There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.
There’s the triumphalist mode: leftist Republican revolutionary banners waving, workers self-organizing, lands collectivizing. The soaring spirits of progress that cast aside centuries of tradition, lifting all hopes and making all dreams realizable.
Then there’s the dark narrative of defeat: the murderous fascist uprising and eruption of civil war; the unraveling of hopes; the growing spiral of mistrust; the bitter cold of front-line trenches, the treachery of allies, frostbitten toes in winter, fascist bombs crashing overhead, empty bellies and cigarette papers filled with weeds and grass.
The third method of writing the Civil War adopts that magical realism so unique to Hispanic literature, that deeply perceptive yet seemingly oblique commentary, which blunts the horrors of war with a wry tinge of fantasy and frames triumphalism with an equally sarcastic edge of childish innocence. Magical realism recognizes that some realities are simply too unreal to process, and places in context the surreality which other writers (particularly historians) strive to tame with objective analyses (toward which those who lived through such times can only roll their eyes in incredulity). An excellent example of this genre is Ramon J. Sender’s classic,
Seven Red Sundays.
There’s a fourth method, and it’s the military adventure novel. An exquisitely torturous example of this is Andre Malraux’s acclaimed classic
Man’s Hope, based on his own experiences as a volunteer Republican fighter from France. The book is a tedious mash of action: machine guns firing hither and tither, people commandeering tanks for heroic charges, pilots dogfighting; it’s all there (including, to Malraux’s credit, the courageous and confused incompetence of his own comrades). It’s an excruciating military adventure with no real point or plot, which just happens to also be vaguely based on the truth. Another good yet grueling sample of this genre is the dramatized account of British writer Laurie Lee, A Moment of War.
For an exquisite example of the triumphalist mode, one need turn no further than the opening pages of George Orwell’s classic
Homage to Catalonia. For the dark narrative of defeat, pick pretty much any point in the second half of the book. A similar cycle runs through Arthur Koestler’s accounts of the War, A Spanish Testament and Dialogue with Death.
Of course, these are mostly accounts from non-Spanish participants in the war (Orwell, Lee, Koestler, and Malraux were all among the tens of thousands of left-leaning foreigners who flocked to Spain from around the world as volunteer fighters to defend the democratic republic against the right-wing fascist military that sought to overthrow it). But two recently translated novels transcend the typical mould of Civil War stories.
Cry, Mother Spain
Cry, Mother Spain — originally published in French — is an addictive read. It’s told largely from the perspective of Montse (the narrator’s mother), a peasant girl who finds love in the heady liberation of the early days of the Republic. But it doesn’t last long, and then Montse must deal with the harsh reality of what a pregnant peasant girl is to do when her entire support network is a backward and conservative village. Concurrent to Montse’s gendered reality is her anarchist brother Jose’s romantic (albeit tragic) struggle against the innate conservatism of his fellow villagers and the scheming duplicity of ambitious Communists.
Salvayre’s tale is beautifully told. It’s all things at once: the heady triumphs of the Republican revolution are keenly felt, along with the audacious hopes it inspires. It’s also a sordid tale of what happens to those hopes in the face of betrayal (from friends and fascists alike). Unlike many Spanish Civil War stories, the narrative of defeat presented here is not one of trench warfare and bombs, but rather takes form in the resurgence of conservatism and shifting allegiances of peasant villagers (who are prone to swing from conservatism to communism and back again in the course of barely a week). Salvayre’s account is refreshing in being a political and psychological one, and in leaving the action-adventures to other (less talented) writers.
It’s no less poignant and compelling for the lack of military action. And the narrative approach is nothing less than brilliant, combining historical narration with dramatized memoir (she juxtaposes her own family story with the history of Georges Bernanos, a Catholic writer who initially supported the fascist leader Franco, but quickly grew disillusioned with fascist brutality and tried to expose fascist atrocities – and the Church’s complicity in them – to the world). She even engages with the fraught generational tension between a mother and her daughter. Her positionality is omniscient and feminist without being didactic; romantic without being unrealistic. Salvayre writes with a light touch and is a storyteller par excellence, who manages to portray all the different angles and attitudes shaping the civil war in a surprisingly concise and fast-paced narrative. Her book is an essential front-runner in the neglected genre of Spanish Civil War literature.
Joan Sales’ Uncertain Glory is a very different type of tale but also highly rewarding. It’s told from the perspective of three characters (each of whom has a third of the book). First there’s Lluis, a Republican lieutenant and former student revolutionary who now serves in a unit on the Aragonese front. He has a partner and child at home in Barcelona, but finds his romantic attentions drawn to a reclusive widowed noblewoman living near where he is stationed. The second narrator is his romantic partner Trini, and the third is Cruells, another soldier in Lluis’ unit. A fourth character appears in each of their tales, weaving them together – Juli Soleras, a Republican soldier whose sad cynicism and narcissistic ego shapes the destiny of all three narrators.
The first two narrators tell their sections of the book in the form of letters, while Cruells’ tale is told through simple first-person narration. Lluis and Trini’s accounts provide their respective experiences of the same period in time, allowing the reader to glimpse the truth behind their letters to each other. Cruells’ tale serves to knit the two tales together and bring about a conclusion which remains uncertain right up to the end.
Sales’ lengthy novel does a number of things over the course of its leisurely narrative. It tells a war story, of course. Sales himself fought on the Republican side, and while the book isn’t riddled with war scenes (thank goodness) the few action sequences it contains are intense and filled with the sort of detail that only comes from first-hand experience.
Ultimately the novel tackles loftier themes though and no shortage of them. It deals with love and faithfulness, as Lluis and Trini struggle to navigate a relationship that was already difficult (because they chose to deliberately flout convention and remain unmarried despite having children) and is now worsened by a war that renders it long-distance. What at first seems like a misogynist strain in the book is more likely a prescient mid-20th century critique of masculinity on the part of its author. Lluis’ fickle emotions — too easily attracted by the mysterious noblewoman who needs his assistance — are complemented by his erstwhile friend Juli’s willingness to go to tremendous lengths to manipulate and exploit women for his own ends. These characters are complex, at times they are even endearing, but they are not heroes. Saying that they are very flawed, human characters is putting it kindly. But that was probably exactly what Sales — who witnessed the heights and depths of the human character during this war — wanted to depict.
The lengthy novel offers plenty of space for philosophical debates between characters: on religion, politics, friendship, war, love and much more. There are interesting glimpses into historical and cultural moments that Sales depicts in masterful prose: the organizing of student protests in the early days of the Republic and an account of rural peasant villagers picnicking are among these. There are moments that evoke the poignant and soaring spirits of Les Miserables; others that hearken toward the intellectual dialogues of Dostoyevsky. Indeed, Sales’ words are precision instruments, and his perceptions incisive. He manages to both describe and interrogate, beautifully and mercilessly, the melancholic atmosphere of a dying Republican Spain: “the excess of freedom, fruit of a year and a half of revolution, hovered like a fraught, nervous shadow over those blue, green, brown and grey eyes.”
Sales packs a lot into his novel and while parts can be dense, tedious and challenging, overall it does not disappoint.
Above all, it appears Sales was working through some of his own complicated feelings about this war in which he himself participated. He chronicles the ambivalence of the peasantry, and the disintegrating hopes and idealism of the Republican soldiers. A commentary from Cruells after a battle illustrates the fraught ambivalence of a citizen caught in a civil war outside of their control:
“I’d never thought the others were my enemies: they were simply the others. I’d never thought of them as my enemies! Not even when I’d fired bullets or hurled grenades at them… the same thing would have happened if I’d been on the other side, that seemed self-evident. I hadn’t shot at them in that surge of madness because they were my enemies, but for reasons I couldn’t explain. And it had been like that from the moment I hadn’t chosen my side; I’d simply stayed where the war had taken me by surprise.”
Even the most dedicated rebels succumb to hopelessness, but rather than simply depict it Sales forces his characters to struggle with it, to grapple with the multiple ways in which the outbreak of war betrayed the hopes of those who fought it. Trini’s father, a lifelong socialist revolutionary in Republican Barcelona is beaten by a suddenly-revolutionary mob for his equally lifelong adherence to pacifism:
“I’ve felt disillusioned… this sinister revolutionary carnival we’ve witnessed over the past year. Such a sinister carnival! I could never have predicted this. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that any idea, however good it may be, turns rotten when it becomes too popular.”
While the Republican soldiers themselves reflect on the pointlessness of their struggle in the long-view of posterity:
“The summons of crucifixion… isn’t that what war is all about? Naturally, people flourish pretexts: causes, noble words, but how hollow, incomprehensible and ridiculous that all seems in the eyes of another generation! Will we ever grasp why our great-grandfathers slaughtered themselves so willingly on behalf of the male line, as opposed to the female line, of the Bourbons? It makes us laugh now, but our great-grandfathers did slaughter each other over it. Our great-grandsons will laugh when they discover how we did the same as proletarians against bourgeois or Aryans against Semites: yet Stalin’s and Hitler’s concentration camps were created in the name of these empty derisory words. Derisory words, empty words that the multitudes followed… Point the hatred of the multitudes towards the villain and they will follow; what does it matter that villain is but a word? Aristocrat, bourgeois, priest, Semite, fascist, red, no matter! As he is the villain, he is to blame. To blame for what? For everything! Death to the bourgeois, to the priest, to the Jew, to the fascist, to the red! Long live death! Burn, kill and gorge on blood… Always the same old story. Butchery.”
This element of Sales’ work situates itself among the weighty dark tales of defeatism in Spanish Civil War literature. The book opens and closes on the frontlines and is interspersed with battles (though thankfully not too many). The Republican rout at the end is almost breathtaking in its intensity. Yet the overall message is one of the death of ideals and the meaninglessness of war. Narrated from the Republican side, many of the Republican soldiers in the brigade around which Sales narrates his tale care very little for the slogans and ideals of the war. They are Republicans because they just happened to be in Republican territory when the war broke out. They understand that if they’d been in fascist territory, they’d be fighting for the fascists. It was chance and circumstance that shaped their politics, not intention or ideology. In fact they don’t share any overarching ideologies, and if they do, it’s different for each of them. The soldiers who follow ideology are mostly depicted as frightful terrors who run around slaughtering priests in the night and are generally despised by the everyday soldiers on the front lines.
Sales weaves a more complex tale than most writers on the topic. He takes advantage of the narrative to explore many different paths. He dwells on the meaning of love, with romantic sub-plots woven throughout the text. He tackles faith, broad questions of philosophy, the rebellion of youth and more. The narrative itself defies easy categorization. The chapters that relate battles and life on the front could easily belong beside the narratives of Orwell, Hemingway, Malraux and other straightforward interlocutors of the daily experience of the war. But just as quickly he’ll take the narrative in a surreal or a slapstick direction; the dinners and dialogues between secondary characters in the brigade are a pastiche of the absurd and the surreal. At times he offers historical snapshots of the early days of revolution and war, and these offer moments of historical narrative. Other chapters offer beautiful depictions of the Catalonian countryside and everyday village life. Sales routinely shifts style and even genre within the text, and while this is sometimes a bit jarring the narrative is compelling and keeps the reader attached. There’s even an opportunity to take an oblique pot-shot at western voyeurs (a la Hemingway), in a conversation between Juli and Cruells:
“But the worst side to wars is the fact they’re turned into novels; at the end of this war – and I assure you it’s a war that’s as shitty as any – novels will be written that are especially stupid, as sentimental and risqué as they come: they’ll have wonderfully courageous young heroes and wonderfully buxom little angels. I don’t mean you, Cruells; you’ll not be stricken by one of these tomes. But foreigners… It’s a pity you don’t believe in my gifts as a prophet; I could tell you, for example, that foreigners will turn this huge mess into stirring stories of bullfighters and gypsies.”
“Bullfighters? I’ve never heard mention of any, so far as I know…”
“Right, poor Cruells: a bullfighter has never been sighted in the army, let alone a gypsy, but foreigners have a good nose for business. Business is business, as all foreigners say, and time is money; if a novel with a Spanish theme is going to succeed, the hero just has to be a bullfighter and the heroine a gypsy and by the third chapter they must be fornicating in a tropical jungle full of wild bulls; anything else is a waste of time and time is money. Foreigners are idiots…”
One gets the impression this is Sales – the former Republican fighter who wrote the book in exile following the defeat of the Republicans – working through a lot of his own experiences. Several chapters have the aura of snapshots of memory, no doubt Sales’ own. The novel winds up a mix of historical drama, philosophical musings, and parodic pastiche. It works, though, surprisingly well for a novel that’s so dense and so long.
What was the point of it all?
What’s the message of these works? That’s one of their most inscrutable qualities. The former Republican fighters — or their descendants — are clearly sympathetic to the ideals of the Republicans who fought the fascists. Yet they’re also deeply attuned to their faults — both their tendency to slip into extremism, as well as their confusion, inexperience, and incompetence. The Spanish Civil War allows for spaces of heroism without constructing heroes and reminds us more than most conflicts of the fraught and ambivalent nature of
any conflict. If these writers have a message, it’s that we must do a better job, as humans, of understanding ourselves. As Ramon J. Sender put it in his preface to Seven Red Sundays, in words with which he appears to speak for an entire generation (or two) of writers on the topic:
“From the political and social points of view this book will satisfy no one. That I know. But it is not an attempt to make political capital or to describe the social struggle, and still less to praise or to blame. I am in quest of no utilitarian truth — social, moral, or political — and not even of that seemingly harmless aesthetic truth — always false and artificial, in the quest of which many young writers lose themselves.
“The only truth, the reality, at which I aim in these pages, is the truth of living humanity displayed in the convulsions of a Spanish revolutionary episode. I seek it in the words and the emotions of my characters and in the circumambient light and air with which they blend, to form a moral atmosphere, cloudy or limpid, logical or incoherent. Nor am I seeking the consistent sequences of a novel. My reality is human, sublime it may be, stupid it may be…
“You will see that my book is not directed to your intelligence, but to your sensibility, for the deepest human truths must be felt rather than understood or analysed. They are the truths which men have neither spoken nor tried to put into words, because their message is delivered in the shining confusion of the emotions… No man can approach mankind giving his all and expecting all in return. Societies are not based on the virtues of individuals, but on a system which controls defects by limiting the freedom of everyone… But behind the dream there is a human truth of the most generous kind — sometimes, let me insist, absolutely sublime. Is not that enough?”