The Sadness of the Samurai
From time to time a book comes along that is staggeringly good, one that illuminates and informs readers on multiple levels, like Wolf Hall or Cold Mountain. Set in 20th-century Spain, The Sadness of the Samurai paints an unflinching picture of injustice and soul-searing evil, of passion and exquisite beauty. Using multiple viewpoints and two timeframes, Árbol begins his story in pro-Nazi Spain in 1941, where aristocrat Isabel Mola’s political execution sets in motion a sequence of events that swirls forward for three generations, to the late 1970s and early 1980s and to lawyer María Bengoechea, whose greed leads her to prosecute and send to prison César Alcalá, a man she knows in her heart is not guilty as charged—at least, not completely.
The character-driven plot wherein Isabel’s son persecutes César’s family – the wrong family – for his mother’s murder for forty years is complex, brutal, and heartbreaking. Evil walks through these pages, propelled by greed, love, and misunderstandings, which in a lesser writer’s hands could easily have gone awry. What seem to be coincidences abound in a story that at the end comes full circle. There are “aha” moments when connections are made. To say that María and Isabel’s stories come together in an almost familial way and that María eventually orchestrates César’s escape from prison and helps him find his kidnapped daughter is not, I think, giving away too much of this literary historical novel.
This is award-winning Spanish author Víctor del Árbol’s first novel translated into English, and I can only hope it will not be the last. As one character says, “The past is never forgotten; it’s never wiped clean.” Obviously, Árbol, who is a member of the Catalonian police force, knows whereof he speaks.