It is one of those fascinating experiences of reading that let one enter into old political arguments, wander through them as if in an attic, and find among the detritus of so much misplaced, or misspent, analysis, otherwise quality writing. Dimiter Dimov’s (Bulgaria, 1909-1966) writing is certainly marked by it’s time and in parts is not shy about them, yet underneath the cruft, the antiquated arguments that time has only made seem exaggerated, or, at least, mistargeted, is some solid writing. If one were to spend time wading in the intellectual past of the mid 20th century, Damned Souls is not a bad choice.
Damned Souls takes place in Spain right before the July, 1936 outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Dimov spent considerable time in Spain between 1939-1946. I came across his name in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise). In that story he is working in a veterinary lab with Zúñiga and they find themselves planning to help Republican refuges to return to Madrid via clandestine methods. It comes to nothing, as does so much in Zúñiga’s post war Madrid, but what is evident is his deep admiration for Dimov.
At it’s core, Damned Souls is a debate between conservative religion and an open, an in some ways ideal, worker centered society. It was the crux of the Spanish Civil war, so the novel fits within that context. As a novel, though, Damned Souls has to make that case as forcefully as it can. Or at least, that is what Dimov tries to do. It makes for occasionally overwrought moments. At its best, Dimov captures the frustrations of his characters. The first third describes the harrowing drug addiction of Fanny, an English woman, who falls in love a reactionary Jesuit priest. The desperation and the lengths she goes to get her fix are some of the best writing of the book. He really captures the sad determination of an addict.
The rest of the book takes place in the months before the war. Fanny, at that point not an addict, is the stereotypical upper class floater, more interested in having a good time than anything else. In a chance encounter she meets a Jesuit priest and falls in love with him. She begins following him around Spain, trying to get in his good graces. Finally, she lands at small town in northern Spain where he has set up a typhus hospital. He won’t accept her help, so she sets up a rival hospital. Next to it. As the outbreak spreads and more and more of the pueblo’s poor die futile deaths, it comes out that all the priest cares about is taking her money and reestablishing the Spanish empire. It’s that last bit that seems cartoonish, as if he could do it. Or perhaps it’s just the delusion that was at the back of Franco’s supporters. Because the arguments are so distant, it is hard to see them as real, even if they are the same ones in Doña Perfecta. Whatever the case, the descent of the hospital into disease is horrific, and, again, shows Dimov’s skill as a writer.
Ultimately, it is the Republican forces who take the camp over, and in a day remedy all the problems, delousing and burning all infect materials. It’s as if the old system was incapable, even when it tries to use modern methods, is incapable of helping the people. Dimov avoids any discussions of Republican politics, other than trad unions, but there is an undercurrent here that without knowing his work better, is hard to decide which way he is going. Is this socialist realism, or just an over exuberant anti-fascist? That aside, the debates are still present and would not feel as heavy handed if, and this is perhaps the biggest issue with the book, Dimov didn’t continually throw around generalizations, usually in the form, the Spanish are a nation of fill in the blank.
Despite it’s flaws, Damned Souls is well written and should be read, not as a book about Spain, but as one author’s reaction to Spain and the Civil War.