Probably most of us know something about the Spanish Civil War: that it took place in the 1930s; that it was fought between the Republicans and General Franco's forces, and that Franco won; that lots of idealistic young people from other countries went to Spain to fight for the Republic; perhaps we know also that some of the atrocities that took place remained hidden for decades, and are still now only just coming to light.
But probably even these things we only know in a hazy sort of way. The conflict, after all, was contained in a country which only borders two others, Portugal and France; it's on the edge of Europe, almost surrounded by sea. All hell could be - and was - let loose there, and the rest of Europe could stick its fingers in its ears and turn the other way.
Some countries - Britain and France, for instance - did just that. Others used the conflict as a sort of practice ground for the much greater one to come. So the Germans trialled carpet bombing when they destroyed a small country town called Guernica with the Condor Squadron which they had put at the service of Franco; the Russians supported the Republicans - and spirited the huge Spanish gold reserves out of the country, promising to keep them very, very safe - and ruthlessly suppressed rival left wing factions. The cynicism of Russia and Germany as they pulled the strings of this war, despite all we already know of their actions in the conflagration to follow, are truly shocking.
The history is complicated, ugly and difficult to grasp. This book gives an excellent overview of the conflict by focusing on the lives of three couples - who all at one point meet up at Madrid's Hotel Florida. It's not a novel: the author tells us in her introduction that it's a reconstruction, firmly based on evidence.
Probably the most famous of the six individuals is Ernest Hemingway. I've never managed to get on with Hemingway's writing. I can read a page or two and admire the prose style - but there's something about the personality behind it which has never appealed to me. After reading this book, I can see why. In the mid thirties, he is a very successful writer - a celebrity. He has a wealthy wife, Pauline, and uses her money to enjoy a very privileged lifestyle. He's a hunter, a fan of bull-fighting, a drinker, a man's man. He's macho, arrogant and very ready to use his fists.
But his writing has gone stale, and he sees Spain as a worthy, pure cause. (Despite his lifestyle, he sees himself as a communist.) So he gets himself accredited as a war correspondent and heads for Madrid - with an ambitious, well-connected young journalist called Martha Gellhorn at his side. She has blonde hair and long legs; she's also determined and fearless. Like many others, she hero-worships Hemingway.
The second couple are Arturo Barea, the only Spaniard of the six, and Ilse Kulcsar. As the civil war begins, Arturo, caught between a wife and a mistress (neither of whom he loves) also sees the Republican cause as something pure, something to which he can devote himself, becomes a censor working with the foreign correspondents who have flocked to Madrid, trying to ensure they write a truth which will help the cause. Ilse is Austrian and began her political life as a youthful communist, which has got her into trouble with the government. Together with her husband, she starts a resistance cell which also includes Hugh Gaitskell, later to become a prominent Labour politician in Britain, the poet Stephen Spender - and a certain Kim Philby. She becomes disillusioned with the Party, and with her husband, and like many others, sees the Spanish Republican cause as one worth fighting for. In Madrid, she works alongside Arturo, and they fall in love.
But perhaps the most attractive and likeable couple are Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (above - the picture is from the book). Both names are pseudonyms. She was born Polish, he Hungarian; both are Jewish, both are very young, both are determined to become war photographers and both are wildly, quixotically brave.
Amanda Vaill takes her time, moving between the three couples, letting us get to know them. As we follow their progress, we learn about the progress of the war. We read about the horrors which each side inflicts on the other - and which sometimes, one side inflicts on its own followers. We feel the surge of hope when the International Brigades are formed, and the shock as it becomes clear that the Republican forces - the forces of the elected government - are facing defeat. And finally we are told the fate of the six.
It's a fascinating book: readable, moving, clear and informative. After reading it, I felt I had a much clearer idea of what happened - though I shall need to find a different book to explain to me what led up to it.
PS Yesterday I downloaded a book by Alan Furst, who writes about some of the murkier corners of the Second World War. It's called Midnight In Europe, and it's hero is a Spaniard living in Paris. A few pages in, there is a description of the Hotel Florida, where a character is staying. Don't you just love it when connections like that happen, apparently by accident?