child who stumbles across his path, the reader feels on his side. There are no excuses made for Guzmán’s behaviour, no ‘extenuating circumstances’; he continues down a violent path and seems proud of himself. Franco and his minions count on Guzmán, and Guzmán is determined not to fail, and determined not to be killed in the process. Watch out for a memorable meeting between Guzmán and his mother. It was a scene that certainly stood out.
The story gives itself a totally different pace with the chapters based in present day Spain. Ana Mariá Galindez is a guardia civil forensic scientist, who stumbles across Guzmán while investigating the discovery of 15 bodies, murdered and dumped back in 1953. At first, Ana comes across as jaded; a woman in a man’s world in every respect. She is intelligent and independent, and seems like a character that a reader could sit down and enjoy. Ana has a past, no fault of her own, but it has scarred her in a way that she seems permanently cynical. Ana’s romantic relationships with other women are all sustained by her professional life – these women are intertwined in her search for Guzmán and his 1953 disappearance. She has a penchant for picking terrible lovers; the women are annoying and weak at best. Ana’s redeeming feature is that she believes people like Guzmán are not a product of their situation, but rather that they have their own opinions, beliefs and evil machinations. She believes that Guzmán is merciless on his own, and not just a Franco puppet. Her chapters fly by at a rate that the reader can barely keep up with the timeline, with an ending that leaves the reader begging for the second instalment from the author.
At almost 600 pages, the book gives two thoughts: one that it is a book on Spain that could keep a reader going for weeks and another that they could face a wordy, overworked story packed with unnecessary fluff. Fears are unfounded. It is easy to sit down and read 100 pages without so much as glancing up from the pages. The swapping between the time periods could make a reader zip through Ana Mariá to get to more Guzmán. All the way through, the ending seems visible, and then more surprises rear their heads. The end can give a sense of feeling let down, but this was no fault of the author, but rather because it is easy to become invested in the outcomes for the characters, which rarely happens.
Ultimately, the story is different from expected. A fan of female lead characters could feel disappointed. Ana Mariá has all the attributes of a brilliant lead, but she seems stiff and cold to those around her. She lacks a soul, although the situations she finds herself in do not allow for sentiment. So much is at stake, even her life, but in the end, it may not be possible to worry about whether she lives or dies. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.
The Civil War chapters seem to have no purpose in the story, until near the end where the puzzle comes together, and it feels like a slap in the face – they are, in fact, valuable and insightful. As a Spanish Civil War fan or not, a reader should welcome any chapters on the subject, and in the end prove their worth and light up Guzmán’s life even more. They are fantastic treats and an astute way of recalling how Guzmán became the ‘hero of Badajoz’.
Guzmán is the star. He is undoubtedly malicious, spiteful, selfish and calculating, but not heartless if it suits him. No need for knowledge on the history of Spain to enjoy this book, but if a reader is educated on the subject, they will be delighted at the accuracy and the detail thoughtfully put in by the author. There should be high anticipation for the second ‘Vengeance of Memory’ novel. Thank you, Mark Oldfield, for bringing Franco’s Spain back to life.