Complex and insightful, the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is as much about the frictions that strain familial loyalty as it is about the politics of nationalism and ownership. (Although don't let the word 'politics' put you off, they are merely the wrapper for the human drama.)
The book is set on a fictional peninsula in southern Spain - the metaphorical nether parts of Don Emmanuel. Two branches of the Emmanuel family claim ownership of the land (another clever play with the title, of course, referring to the progeny of his loins). The current owners of the land, the Garcias, seized it during the troubled period of the Spanish civil war, having been long looking for an opportunity to oust the Emmanuels, whose claim they see as illegitimate.
These two families are both descended from the original Don Emmanuel. The Garcias through his mistress, who they claim was his true love and to whose descendants, so they say, he promised the land. The Emmanuels hold a more direct claim, being the get of the Don's wife. However, there is doubt cast upon her faithfulness and whether they were truly the Don's children.
Like a modern day Romeo and Juliet, this book is about the tension between the two families or, more accurately, the more strident members of those families and the conflict, sometimes quite brutal, this tension causes within their community. Particularly telling is how the relationships between the younger members of the families, who are more willing to forgive, anger the older generation and ultimately exacerbate the situation.
Where the author's brilliance shines through is in demonstrating how this generational gap shifts and history repeats itself when the damaging effects of the civil war (and their own conflict within it) turn what was the younger generation during that time period into the same kind of narrow-minded, confrontational older generation they themselves railed against.
As that suggests the book is set between two time periods, that of the modern day and of the Spanish Civil war (the thirties), with Don Emmanuel himself being revealed through a series of letters uncovered in the latest bout of explosive violence. The different strands are well-handled and never confusing. The letter device may be a little disappointingly uninventive, but these letters also serve to reveal the true legitimacy of the two sides of the family and ultimately dictate how the book is resolved, so they are integral to the story and justifiable.
It is also worth mentioning just how remarkable Louis de Bernieres' evocation of Spain is, given that he is a Frenchman, writing in English. There are little touches in the culture and habits, little tweaks to the Mediterranean landscape, that position the reader exactly where he should be.
Both tragic and redemptive in conclusion, the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is a heartbreaking journey, but one well worth taking.