Juan Eslava Galan, , trans. from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. . Bantam, $12 (290pp) ISBN 978-0-553-38508-3
This light Spanish Civil War story follows the romantic and military misadventures of a perennially put-upon muleteer stuck fighting for a cause he doesn’t believe in. Juan Castro Pérez stumbles on a stray mule (he names her Valentina) and smuggles her into his army regiment; his plan is to bring her to his family once the war is over. Though Castro sympathizes with the nationalist forces, his region is solidly Communist and he’s forced to enlist on that side, where he, like many of his comrades, does his utmost to avoid combat and get back home; one of his more engaging exploits involves wooing a pensioner’s daughter. He eventually defects to the nationalists, and when Castro and Valentina inadvertently cross paths with a group of Communist soldiers, an unarmed Castro thinks he’s doomed until the soldiers order him at gunpoint to take them prisoner so they can survive the war. A journalist catches wind of the incident and twists the story into a morale-boosting puff piece that turns Castro into a poster boy for Franco’s cause. Castro’s dedication to Valentina provides the heartfelt through line to this winsome war story and adds a dose of heartbreak at the novel’s close.
Reviewed on: 12/24/2007