Field of Honour
Verso ( 2009), pg 253
Political novels, especially those written in the heat of the moment, can suffer from didacticism, that need to explain, justify, or apologize which when read latter makes conversation that was once so important seem stiff, bereft of context. At best it can read as a time capsule, but often the need to explain over powers complexity. Moreover, as history progresses those ideas that were so worth devoting pages to are no longer that important. Sure, they are relevant to a specialist, but they cannot go beyond their moment because the ideas no longer inform the current moment.
Written in 1939, the year of the Republican defeat, Max Aub’s Field of Honor falls into this trap and despite moments of brilliance the book is mired in conversations about the need for communist, anarchist, flangeest (a mix of Catholicism and fascism) and Carlist (a form of monarchism) solutions to the problems of Spain. The conversations are more fragments of ideas than cogent argument, which is perhaps fitting its timeliness, and they do show a certain side of the coming troubles, but they neither make an interesting argument, or really convey the experience of the times. He is effective in showing the different ideas that were being discussed, but in of themselves they are not particularly compelling.
It is unfortunate the weakness of the political arguments distract so much, because the other elements are very well written. The book follows Rafael Lopez Serrador a poor youth from a small village in Spain as he goes from young man to revolutionary, struggling against industrialists, switching to fascist side, and ultimately finding what he really is. In one way it is a coming of age story as Serrador learns about sex, the avarice of man kind, and confronts violence. As a coming of age story, even one of political awakening, Aub captures a world, an impression that out lasts the times. Aub’s strength is to capture a communal experience and he can convey what a town or a battle is like in a way that goes beyond just a historical description, and gives one the sense of the times. His description of the fire bull (a bull with burning pitch on its horns) is not only an effective symbol of Spain on the edge of war, but an excellent depiction of small town life. His quick, imagistic sentences serve his expansive, summary approach, and the result is a sweeping view of the end of Republican Spain.
Ultimately, Field of Honor has moments of brilliance but is slowed by the political discussions. Since it is part of a cycle it would be interesting to see if he is able to use more of the good parts and avoid the conversational fragments.