Standing inside the old throne room of the Romanovs, where you fancy you still might be able hear the footsteps of the Russian czars, Julia Navarro suddenly sees something that captures her attention. It is a monk wearing an odd-looking habit, who quickly vanishes among the crowd of visitors. The novelist rapidly strides across the enormous hall, heading straight for the monk, who is near the exit by now. I hurry after her, lest I should miss out on the beginning of a new novel. The author of The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud finally reaches the monk and exchanges a few words with him. Who was it? A knight-templar? The ghost of Rasputin? "Of course not! It's Father José from Brazil, wearing his Franciscan habit; he is here on vacation," says the writer. Then, winking, she adds: "I would have liked something more mysterious, too."
Julia Navarro, 60, is a charming woman. Despite having sold over five million books, she comes across as friendly, discreet, kind and enthusiastic. A political journalist for over 30 years, in 2004 she began publishing intrigue-laced novels set against historical backgrounds. Her success has been such that she is already on her fifth book, Dispara, yo ya estoy muerto (or, Shoot, I'm already dead anyway), which she has come to St Petersburg to promote. A monumental work of 900 pages, part of the plot begins in this city, back in the 19th century.
Now, standing inside the State Hermitage Museum - the former Winter Palace - Navarro declines a photo op next to the throne in her role as queen of the bestsellers. "I don't like thrones," she explains. After that, she contemplates an enormous portrait of Catherine the Great pensively, then drags several journalists to her favorite part of the palace, the wing with the private rooms. Marching at the double — which is tiring if you are carrying a copy of the humungous novel in your bag — we cross an infinity of magnificent rooms containing harps, tapestries and various displays, until we finally reach the czar's dining room. This is the place where Alexander Kerensky's provisional government met during that revolutionary month of October 1917, under protection from cadets, Cossacks and a battalion of female soldiers.
I like to give a voice to ordinary people who are never listened to"
"They were arrested right here," explains the writer, making everyone practically hear the machine gun fire from the armored vehicles and the cannon fire of the Aurora sitting in the harbor.
Later, on a visit to the old battleship-turned-museum, Navarro enthusiastically dons one of the revolutionary caps that are sold everywhere at street stands. "This city is so exciting!" she exclaims later still, as she stands under the column of Czar Alexander, which shows up on the cover of her new book. Not that St Petersburg is the only setting of the novel, not by a long shot. The story also takes place in Paris, Warsaw, London, Thessaloniki, Istanbul, Amman, Tel Aviv and above all Jerusalem. Oh, and also Madrid and Toledo. And Deir Yassin, a former Palestinian village. And Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.
The novel focuses on two characters and their families, a Russian Jew named Samuel Zucker who emigrates to Palestine, and a Palestinian named Ahmed Ziad. Both men become lifelong friends, with all the expected ups and downs that such a friendship at such a time might experience. The plot is filled with action and the background is chock full of major historical events, from the pogroms to World War I to the Russian Revolution to Nazism to World War II to the birth of the state of Israel and the first war against the Arabs. Not only that, but there are also cameo appearances by historical characters ranging from Mikhail Bakunin, Theodor Herzl, Ben Gurion, Lawrence of Arabia (!), Ibn Saud, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and Josef Mengele.
I tell the writer that her novel begins like Doctor Zhivago and ends like Exodus. In fact, Dispara, yo ya estoy muerto has elements that remind one of Leon Uris, whom she has read. But Navarro says her role models are Tolstoy and Balzac. "I like costumbrista novels [depicting local everyday life] that also capture the times; my book is not a lesson in history but a story about characters, about ordinary people who suffer the consequences of major decisions made during their lifetime. I like to highlight how History with a capital H affects those of us who go through history on foot; I like to explore how it determines us, and I like to give a voice to ordinary people who are never listened to." Navarro also denies having tried to write a novel about Jews and Palestinians. "I just wanted a setting for a story about friendship that is tested by the vicissitudes of history. As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, I am not taking sides."
She is not pleased when I compare her with Ken Follett — "I don't see the resemblance, I don't write historical novels," she says — but she laughs like a good sport when I note that the title of her novel sounds like a spaghetti western. "It's the only title I've ever been sure about from the beginning, out of all my novels, and the explanation is there at the end..."