La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944 (The Blue Division) by Jorge M. Reverte – A Review

La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944/ The Blue Division : Russia, 1941-1944
Jorge M. Reverte
RBA Libros, 2011, pg 589

The División Azul was a Spanish volunteer unit that served on the Russian front during World War II. The division initially consisted of members of the Flange, the ultra fascist party that formed part of Franco’s ruling coalition. (They wore blue shirts as part of their uniform.) It is important to understand that Franco was still consolidating power after the Spanish Civil War and that the Flange wanted to push an agenda that was much more extreme than Franco’s national-Catholicism, itself quite conservative and violent.

In 1941, the leaders of the Flange were looking for a way to push their anti-communist, anti-mason, agenda forward. Franco was not moving fast enough and given the recent German invasion of Russia, the Flange wanted a more active policy, ideally joining with Germany against the Judaeo-Bolshevik threat that the USSR represented. Moreover, in joining the attack against Russia they would be taking revenge for Russia’s meddling in the Civil War. Since Franco would not enter the war, they created a plan where they would create a division of volunteers that would serve in the German army. Franco assented to the creation of the volunteer group for two reasons. First, it would placate German demands for a Spanish entry into the war and might avoid a German invasion of Spain. Second, it could, and eventually would, cut the power of the Flange. If their members were killed during the war they would not be available later to challenge Franco.

The division left Spain in late summer to parades and much excitement. It would be the closest Spain came to joining the war. Once in Spain they swore allegiance to Hitler. This is a key point and one that Reverte will return to over and over. The volunteers were part of the German army and all the bad that includes. One of the cruxes of the book is the question, what did the Spaniards know about the atrocities the German’s were participating in. Reverte details what the Einsatzgruppen were doing in the sectors the division was passing through. The technique definitely suggests the division members must have known something. He is working at a disadvantage since there are few statements from the Flange diehards to support this.

The technique has some draw backs, though. Primarly, Reverte, in attempting to show the conditions the men were fighting in, will search too far afield to show the suffering that the men must have known was happening. As much as I’m interested in Shostakovitch, the writing of his 7th symphony is not particularly central to his subject, even if the division was on the outskirts of Leningrad.  And discussions of Irene Nemirovsky no matter how tragic they were, are not particularly relevant to the division. It is the weakness of the book, and a 100 pg cut of such materials would have helped the book.

The winter of 41/42 was horrendous and took a toll on the division. When new volunteers were needed diehards of the Flange, essentially college students, were no where to be found. The second group would be made up of the poor who wanted a good wage, or soldiers from the army who were voluntold. Moroccan troops were even sent, but were returned to Spain. German race purity had to be maintained.

In either version of the division, the casualties were heavy. Despite the casualties, the Germans were not impressed with the Spanish troops. The Spanish leadership, on the other hand, was happy with the losses. It showed a fighting spirit that only the Spanish fascist could achieve. The Fascist chant at the beginning of the Civil War, vivela muerte, comes to mind here.

Ultimately, Franco, with the allied victories, was able to let the losses and his consolidation of power, decimate the power of the Flange. By war’s end the Flange was not a threat to Franco’s power.

Despite Reverte’s many off topic asides (a writer falling in love with his subject), La División Azul does make a solid case that the soldiers, if they did not participate in the atrocities, must have known and to say otherwise, as many have maintained, is a lie.

Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories

Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories

Issue 49 of Banipal focused on Short Stories and had an impressive collection of stories, from the fantastic, to the experimental to mainstream. Many of them were very good and I was impressed with the stylistic range of story telling. Jokha Al-Harthi’s On the Wooden Park Bench…We Sat was impressive, telling a simple story of a romance played out on a park bench. Salima Salih’s The Body was a haunting and dark story about a man who goes to morgue to find his dead son, and finding he isn’t dead enters a bureaucratic nightmare. Anis Afafai’s Moroccan Dead Transfer Company was delightfully fantastic, playing with reality and dream at the same time. In all of the stories there was an inventiveness that made many of the stories quite different from each other, both in theme and style. There is no over arching take away from the collection, other than there are some great voices out there that I would have liked to read more of. In most cases their works are not translated into English and this is your only chance to read from these ±20 authors. I would have liked a few more stories from women. Otherwise this edition was quite enjoyable.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christoper Clark

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christoper Clark
Harper 2012, pg 562

Christoper Clark’s origins of World War I is a remarkable work of history, especially, diplomatic. Although the term Sleepwalker has been criticized in a few cases (namely Hastings), his thesis is compelling and his analysis of the political currents of the major parties is  richly detailed. It is it is one of the best analysis written of the subject.

Sleepwalkers starts with a lengthy analysis of Serbia and Hungry, each receiving a chapter. The two chapters are unlike any others in the book and it shows not only the importance of the two countries in the start of the war, something perhaps obvious, but how Clark views each country’s leadership. In the case of Serbia, Clark is extremely critical, seeing the country as mass of violence, intrigue, and outsized ambitions to become the leader of the Balkan Slavs. It is that ambition, one that was unable to get beyond its own nativism, that led to most of the problems. While the war was not Serbia’s fault per say, their ambitions to become the regional power, a self selected protector of Slav culture, despite what the Croats or other peoples in the region might think, made the region very unstable. It is easy to see in his analysis a criticism of Serbia in the 1990’s too.

In the case of Hungry, he showed not so much as a weak nation, but an unwieldy one. The dual monarchy meant that major decisions to  like going to war had to go through both the Austrian parliament and the Hungarian. The motive of each group was not necessarily in line with the other, and Hungarian nationalism often played a key in how each side would decide to enter a political decision. He does note that Austria was less divided than one might think and although the an observer of the Austrian parliament might hear multiple languages during a debate, the frictions for independence were not as decisive as one might expect. Like all great powers of the era, it did believe that it had a sphere of influence that it could operate in and it was their right to do it.

After those two chapters he moves into a more chronological history. In this part 6 points are come out: the weak control over institutions within countries, France’s  bellicose attitude and financial aide to the Serbs, the growing fear that Russia would be able to mobilize faster than Germany, the British and Russian relationship might come to an end, Italian ambitions, the collapse of the Ottomans, and most importantly, no side thought they had an option but go to war.

Clark notes in several chapters that the prime ministers and presidents of several countries, particularly France and Great Brittan, but also Russia and Germany, often did not have direct control over their foreign ministries. Instead, the leadership that came and went with some regularity, was unable to control the bureaucracy of the ministries. Often the ministers worked against what the heads of state wanted. France and Britain had paralytically bellicose ministries that often planed for wars and were in a constant state of panic about the central powers. Even when a head of state wanted to reign in a ministry in an attempt to deescalate a situation it was difficult to do, and they would find themselves without allies within the government to control the situation. France was especially susceptible to this.

The far greater problem, though, was empire. For Britain and Russia it was the contest for regions along their borders, particularly India. the two countries had accords to limit competition, but as they grew closer to 1914, there was some question as to how they would work together in the future or if they would become adversaries again. The issue made the need to bind Britain to Russia and France critical and would in the run up complicate planning for each party in the war.

More important, though, and what Clark sees as a key element to the crises was Italy’s 1911 invasion of Libya. Until then there was a balance of power between the Ottomans, the Austrians and other regional powers. With the loss of Libya, it was now obvious that Turkey was a weak state and its possessions could be wrest from it. In 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece and Montenegro began the First Balkan war to take land that had been Ottoman, though inhabited by Slavs. The war was  a success and the nations expanded in size. The destabilization of the region and the growth of Serbian power led to a bellicose situation in the region, where Serbian and Austrian ambitions were in conflict. France made things worse by guaranteeing Serbia large loans. The loans were given with the condition that Serbia spend the money in France. They bought large amounts of arms, further escalating tensions. France disregarded any council that their actions could lead to an escalation.

Finally, he lays out his key thesis: when the crisis came, every country thought of itself as a victim. Worse, instead of viewing themselves as an actor who could control the situation, they thought they could only react to the situation. The interlocking treaties, fears, and military plans all gave each side the sense that they were a victim and had to do something. It is this idea that most clearly illustrates the idea of the Sleepwalkers. Even for Clark it is difficult to believe that they could all find themselves without options. The obsession with mobilization and military time tables, amongst other things, made it difficult for any actor to slow the rush to war.

Sleepwalkers is a complex and nuanced work whose analytic depth makes this an impressive work of scholarship.

 

Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou – A Review

Why I Killed My Best Friend
Amanda Michalopoulou
Open Letter 2013, 257pg

Amanda Michalopoulou’s short story collection I’d Like was a particular favorite at By the Fire Light, so it is particular excitement that I review her newest book to come out in English, Why I Killed My Best Friend. Originally published in Greece in 2003, it is at once a reflection of that time and the current troubles in Greece. The political events that take place in the book make this a departure from I’d Like’s more literary explorations, nevertheless, Why I Killed My Best Friend has some deft touches that make the book resonate.

Briefly, the story follows two friends, Maria and Anna, from childhood to adulthood. Maria comes from a middle class family who is part of the establishment, and her best friend Maria comes from a revolutionary family, whose parents teach revolution and do not lead anything like a middle class life. It is a friendship filled with conflict, Anna dominating the relationship with her certain positions on politics and life. Even at an young age, Anna repeats leftist political slogans and criticizes Maria for her lack of commitment. The bond is so strong that as they grow and Anna becomes more and more mercurial, Maria becomes the one who commits herself to politics, letting her art become subservient to activism. Maria is the one who goes to the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Anna? She marries and architect who says he is a radical in his designs, but it ultimately sounds as if he is just spouting some cultural theory that justifies in action.

From this brief sketch, we have two conflicting lives that are bound with a friendship that is at times intense other times spiteful. It is Anna who always steals Maria’s boyfriends—she is the better looking of them, according to Maria. Neither finds in their rebellion much success. Anna, is more mercurial, listless, uninterested in the politics that Maria has dedicated her life to. Maria, is fighting the good fight, but as much as she loves Anna and the struggle, she is always finding herself in a disadvantageous position. All her battles end in a certain failure and if the political ones can be absorbed, the personal ones that have seen her defeated at the hands of her best friend, leave her unhappy. You get a sense of frustration that permeates what is ostensibly a story of friendship. With friends like these…

While the relationship is interesting, the politics are not so much as uninteresting, but unconnected. They are a mini reportage of the movements of the 80s and 90s, but they appear as name dropping. Perhaps that is the point, that Maria’s reasoning behind her actions are less thought out and are more a reaction to Anna. In this sense the politics do not feel a strange reminder of battles forgotten, as much as battles unexplained. For the reader they are a backdrop, not the raison d’entre of the novel, and in this sense they are interesting, a kind of greatest hits.

Ultimately, Why I Killed My Best Friend secedes as a story of friendship. As a story of modern Greece, it is less successful. It is not as successful as I’d Like, but it is a good effort.

Bumf Vol 1 by Joe Sacco – A Review

Bumf Vol 1 Cover
Bumf Vol 1 Cover

Bumf Vol 1
Joe Sacco
Fantagraphics Books, 2014, pg 120

It is no secret that Joe Sacco is a particular favorite at By The Fire Light. He has mostly worked within comix journalism, writing a series of books on Bosnia and Palestine, along with smaller pieces on various subjects. He did start his career, however, in the alternative tradition (see Notes from a Defeatist) and Bumf is a return to that world. It is a book he has been writing off an on for some time and is quite a departure from his journalistic efforts.

Bumf is pure satire, biting and dark. I read it when the torture report came out and it was a perfect reflection of the report. A work that is comedic and bleak, picturing a world where the secrets of the government are something to fear. Moreover, Bumf directly tackles some of the practices of the last ten years and finds in them not an aberration, but a continuation of a hundred years of war making, yet another bit of insanity in the name of victory.

The brilliance in Bumf is how Sacco mixes tropes and cliches from the 100 years of war and scandal to create a vision of an America that is darkly funny. Starting with the insanity of the First World War where a general commands his men to run naked across the battlefield to scare the Germans, he mixes in the anachronistic story of a World War II bomber pilot. From these sources Bumf presents a military logic that is anything but logical and leaves soldiers at the mercy of the general’s wild ideas. From there, Sacco adds in the figure of Nixon, an a temporal figure who exists in both in the Vietnam era and in the modern era. He is a devious figure and participates in secret rituals, the same ones that the men who torture do. All these layers of images from history and pop culture, create a satirical view of the United States as anything but free or just. Instead, it is a bureaucratic one where the strange whims of its leaders dictate everything.

The humor is quite dark. In one scene Nixon is given a torture kit and a prisoner to torture. In the next panel his wife is yelling at him to get the dead body out of the bathroom. She doesn’t want it there any more. In the following panels Nixon and his men are shown lugging the body out of the bathroom while his wife is sleeping in the adjoining bedroom. The tortures are also ridiculous. They all wear a black hood, much like the prisoner in the Abu Grave photo, and are naked. For much of the story Sacco follows a couple who walk around naked with their hoods. They are part of a twisted love story that finds them playing out romantic lives while all around them the absurd cruelty continues. They, too, are part of the absurdity, often having sex while Nixon looks on. Into this satire, Sacco also injects a dose of religion. Many of the torturers as they celebrate their bacchanals site passages from the bible, often perverting the quote to fit the needs of the state.

Bumf’s vision spares no one. It is one of the most biting satires I’ve read. What makes it work is Sacco’s humor and willingness to be completely absurd, mixing military tropes from the last 100 years into a surreal cometary that distills the essential madness of these ideas. I was a little doubtful that I would like Bumf. I don’t like alternative comix at times because they can become to self referential and juvenile. Bumf is anything but. It is a true departure from his journalistic work, but a fascinating work nonetheless.

Barbarismos (Barbarisms) by Andrés Neuman – A Review of his Alternate Dictionary

Barbarismos (Barbarisms)cubierta_NEUMAN_Barbarismos_imprenta
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2014, pg.130

Anyone has followed this blog will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s work. He has an incredible range of impressive writing working in novels, short stories, short essays, and editorial work with the short story. (He writes poetry, but I’ve not read it.) To this list we can add Barbarismos his personal dictionary. In Spanish, the title refers to the linguistic concept of using a word incorrectly or include an expression from a foreign language in Spanish. From this starting ground he has created a dictionary of alternative definitions. Ambrose Bierce’s Devils Dictionary is the most obvious example to an English speaker, although Dr. Johnson’s dictionary with its love of opinionated definitions is a cousin. In these alternative definitions are humor, notes of satire, and the exploration of writing, all written with a subtly and insight that make the book a fascinating exercise.

With respect to his definitions about writing and literature, he tends to look at them as a process, both of finding yourself reflected in a work and creating the work as you interact with it. For Neuman there is a constant interplay between one who is working with a text, either in writing it or reading it, and the text itself. This interplay gives a mystery and elusiveness to a work. He’s not facile about this interplay, instead he sees in it a kind of epistemological relationship between an person and what they can know. At the same time, he sees it as a collective enterprise that has no leader, but is organic. His take on politics is humorous without being particularly caustic. Certainly there are jabs at patriotism and religion that go beyond the day to day frustrations of living in a democracy that doesn’t quite live up to its ideals. He’s at his best here when he takes down sacred cows, as he does with patriotism and his definition for flag.

Ultimately, Barbarismos succeeds as a book because Neuman’s way of finding the vital truth of a word is spot on, showing him to be an excellent observer and a clever writer. While he does play with words (see imán), many of his definitions I think would appeal to readers outside the English language. One would hope that some day a few more of these would appear in English.

bandera. Trapo de bajo coste y alto precio.
flag. Rag of low price and high cost.

búsqueda. Hallazgo casual de otra cosa.
search. Casual discovery of something else.

cuentista. Mentiroso que busca la verdad un poco más lejos.
storyteller. Liar that searches for the truth a little bit father out.

democracia. Ruina griega. || 2. ~ parlamentaria: oxímoron.
democracy. Greek ruin || Parliamentary democracy: oxymoron

escritura. Autobiografía colectiva.
writing. Collective autobiography.

imán. En el campo de la física, atracción fatal. || 2. En el campo religioso, ídem.
magnet/imam. In physics, fatal attraction.  || 2. In religion, the same.

izquierda. Ideología política que parece irreconocible hasta que gobierna la derecha. || 2. Sentido critico con tendencia a atentar contra si mismo.
left. Political ideology that seems unrecognizable until the right governs. || 2. Being a critic with the tendency to attack one’s self.

vacaciones. Acción de transitar por los mismos lugares a menor velocidad.
vacation. Act of passing through the same places at a slower pace.

 

El Pais had a review of the book with more definitions and definitions from 20 other Spanish authors

Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water) by Javier Sáez de Ibarra – A Review

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Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water)
Javier Sáez de Ibarra
Páginas de Espuma, 2009 pg 187

Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a Spanish high school teacher and author of several short story collections, including the 2009 prize wining Mirar al agua (I Premio Internacional De Narrativa Breve Riberea del Duero). Very little of his work has been translated. So far as I know, only one story in The Portable Museum Vol 2. Stylistically his work is hard to classify because it is so varied, moving from traditional narrative approaches that are easily recognizable as stories to the more experimental works that might not even be a story, lacking all notion of plot or character. Mirar al agua at its best mixes forms to explore different story telling approaches and leaves the reader with a collection that can both be moving and full of literary games.

Thematically, the collection explores the plastic arts, particularly painting, and finds in them a richness of material that is quite unexpected. The first story, Mirar al agua, shows Sáez de Ibarra as a deft and subtle observer of relationships. The story, as if it is a warm up to the collection, has a relatively traditional structure. A man goes on a boring date, or at least what he thinks will be. He insults the woman, but then in an act of shame and contrition begins to walk along with her, not as a friend, but as if he were looking for an invitation to show he isn’t as bad as she thought. In the end a bond forms between them as they work their way through the exposition of modern art. He knows nothing about art and is frustrated by what he is seeing. Only when they come to the end and he sees the word Water reflected in reverse. In that image he sees a metaphor for how images fail, and the water ever shifting is more real. It gives him peace and that first unsettling bits of the walk are over. The two of them just stand there. What makes it work is Sáez de Ibarra’s ability to capture the awkward frustration that acts out and yet is quieted in subtle understanding, a momentary bit of friendship.

In the second story Un hombre pone un cuadro (A Man Hangs a Photo), he uses a style akin to the New Novel. A man is trying to hang a painting in his flat. He goes over the steps, going back and forth between false starts with the hammer and the nail to slowly find in his actions what is driving the need to hang a photo. Slowly it becomes apparent that the photo is of his family and that the act of hanging it is an act of desperation, as if in hanging a representation of them he will actually have them. It is a beautiful story that both explores our relationships to objects and one man’s suffering.

Perhaps his best story in the collection is Una ventana en Via Speranzella (A Window on Via Speranzella) which describes an artist who on finding herself at age 23 trapped with children and the disappointments that come with letting one’s dream slip away, decides one day to open the window of her bedroom and show one of her breasts for a few moments. It’s an act she continues to do the same day every year, an act that becomes something that her neighbors come to expect and look forward to each year. It is not a prurient act, not for her and many of those who watch her every year. It is a liberation from the constraints of becoming a señora whose life has not turned out to be what she wanted it to be. The narrator, a kind of historian who is investigating what is known of the artist and her performance art, notes that it is liberation because it is an act completely counter to what she should do. It is also a private act done in public, one where she acknowledges no one, never looking at anyone while she does it. Nor does she speak to anyone about the act. It is hers to do and control and surprisingly her neighbors give her that space. It is this subtle mix of art theory (most of the stories include epigrams on art) and emotion that makes many of Sáez de Ibarra’s stories remarkable.

In his more experimental vein is Caprichos a play on Goya’s Caprichos. Caprichos contains 21 one or two sentence satirical descriptions of people, often with caustic titles. Much like Goya, these are biting criticism of society and were a welcome change to some of the short story collections I’ve read lately that lack a sense of social criticism. Sáez de Ibarra’s criticism are open ended, but sharp and biting. The following example is indicative of his humor.

Dos negros regresan caminando por la carretera, sus zapatos rotos, los miembros cansados; un escucha lo que el otro le cuenta. En un lado tres furcias, una jamona les enseña su escote
De cada cual según su capacidad.

Two black men return walking along the highway, their shoes are in tatters, their bodies tired; one listens to what the other is telling him. On one side three whores, one a buxom woman shows them her cleavage.
Every one according to their abilities.

Escribir mientras Palestina (Writing While Palestinian) is perhaps his most political work in the collection and one that may have the littlest to do with art. It examines the journey of a journalist to Palestine in 2008, around the time of the Rachel Coury death. In the search he doesn’t find much in the way of answers, just questions about how you approach writing about the problems without becoming a cliche. Ultimately, he comes to the wall that separates Palestine from Israel and sees in the graffiti voices that have lasted, that continue to exist even when people like him come and go.

In the playful Hiperrealismo / Surrealismo (Hyper realism / Surrealism), he takes clips from a Madrid newspaper and constructs a story. The clips are the typical official announcements and routine news that masks a different world, one that is perhaps more true. He then rewrites the clips mixing the ideas into funny combinations. For example, in the realism there are issues with recycling and the economic stability of families. Sáez de Ibarra coverts that into an official pronouncement from the government that children who cannot be cared for will be collected on the streets. The story, much like Caprichos, has a biting humor that is refreshing. The story also plays with form, eschewing plot and charter, and creating a picture of a world that is anything but realistic.

Mirar al agua is an impressive book full of ideas, both in terms of short stories and art, and has at least one story that will interest most readers. The breath of forma and structure is commendable and delightful, although it might be a barrier for some readers. Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a writer that I want to read more of and who should have a few more stories translated.