Damned Souls by Dimiter Dimov – Love, War and the Plague

Damned Souls
Damned Souls
Dimiter Dimov
Sofia Press

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.

La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) by Juan Eduardo Zúñiga – A Review

La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise)
Juan Eduardo Zúñiga
From La trilogía de la Guerra Civil
Catedra 1989/2007

La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) is the second book in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Madrid trilogy, picking up a few years after the close of Largo noviembre de Madrid. It is the early 1940s and Spain is under the control of General Francisco Franco, who has dealt harshly with the defeated Republican forces. Madrid is gripped by poverty and fear and, as Zúñiga makes clear, an ever present fear hovers over the city in general, and in particular the defeated. Where Largo noviembre tried to look at the war through the lives of the inhabitants of Madrid (generally civilians in his telling), La Tierra looks at how those same inhabitants, now cornered, often poor, suffering after a year or two in prison, are trying to survive. The survival is tenuous, made even more so by many of the veterans who are trying to keep a resistance alive. Almost eight years later it is obvious the resistance was futile, but in the midst of World War II, as the Germans were loosing there was some sort of hope, misplaced, but one that provided a kind of balm for the defeated. It is in this milieu that Zúñiga sets his nuanced refection on memory and survival.

Las ilusiones: el Cerro de las Balas (The Illusions: Bullet Hill) is an aptly titled opening story for Zúñiga’s second book in the Madrid Trilogy. Largo noviembre de Madrid ended in October of 1939 with the entrance of Franco’s forces into the capital. The collection here takes off in 1943 in a city devastated both physically and emotionally by the war. The earliest impressions gives the reader are of a poor gypsy woman in rags scratching out a living in a bar. It is an image of more than poverty, which is certainly every where from cheep, run down shacks to the beer that is served warm in dirty glasses because there is neither enough power during the day to keep the refrigerators going nor enough water to wash adequately, an image of the outcast. The narrator is a veteran of the war, a republican soldier who has done a little time in a concentration camp. He works in a laboratory of a veterinary clinic with a Doctor Dimitar Dimov, a Bulgarian who the narrator doesn’t know well, and given that Bulgaria was allied with the axis at the time, perhaps he shouldn’t get to know. Nevertheless, as the walk the destroyed city and drink warm beer a confidence emerges and Dimov asks if he can find a Bulgarian who was part of the International Brigades. It is a dangerous proposition, since, if found, he would be in grave danger. The two men though begin the search and the friends of the narrator give varying bits of help, revealing a country sized with fear, a place where the defeated live in fear of more imprisonment. Ultimately, they decide the best thing is to escape to Viciy France. It is a plan full of illusions that doesn’t really face the reality that France is controlled by Germany and is as much a threat as Spain. There is no escape except in little pleasures such as that of the gypsy woman. The narrator decides he will get close to her despite her appearance, despite who she is. If there is no freedom, at least he can find something with the other outcasts. Of course, this is only an illusion, one that is common in Zúñiga, one that leaves the narrator in a devastating limbo unable to escape what they know should be abandoned.

Antiguas pasiones inmutables  (Ancient, immutable Passions) describes a post war Madrid, returning to the old ways, the rich taking possession of what had been theirs before the war, the poor living in hovels. Yet it is also a story of shifts of fortune that such destruction brings about, allowing a few people who were completely separate before the war to mix, to change, not in some ideological sense, but in practical terms. Told in sentences that continually shifting mid sentence between the perspective of the principle figures of the story, Adela, a maid, and Reyes Renoso, a rich landowner, so that their stories, although disparate, reflect a growing interconnectedness. Zúñiga is a master stylist and each one sentence paragraph, some three pages long, bring the threads of each character’s life together in the contrasts of their experience. She is a semi-literate young woman who has scraped by in the neighborhood, who has always looked at the great house on the edge of the slum where she lives and has wondered what it was like inside. He is the last survivor of a a rich family that was all killed during the war who takes over the house. Wounded and recovering in the home, he is a prisoner in some ways, surrounded by the same people who must have thrown the grenade that wounded him. Each is an observer. He of her; she of the world outside the great windows, which she never would have imagined looking thorough. They draw closer, but it is not clear if it is anything more than transactional, but each gives up part of their past to do it: he an elite sense of class that was destroyed when his family was executed; she a box of papers a republican soldier, a boyfriend most likely long since dead, gave her and told her she had to keep. Lines are crossed, borders frayed as the characters seek refuge of a sort from the war’s aftermath.

Camino del Tibet (Tibetan Road) is a search for a better way of living, one that is so out of sync with its time, it renders the believers unmoored from all hope. A group of theosophists meet in Madrid waiting for their leader, trying to decide what to do. They are dedicated members, one pair refrains from sex even though they sleep in the same bed, others refuse to discuss the left, not because they are pro Franco, but because to analyze the world in those terms is to participate in the physical. It might seem an odd choice for a story about post war Spain, but it fits nicely given that the Franco regime was a Catholic dictatorship which had executed theosophists. Moreover, given the ever present backdrop of World War II, the discussions of ethereal terms, both seems brave and pointless, both in the sense that they will achieve nothing and that faith doesn’t matter. And without the leader, without a sense of purpose, a future, it becomes very difficult to maintain the group. It is a story emblematic of all those faiths, religious or otherwise, that meet the hard reality of the war’s end.

Sueños después de la guerra (Dreams After the War) is a sad and beautiful gem that looks at the lives of the soldiers, now defeated, who lives of poverty and disappointment. Although the disparities between the rich and poor show up in a story like Antiguas pasiones inmutables, Sueños adds another layer of tragedy. Carlos is a shoeshine man who works at an expensive hotel where he hears the the men talk about high finance and wealth all things he has nothing to do with, nothing he can ever hope to access. He a man from humble beginnings who had become a construction worker. During the war, though, he served with distinction and was promoted to lieutenant. He was somebody. Then the war ended, his girlfriend was killed and he ended up in prison. All he has left is the bottle and his dreams. Zúñiga doesn’t stop with just the personal disaster of one man’s war. Despite his fallen state, his complete and utter hopelessness, his ex-comrades look to him as someone who can lead the underground, who can keep the fight going. It’s pointless, a dream that will never come true and Zúñiga makes clear that all dreams, the ones of the past and those of the future do little but make the reality that much more painful.

Pero no era un vencido sino que algo peor había golpeado su hombría: una vergüenza de las muchas que los hombres ocultan a lo largo de años y que a veces, cuando en un momento inesperado vienen al pensamiento, entre tantos esfuerzos como hacemos por olvidar, cruzan delante de los ojos, clavan sus garfios en las vísceras más hondas y el rostro se osxurece y nos sentimos desfallecer aunque luego vovamos a hablar de fútbol, de la corrida en la plaza de las Ventas y se alardea de algo que deseamos poseer y que no hemos conquistado, pero la cicatriz de aquella vergüenza está allí, cruzando el pecho.

La dignidad, los papeles, el olvido (The Dignity, the Papers, the Oversight) and the Interminable espera (Interminable Wait) both cover similar ground. In each a veteran of the war are working actively with the Resistance, one distributing papers, the other observing a pick up. In each fear and suspicion mark their every move. The temptation to give up, to find relief in the radio, any kind of distraction. What makes these stories so strong is Zúñiga carfuly balances the same of loosing, the hope for a new future, the fear of getting caught, all the while finding an emotional depth in all of them.

…los receptores de radio cuyas averías arreglaba, traían palabras divertidas y música, girando el interruptor less callaba o les hacía hablar a su antojo y lo prefería a estar como él estaba, sumido en la fasedad del recuerdo proque éste, cada vez que le invocamos, nos da una imagen distinta, va cambiando sin parar según lo que anhelamos o nos conviene, por lo cual no recordamos lo que pasó sino distintas invenciones que acaban siendo engaños.

The last story, El último dia del mundo (The Last Day of the World) requires a note on style. All the stories, save El último are written in long, single sentence paragraphs, some that span several pages. They are perfect for the complex narration, swithing between subjects, as the past and the present mix in the characters mind’s. El último is a transitionary story. As in Largo noviembre which contained one story the took place after the fall of Madrid, El último is the begining of the end of the emediate post war. The story follows three people who refuse to leave their neighboorhood as it is redeveloped. Their defiance is a silent one, one that will end in their destruction. There is no deep psychological examination of fear and hope. That’s gone. What is left is the commercial, the new paradise. This, of course, is not the paradise that is intended by the title of the book, which is a quote of the International. As the vision of a dictatorship, the language changes to simpiler, shorter sentences, which capture a more utilitarian sense of language.

While not quite as magical as Largo noviembre de Madrid, La tierra será un paraíso is an excelent collection.  When taken in the context of the trilogy, the work is even stronger,  examining the profound depths of the end of the war. Where Largo was constrained with action, upheaval, the constant bombing, La tierra is quite, frozen in terror. The two states are perfectly represented in the structures of the narratives and the stylistic approach of the writing. These two works are a must for anyone interested in the Spanish short form.

Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid’s Long November) by Juan Eduardo Zúñiga – A Review

Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid’s Long November)
From La trilogía de la Guerra Civil
Juan Eduardo Zúñiga
Catedra 1980/2007

largonoviembre Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Largo noviembre de Madrid is, simple said, a masterwork of short fiction. Since its publication in 1980, and the publication of the second and third books of his Madrid trilogy, it has been considered a masterpiece that captures the opening days of the Spanish Civil War, the confusion, the fear, the the atmosphere of destruction. In sixteen brilliant stories, Zúñiga creates and impression war with stories that are both visceral and sparse, moments that seem to come out of his ever present dust and smoke and recede just as quickly, leaving the reader with briefest impression of the desperation and madness that afflicts of his characters.

Before I dive into the stories, two pieces of historical information are important to keep in mind. First, the Spanish Civil war started in July 1936 and by November 1936, Nationalist troops had reached the outskirts of Madrid. The Republicans expected Madrid to fall and moved the capital to Valencia; however, Madrid held and from then on it received repeated bombardment. Second,  Zúñiga was born in Madrid in 1929, and spent the war in Madrid. Too young to fight, he was still a witness to the war. Both of these are important for understanding the shape of Largo noviembre.

All but two of the stories take place during November of 1936. November ’36 both represents the high point of Republican resistance to the Nationalist, where Madrid was able to mount an unexpected defense, and the war in Madrid as a whole. The last two stories form a coda, closing an already a futile war with yet more futile acts. What should also be stated from the outset is the stories are not exclusively about soldiers; soldiers make up a small percentage of the characters. Instead, Zúñiga writes of the civilians who surviving the war and even when he writes of soldiers, it’s when they are in the urban world, if not away from the front, then in the undefined boarder between the front and the civilian world that is the mark of urban combat. It is this larger picture, a story of Madrid, that makes the the collection something large than just war stories. In many ways, Madrid itself is a character, a landscape whose physical presence both shapes the inhabitants and is the locus of memory.

The idea of memory pervades the book. In the first story, a story that one can read as a transition between the past and the present war, memory is ever present. From the first story, Noviembre, la madre, 1936 (November, Mother, 1936), Zúñiga makes it clear that how memory shapes us and the physical and how the physical is a form of memory. In the story, three brothers are deciding what they should do: leave the flat, stay on? They are too old to be soldiers, but to leave the flat is to leave the neighborhood, and leaving is leaving the walks with their mother, their hand in hers, the buildings they looked up to with her. A sense of transition is in effect, from the times at the turn of the century, to the war. Whatever the past had, it is now gone. Even the structure of the story with a narrator looking back at brothers looking back enforces the idea of memory. Zúñiga says it most clearly here:

[…]y aún más dificil de concebir es que esta certidumbre de haber comprendido se presenta un día de repente y su resplandor trastorna y ya quedamos consagrados a ahondar más y más en los recuerdos o en los refrenados sentimientos para recuperar otro ser que vivió en nosotros, pero fuera de nuestra conciencia, y que se yergue tan sólido como la urbanidad, los prejuicios, los miramientos…

[…]and even more difficult to conceive is the certainty of having understood one day will come suddenly and its brilliance will dive one mad and we’ll continue to be dedicated to digging deeper and deeper into memories or repressed feelings to recover the other being that lived in us, but outside of our conscience, and that rises solid like courtesy, prejudice, tact…

A different take on the power of memory comes in Joyas, manos, amor, las ambulancies (Jewels, Hands, Love, Ambulances). Here the memories drive the interlocking lives of a doctors and nurses in a hospital that is treating the wounded. Typical of Zúñiga, the war itself is at the margin. What he is interested in is moving through the minds of his characters as they experience the war. For them its fatigue and a desperation to assemble that past in the present. The nurse wants a ring for her finger and jewels around her neck like her mom had when she’d leave the house. She also learned that if she gave me what they wanted she’d get her jewelry. One of the doctors is sleeping with her, desperate to get his hand on a ring for her. For him the past contains the rings his mother had, and which his brother says have been taken by the military. It’s all desperation, an attempt to hold on to a world that no longer exits. Another doctor knows it’s all meaningless: he’s cut rings off fingers in surgery. It’s a nightmare at the border of rationality, and mixing the story into between bouts of extreme fatigue, Zúñiga gives the moment a horrifying aspect: imagine while there are so many dying these people are just looking for rings.

The idea of avarice comes up over and over. It can be a desire for wealth as in the previous story, an attempt to hang on to what one has. In Riesgos del atardecer (Risks of the Afternoon), we have a successful shop owner hiding all his merchandise in his stockroom, fearful that the government is going to confiscate it. Like many of his characters, they are trying desperately to hang onto something that has changed. The shop is no longer filled with the fashionable. If he can just wait it all out he can take the stock back. Not everyone in Madrid cares about the war. There is an indifference at times. The situation in the city is complicated and Zúñiga is clear in the sense that much of what is happening is not heroic, despite the use of November in the title of the collection.

He has two particularly tragic stories that take on the idea of the adventure seeker: Hotel Florida, Plaza del Callao and Adventura en Madrid. In the former, a French arms merchant comes to Madrid to make a deal, but he is seduced by the war, the sense of danger and freedom that comes in a besieged city. It’s a playground, running through the bombed out buildings, as if he were somehow immune to the dangers. The narrator early on knows this isn’t even true:

Eran meses en que cualquier hecho trivial, pasado cierto tiempo, revelaba su aspecto excepcional que ya no sería olvidado fácilmente.

There were months in which whatever trivial occurrence, after a little time had passed, would reveal an exceptional nature that would not be easily forgotten.

For the French volunteer to the cause, he quickly learns that the war is nothing like he imagined. Zúñiga makes that point, as always, using memory as a differentiator. The hard realities of the front aren’t the focus, but the clash between his memories and his current reality. OF course, the cold night is unpleasant, but it’s the freedom to roam Paris drunk with his friends that creates distance.

It should be clear that Zúñiga’s work is in itself an attempt to capture the memory of a place and that memory is difficult to grasp. In one of the best stories of the collection, the beautiful, Calle de Ruíz, ojos vacios (Ruíz Street, Empty Eyes) he gives us a blind man trying to navigate the city during a bombardment. The city has already become difficult to navigate: what he has in his memory has been destroyed, returning us to Zúñiga’s preoccupation with physical memory. And he can’t see the danger through out the city. But he holds to his daily reading sessions with his friends. When the air raid happens he  is lost, and worse, has lost the book he carries with him. It distresses him; he is panicked: words are more important to him than anything. It’s all he has, all anyone can have. The narrator, sympathetic at first, gets tired of all this and wants to tell him

Te engañan: no hay presente, tu vida únicamente es el pasado, la ceniza de un tiempo que tú no vives, sino que está ya hecho y tú te euncuentras con él en las manos, convertido en recuerdos. No sabrás nunca nada, todo es inútil, deja de buscar ese libro.

They’re fooling you: there’s no present; your life is completely in the past, the ashes of a time where you don’t live, but is already done and you find yourself with him on your hands, turning into memories. You’ll never know, everything is useless, so stop looking for the book.

If memory is ever present, the future is a luxury. In several stories fortune tellers appear, but the fortune tellers are unable to see. They are blind to the future as the blind man in Calle de Ruíz is blind to the present. There is something extra here: the future is comforting. Without a future there is no comfort. In Presagios de la noche (Evening Signs), a drunk and scared soldier repeatedly asks the fortune teller what his future is. She can’t see. Her assistant chastises the boy

[…] no hay tales presagios, que nadie vigila nuestras vidas […] estamos solos

[…] there are no signs; no one guards our lives […] we are alone

When the fortune tellers give in, there is no hope.

Finally, the last two stories close out the end of the war, both showing the futility of it all. I the first a German International Brigade volunteer is roaming Madrid in February, 1939. He is the last of his kind. (The brigades were withdraw in ’38) Instead of a hero, he’s looked at with suspicion. The war is over, why do we need him? He goes into a bar an everyone looks at him. Are these the people who will take to the streets to give Franco the fascist salute? Are they just tired of the war? It is a sad end. The German has no where to go. He certainly can’t go home. It’s all a waste. It is the same sentiment that pervades the final story, Las lealtades (Loyalties). Zúñiga gives us a soldier guarding an empty building. Asked to search for someone inside all he finds are over turned offices, papers and folders strewn everywhere. The operations of a modern war come to little more than paper under foot. It’s an arresting image of an abstract war, one that exists as office memos, banality that in the confines of the building means nothing. It’s the last image of the war, one that is unsettling given how much smoke, dust, and ash have filled the previous pages.

Largo noviembre de Madrid is one of the great collections of war and belongs aside such works as Issac Babel’s Red Army or Ambrose Bierece’s civil war stories (there is more to Bierce than An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge). It’s more than war, it’s an exploration of memory and existence that transcends the immediacy of its time. There is not one bad story and most of them will continue to haunt long after I have finished reading them.

The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope – A Review

The Wrong Blood
Maunel de Lope
Other Press, 2010, 288 pg

What strikes one when reading The Wrong Blood, Spanish writer Manuel de Lope’s first book to be translated into English, is the movement through time. It is a book that reveals itself if in concurrent glimpses of the past and the future, where even as the underlying story is revealed, Lope is constantly seeding the pages with little moments of the future that explain just enough lured you on. It is a difficult balancing act that can easily descend into over powered winks at the reader: you see what I know. It is a fitting style, though, for what has become the emblematic topic of Spanish writing over the last few decades—the Spanish Civil War—and the slow, confused, uncertain mystery of remembrance that often doesn’t completely explain what happened to the participants. The question for readers, though, is does the book work with the materials of history to get at something that addresses the Civil War, or does it just use the past as a backdrop for a well told story?

Most of the action of The Wrong Blood takes place in a small section of the Basque country on the border with Spain and follows two women, Maria, a poor, uneducated girl of 17 whose family owns a rural inn, and Isabel, an upper class woman who lives in a large home and is the young bride of an army captain. The story begins just as the Spanish Civil War starts and the two sides are rushing to put together armies and militias. It is a confusing time and the geography of the war is changing quickly. The young girl is abandoned at the inn when her parents run away from advancing fascist soldiers. The soldiers move into the inn and she works as a servant. Most of them are young militia men and have an ominousness presence. However, it is the sargent, separated his wife during their wedding anniversary, who rapes her. It isn’t a violent moment, he just expects her to because she understands she has no choice. The soldiers will move on and she will live the inn, but the rape, the third one in her short life, marks her with a great distrust and mixed with a rural sensibility, she is becomes a secretive woman.

Marrying on the eve of the war, Isabel has but just a brief honeymoon with her husband before the war starts. It is a moment of great hope, and like many novels that open with a wedding it is doomed from the start. From the beginning de Lope juxtaposes the wedding with the war:

It was the month of may, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway. And so it was the month of May, or the month of June, in wedding season.

It is an inauspicious moment, as one of the wedding guests has a stroke in the bathroom of Maria’s inn during a stop on the way to the wedding. From there the problems only continue. The region they live in is initially Republican (anti-fascist) but quickly falls and Hondarribia, the small town where she lives which is tantalizingly across the river from France, becomes occupied territory, filled with soldiers guarding every town, summary executions, and privation. And her husband, the only one of his army comrades to join the Republican forces, is captured and executed just months after the war begins.

But even before he describes much of the war, he moves into the future, sometime in the 1960s, when the grandson of Isabel comes to stay at the family home. Yet the house is no longer in the family. Instead, Isabel had willed in to Maria, who is now an old woman. It is unclear why an upper class woman would give a home to a poor country girl, and even more, why the country girl would let the woman’s grandson stay at the family home for a few months. It is the first of many mysteries that begin permeate the story. The above history of the war is not even clear at this point, yet de Lope leaves a feeling that something dark has happened. He is a master at revealing the mystery slowly. Even though the old doctor who lives in the house next door knows the whole story, his hesitation, his doubts about what to reveal and to who, only add to the tension.

Despite the the well written nature of the novel, the strange relationship between the doctor and the grandson, where the doctor wants to reveal all, and the grandson wants to escape the pesky only man, provides the only interesting commentary on the passage of the time and who owns the right to secrets. Is the doctor right to want to explain what happened, or does he just want to make himself feel better? These kinds of questions swirl around the doctor. De Lope is obviously interested in the way ideas are transmitted. For example, in this representative sample of his style, the kind of intra-sentence refinement that works out its ideas through constant use of counter images.

But nobody appeared to be paying any attention to this enigmatic vision, and with the passage of the years, when recalling a wedding celebrated so long ago, it may all seem grotesque, strange, or simply unread–a memory of playing with figures decked out in wedding finery amid flowers and balustrades, or ow wandering in a labyrinth of bushes, or of seeing the bust of a horseman above a garden wall as he rode by during the magic moments when twilight was galling–for real life had offered one of those sequences that would never be repeated except in the theaters where what were then still called talkies were shown. In the end, memory adopts images that originated in films.

When getting at memory he is at his best. He has a good eye for the images that make up a moment and a way of describing them that is concrete and lush at the same time. Reading this book will surely overwhelm one with images and sensations that seem to pop off the page.

Yet, I can’t help but return to the question first asked: are his ample skills at evoking the time, simply used to dress up a mystery? I ask this because the central mystery of the book, which I’m not going to spoil, doesn’t seem far fetched, but feels as if it isn’t explored as well as it could be. Instead, de Lope seems to sidestep the central issue, the real pain it would have caused. And in describing the emotions of that pain he obscures with such strong descriptions, what should by its very weight, its existence, be powerful and reveal the depths of the character’s thoughts that would bring to life the past.

The Wrong Blood is a solid book, well written, and it is not for nothing that Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende give him high praise of the book jacket. Considering how little from Spain is translated into English, it is worth a read. However, despite the perfection of the story and the writing, I think he could have reached just a little father and found something even more humanly revealing in his characters.

FTC note: The publisher sent me this book. For that I thank them.

Writing the Spanish Civil War: Field of Honor by Max Aub – a Review

Field of Honour
Max Aub
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.

Too Many Prizes: España, aparte de mi estos premios by Fernando Iwasaki – A Review

España, aparte de mi estos premios (Spain, Besides Me These Prizes) by Fernando Iwasaki is a very Spanish novel, one whose humor and satire is directed at the literary prizes that fill Spain’s literary scene and Spanish customs as if they were carried out by the Japanese.  The affect is often humorous for one who knows Spanish culture and he manages to create a parody that is often insightful, although a little  repetitive.

The book is structured around 7 literary contests. Each chapter, which is a self contained story, is prefaced by the rules of the contest, followed by the story, and then the results of the judging panel. It is helpful to know before going any farther that Spain has more literary prizes per capita than any other country, so many that it seems as if everyone has one a prize, even if they are from the most obscure organizations. The contests are meant to celebrate whatever body is sponsoring the award, some are nationalist such as the prize for the best story that celebrates Basque food, others are completely ridiculous, such as the Seville soccer team that sponsors a prize for a story that must include something about the team.

The stories all feature at least one Japanese person who has some sort of link with Spain. In the first story, a Japanese soldier in the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War hides in a cave in Murcia for 70 years until he makes a sudden appearance on a Survivor like reality show that takes place in a cave, killing several of the contestants with his samurai sword. At first he is treated as a criminal, but when he is found to be a veteran the parties of the left celebrate him as a heroic veteran and he becomes a national phenomenon. Books about him become best sellers and the media follow him 24 hours a day, showing him when he falls into a coma, on TV on a live feed. He is given awards by the local government for his service. When he wakes from the coma and learns about the last 60 years of history he commits suicide. On finding that he has written hundreds of haikus in the cave, the local government is quite happy because they can now build an amusement park of Japaneses tourists.

The story then ends with the judging. As with all the stories, the story wins, but the judges note that the story has not really celebrated the group’s interests and has only set the story in Spain. For next years contest, they would like the ability to not have a winner, something that is specifically outlawed in the rules of the contest.  In latter stories, the judges will complain that the story had almost nothing to do with the sponsoring organization. In the story about the soccer team in Seville, the story actually celebrates the team rival.

Iwasaki uses these frame stories to make fun of contemporary society and its obsessions. Whether skewering reality TV shows, molecular gastronomy, soccer fanatics, governments only interested in looking good, or the vanity of literary prizes Iwasaki is able to paint a telling portrait of modern Spain. Mixing in the Japanese characters allows him to both show the history of the Japanese in Spain, and to offer the outsider’s view of Spain. While the Japanese act in the same extremes of national character that his Spaniards do, the ludicrous things that become nationally celebrated, such as frying sushi leftovers in oil and serving that only, raise the question, why is this Spanish thing we do so celebrated? If someone use shrimp shells, as one character does, to create flan, is that breaking some sacred culinary tradition and is the opposite, fried sushi leftovers, actually more pure because of its simplicity?

Iwasaki, like a good parodist, doesn’t give any answers, but it is obvious he thinks that the culture of literary prizes has gone to far. At the end of the book, he gives several commandments for creating stories:

The stories that you send to the contest will never be important to the history of literature. In reality, not even for literature.

Los cuentos que envíes a los concursos nunca serán importantes para la historia de la literatura. En realidad, ni siuiera para la literatura.

Write a story that can be like a literary mother cell that you can clone for every contest. Don’t worry. Clones always are better than the original.

Escribe un cuento que sea como una <<célula madre>> literaria que puedas clonar para cada concurso. No te preocupes. Los clones siempre salen mejores que le orininal.

If you characters are going to be divorced, make the divorce happen before the story starts. People don’t like it when you only write about problems. In addition, four out of five literary judges are divorce or soon will be.

Si tus personajes van a estar divorciados, procura que el divorcio se haya producido antes de que comience el cuento. La gente ya lo está pasando muy mal para que encima tú sólo escribas sobre problemas. Además, cuatro de cada cinco miembros de jurados literarios están divorciados o les falta poco.

My only complaint in an other wise fun book is the repetitiveness of some of the stories. Every story includes a passage about the Japanese soldier that was found on a Pacific island in he 1970s who didn’t know the war ended. While that statement fits within his overall parody and his notion of the mother cell, it practice it is a little tiresome. If he could have found a different way to approach the idea it would have been better.

Over all, España, aparte de mi estos premios is a fun read by one of Spain’s newer generation of writers. I’m sure the book will never make it into translation because it is not universal enough, it would good to see one of the chapters in a collection some day.

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – A Review

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War

Peter Carroll, 440 pg.

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is the definitive account of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, not only during the war, but the before and after. The book is also a labor of love and it some times colors the otherwise solid writing in the book. Carroll clearly loves his subject and it shows in the lengths he goes to show the veterans as committed anti-fascists. Yet as a true believer he is blinded to a few contradictions that should have been addressed in his book.

The book is roughly divided into three parts: before the war; in combat; and after the war. In part one Carroll shows that most of the veterans were already radicalized workers, many who were already communists or labor activists. Many had spent time in jail during labor unrest and were politically aware of what was going on in Europe. There were some college graduates, but most were workers. As the call for volunteers went out, the Communist Party organized the recruitment and because of fears of spies primarily communists were sent to Spain. Others such as socialists were excluded for lack of commitment. What is clear is that most volunteers believed in the party.

Once in Spain the Brigade was not well trained and suffered high losses from initial lack of leadership, training, and bad strategic decisions. Never equipped adequately, the Brigade did their best but suffered high losses. Carroll notes that several times the men expressed discontent with the war and there were some desertions, but in general the men continued to believe in the war and follow the leadership. Carroll goes at great length to show that the men were brave and good soldiers. It often seems that he is determined to show that despite any myths people have heard, they were brave men. He also wants to show that the men were committed and few wanted to desert. While from his numbers that seems to be true, he repeats this several times and one gets the impression this was more than a fact but a detail personally dear to him.

Once the war ends the veterans return to the US where they try to support the defeated republic, a commitment that would follow them throughout their lives. The biggest controversy in this period is when the veterans follow the party line after the Soviet-German non aggression pact and say that it is no longer their business to be anti-fascist. It is here that Carroll doesn’t really examine the case particularlly well. If they were anti-fascist they should have continued with that line, but instead they changed, and Carroll suggests that it was natural, that it wasn’t their fight any more. It is not exactly an apology, but it is a soft peddle that underscores the weaknesses of the book: the soldiers were brave and fought the good fight, therefore, criticism should be kept to a minimum. For Carroll the important thing is to restore the honor of the Brigade, not to find the mistakes they made.

His coverage of the McCarthy era is solid and shows some of the excess of the period quite well. Yet he would have done well to have explained a little better how some veterans were not a threat, while in one case one was a spy for the Soviet Union. He is a little quick on passing over that veteran. And while the McCarthy era was excessive, he needed to better explain what the veterans were and were not. Just because the supreme court found that the enemy agent laws were illegal and suppressed free speech, doesn’t explain the history of the veterans.

Overall, the book is an important resource for the era, but has some weaknesses. I find it hard to imagine that many of the veterans he wrote about in the book would have ever agreed with Antony Beevor that the battles on the Elbro were mostly pointless political theater, and not of strategic value. Nor would Carroll, I suspect.

Ya Sabes Mi Padadero – Caratas de la Guerra Civil – A Review

Ya Sabes Mi Padadero:  La guerra civil a través de las cartas de los que la vivieron

Javier Cervera Gil, 483 pg.

Ya Sabes Mi Padadero:  La guerra civil a través de las cartas de los que la vivieron is a book that will never be translated into English, but for those who are interested in the the Spanish Civil war it is a shame, for the book is window on the everyday experience of soldiers and civilians during the war. Using the letters and journals of around 35 people, Javier Gil Cervera shows the war as it was, with its boredom, fanaticism, and quotidian.

At its strongest Ya Sabes shows the war at its most extreme. Many times a fascist soldier would write that they brought back a mortally wounded soldier and as they were dying they would kiss the crucifix and shout VIVA ESPAÑA and VIVA CHRISTO REY. It was even more impressive to the letter writers if a Republican soldier did this because it only confirmed the righteousness of the cause. Along similar lines there were several letters from men condemned to die who wrote about their undying faith in God and the cause which God had blessed and they would become a martyr. At its most extreme one letter writes about  a mass he attends that should rightly be called a fascist mass, the disturbing mix of religion and militarism.

A field mass. A magnificent altar, a its base the church of San Salvador de Oña that reminds one of the mercenary abbots of El Cid, and the mountains of Castilla that the Lord gave us which with its blue sky like those of our heroes and the cloaks of our statues of the Virgin Mary form the best canopy for the Christ’s sacrament that from these steps blesses perhaps all these soldiers.

Misa de campaña. El altar magífico, por fondo la iglesia de San Salvador de Oña que recuerda los Abades mesnaderos de Mío Cid, y los montes de esta Castilla que el Señor nos dio, que con su cielo azul como las camisas de nuestros héroes y los mantos de nuestras Vírgenes forman el mejor dosel a Cristo Sacramentado que desde esta escalinata bendijo quizás a tantos caballeros.

His description goes on for quite sometime and gives one some the source of the savagery of the war.

On the Republican side there are few examples of the fascist style ideology. Only one Republican, a French communist, talks of the war in those terms, and even he is more interested in the failures of the government to carry out the revolution than thinking about ideologies. Perhaps the letters were lost or destroyed, but the Republican side had its committed followers, too.

Outside of the ideologues, the book splits its time between describing the conditions on the front: letters about the cold in Tuerel and the trenches and the bombings. The descriptions are not too detailed because the information was intended for those at home and were probably going to be censored by officers so the letter limit themselves to generalities. For those not at the front the letters are a mix of deprivation, logging for those who are not at home and for the things they have lost in the displacements of the war.

While letters to give one an insight to what people are thinking, they are also an insight into what people want to obfuscate so the letters can be very cursory, telling you only what the writer was choosing to write. The result are letters that might have best been omitted. Case in point: how many times do you need to print letters that say I miss you? Unfortunately, there is a series of letters between a couple that is like that and becomes quite repetitive, which is the problem of reading letters. Perhaps if the book was trimmed down a hundred pages it would have been a little less repetitive. And while having the author explain the context of the war, the book would have been more interesting to read full letters, not snippets here and there.

In all Ya Sabes Mi Paradero is a good insight into the Spanish Civil War even if it is a little slow at times.