In my view it is not quite, as its blurb claims, 'a magnificent biography'. It is too partisan for that. Besides, great biographies aspire to literature, but this one is full of stylistic infelicities or even illiteracies ('in the event of him dying', for example). Professor Preston has an unconvincing trick of characterising people with single adjectives - dashing, sinuous, lanky, gaunt or (his favourite of all) manic - and his figurative use of the verb 'to choreograph' is carried too far when it is applied to a debate in the House of Commons or even to the year 1961.
We can take the accuracy of the book generally for granted, but even so it is worth noting that despite Preston's four contrary references, there never was such a thing as a Spanish or an Italian battle cruiser. All that said, it is a tremendous piece of work, not so much in the sweep of it as in the indefatigable intricacy of its detail. I read all its 787 pages with unfailing fascination and sometimes astonishment, as Professor Preston pursued its anti-hero step by step from his adventurous youth as a soldier in Spanish Africa to his pathetic demise as a half-senile old despot, kept alive by tubes and respirators for purely political ends. Nothing is missed, in the immediate circumstances of the Caudillo: no petty jealousy, no nuance of pride or religion, no medical detail, hardly a hunting trip or a whale-catching expedition (Franco loved catching whales). The text is tireless, the index a marvel.
There is no denying that a remarkably unattractive figure emerges from this microscopic treatment. There is more to like in Hitler than there is in Franco. The Caudillo's one great gift, it seems, was a genius for manipulation, for balancing his rivals and enemies one against the other, for keeping both the Allied Powers and the Axis in a constant state of uncertainty about Spanish intentions. He was a creep and a sneak, developing as he aged an almost megalomaniac self-satisfaction. He was nothing to look at, being small and paunchy, and at one of the most threatening moments of the Second World War he busied himself writing the script of a romantically self-glorifying movie.
Professor Preston gives him the benefit of few doubts, and there were moments in my reading, when yet another diplomat expressed his contempt for the Caudillo, or Franco happily dressed himself up yet again as Lord High Admiral of Castile, when I almost felt sorry for him. But the truth is that his cunning was sustained by a profound cynicism and cruelty. Spaniards may well bless General Franco for keeping them out of the Second World War, but it was certainly not for any idealistic reasons - as this book repeatedly demonstrates, he was an admirer of the Nazis from start to finish, and did them many good turns ('one appreciates as always', as he slimily wrote in 1940, 'the sublimity and good sense of the Fuhrer').
Worse still, he never did forgive those of his own countrymen who had fought on the other side in the civil war, and who had escaped his military strategy of unrelenting attrition. Far from achieving reconciliation, as his admirers have claimed, he sustained the resentments until the very end. Even when I first went to Spain, long afterwards, it felt rather like an occupied or a colonial country - Franco's government occupying the territories of the defeated Republicans. Preston tells us too little, I think, about the nature of the oppression by which Franco maintained his authority, and is skimpy about the character of the Falange: but every now and then in this book, even in its last chapters, the Caudillo does something - orders an immediate execution, summarily exiles a dissident - to remind us that his was a thoroughly nasty and vindictive kind of totalitarianism.
If there is one mitigating aspect to Franco's story, it is that he was so absolutely the victim of history. He was not, like the greater Fascist villains, trying to create something new: he was mired in the tragic glory of the Spanish past - 'holy, warlike, artistic, honourable and marvellous'. Obsessed by images of the medieval kings and heroes, glazed by visions of Empire, hag-ridden by fears of international masonic conspiracy, he saw himself improbably as another El Cid, or even another Catholic monarch. He never gave up the dream of Greater Spain: by ingratiating himself with the Germans he hoped to acquire much of French North Africa, and in 1942 Spanish troops actually marched into Tangier, an international settlement since 1923.
Well, it's all over now. Franco lies in his own subterranean Escorial, and I find it hard to think that after this lapidary volume anyone will have the heart to embark upon another major life. Professor Preston has laid the Caudillo to his rest. The judgements of biography, though, are not always the judgements of history, and it may well be that posterity will be more forgiving of Franco. He was an unpleasant little man, his motives were unlovely and hundreds of thousands of people suffered from his policies. History may conclude, all the same, that it worked. Having escaped the miseries of world war (of Stalinism, too), Spain has successfully rejoined the rest of us, and caught up. The monarchy is back. Democracy seems to be thriving. The Spaniards moderately prosper. The civil war is just a memory for old people in chimney- corners, and only a handful of ageing zealots, Preston tells us, assemble each year to cry Franco Resucita] on the anniversary of his death.
And is it not a nice historic irony that Spain remains to this day the one imperial power in Africa, retaining those very outposts on the coast of Morocco from which the young Franco, when I was nine years old, brought his Africanistas to the redemption of the Patria and his own apotheosis?