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Bestselling author Maria Dueñas wrote a sequel about spy Sira Quiroga: 'She had to suffer a little'

Her debut novel The sound of the night, in which simple seamstress Sira Quiroga became a spy for the British secret service, became a global bestseller a decade ago. Now Spanish writer María Dueñas (58) is out with a new novel in which she takes Sira to task. 'She had to suffer a little.'

Second part

Because of the somewhat open-ended nature of The sound of the night María Dueñas was often asked if she planned to write a second volume about the characterful Sira. Never did she have plans to do so, yet now there is Sira, a novel in which - the title says it all - once again stars the woman who stole the hearts of millions of readers a decade ago.

While that first novel was set in Spain and Morocco, among other places, against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, this new book too takes Sira through a whirlwind series of events, this time to Jerusalem, London, Madrid and Tangier. Sira is now married and lives in Jerusalem with her husband, who has to complete a mission for British intelligence.

While she is heavily pregnant, he is killed in the 22 July 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, where the British held office. The attack is intended as a protest against British rule in the region.Defeated, Sira retreats with her baby to her mother-in-law's house in London, but she does not like it for long. When she is asked by the British secret service for a mission, observing Argentine first lady Evita Perón during her visit to Europe, Sira agrees.

To her dismay, her path crosses with that of her former love Ramiro, who once abandoned her and saddled her with huge debts. Now, too, he delivers a horrible prank on her.

Although Dueñas owes a lot to Sira, she never intended to write a sequel to her successful debut. 'After the huge success of my first novel, I spent a few years travelling the world talking about the novel and that character everywhere,' Dueñas says, stirring in her latte. 'After that, both Sira and I needed a rest, a break from being together. I was writing other books, with other main characters, and had no intention of returning to her at all. But during a trip to Tangier - I love coming to Morocco - I realised that there are so many stories there for the taking. And also that Sira then had to be the protagonist. After all, that area is her territory.

Put to the test

You are not sparing her. What has she done to you that you are making it so terribly difficult for her?

Dueñas laughed. 'No, that's right. I didn't want her to have a comfortable life as a mother and housewife, she had to suffer a little. That made her life richer and more meaningful. You only know your worth, what you are capable of, when life tests you and circumstances force you into action. I wanted to place Sira in some interesting personal and relevant historical situations that gave me the opportunity to explore what was going on there after the end of World War II. In this way, Sira shows us what the world was like back then.'

For example, what interested you about the post-war situation in Palestine?

'Little has been written about those years with an outsider's perspective. Almost everything I read was written by historians from the Israeli point of view, or from the Palestinian point of view. I also found little in the literature about that period. In the places where she lives, Sira is always a newcomer. Because she is not part of the world that surrounds her, I can look at it with her uninhibited, fresh eyes.'

Again, you must have done a lot of research for this book.

'Absolutely, and I love that part of my work too. I use everything from academic articles, books and newspapers, to documentaries, biographies and novels. I also find out a lot of practical things, like the menu of restaurants of the time or airline timetables. Anything that can contribute to the atmosphere and background.

I only write about cities I have visited, and then revisit them, because a lot has changed again in the meantime. For this book, that wasn't possible. I wrote it in 2020 and wanted to go to Jerusalem and London, but that was not possible because of Covid. Fortunately, I do know those cities, because I had been there before, only I didn't have the idea to write this book then.

My books are not historical novels, but novels with a historical background. History affects my characters' lives, but their personal lives are more important than historical events.'

Spanish Civil War

In your novels, and in more Spanish literature, the Spanish Civil War plays a role. Why is that still an important theme?

'After that war, which began in 1936 and ended in 1939, dictator Franco came to power and remained so until his death in November 1975. Spain felt the effects of that war for 40 years, and some of the effects are still felt today. In 2007, for example, the Law on Historical Memory was passed, making victims of the war and dictatorship eligible for compensation and reparations. Franco was buried in a large church he had built by forced labourers, prisoners of the civil war. Only three years ago, his relatives had to rebury him in a more private place. Not all wounds have healed yet, and literature pays attention to that. There are still so many stories to be told.'

Literary criticism

Your books are ignored by literary critics in your home country. Does that sting?

'Not by all critics, mind you, but by some. More writers experience this, especially authors from my publishing house, because it is a "commercial" publishing house and certain critics dislike it. Oh well, some thought, a book about a simple seamstress, who cares about that small world of women? The sound of the night was the best-selling book of the year at the time, selling more than a million copies. But some newspapers didn't even mention it, as if it didn't exist. I find that an insult to all those hundreds of thousands of readers. And to my publisher and editor, for that matter.'

Another writer once said: easy reading is hard writing. In other words, it is not at all easy to write a book that reads easily.

'I couldn't agree more. As a writer, you are constantly trying to improve your style and make your work accessible to a wide audience. But there is so much work underlying every scene, every chapter, that as a reader you don't know about. Some authors find writing itself difficult. I don't. When I am working on a book, I make long days, week after week, month after month, until it is finished. Of course, sometimes I have a day when I want to throw my computer out of the window, but I find writing very fulfilling and enriching. I consider myself lucky to live two lives at once.

With each new book, I learn a lot, about history, but also about human experiences. Sira, for example, loses her husband. Fortunately, I haven't experienced that myself yet, but writing about it allows me to explore how I might react to such a dramatic event. That has also made me more empathetic. Putting myself in the shoes of my characters has given me more compassion for people going through terrible events.'

Good to know Good to know
Marías Dueñas, Sira (528 p.), translated from the Spanish by Jacqueline Visscher and Marjan Meijer, Wereldbibliotheek, €26.99

Who is Maria Dueñas?

After a career as a professor of English at the University of Murcia, María Dueñas (b. 1964) made her debut in 2009 with the novel El tiempo entre costuras, which appeared in Dutch in 2012 as The sound of the night. The book became an international bestseller, appeared in 25 countries and was adapted into a television series. Three years later, her second novel was published, Forgetting the world, followed by The happiness of a vineyard and The captain's daughters. Sira is Dueñas' fifth novel.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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