Espoir: Sierra de Teruel

From the Encyclopédie Larousse:

Espoir est le seul film de l’écrivain André Malraux, par ailleurs auteur d’un roman intitulé l’Espoir, consacré au même thème.

Montré clandestinement en 1939, ce pamphlet sobre et lyrique n’est sorti qu’à la Libération, précédé d’un commentaire de Maurice Schumann. Plus que d’une œuvre de pure propagande, il s’agit de l’une des premières tentatives françaises (réussie) de cinéma-vérité. Auteur complet de son film, qu’il a écrit, dialogué, réalisé et même monté, Malraux use des images et des sons de la même manière qu’il se servait des mots dans la Condition humaine. Pour lui, le contexte socio-politique est un personnage à part entière. Il prend soin de décrire la guerre d’Espagne comme un catalyseur de passions vécues non pas par des individus isolés, mais plutôt par une communauté déchirée dans sa chair. En ce sens, il annonce le reportage tel qu’il s’est développé à l’occasion de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’instigation de photographes comme Robert Capa, fondateur de l’agence Magnum en 1939. En outre, Malraux évite le piège dans lequel tombent souvent les écrivains cinéastes : les grands discours moralisateurs.

Espoir est une chronique dépouillée qui tend à ressembler le plus possible aux actualités cinématographiques de l’époque, sans en reprendre le ton sentencieux. Les faits sont là et les images se suffisent à elles-mêmes, l’une des qualités primordiales de cette œuvre étant l’habileté avec laquelle les documents pris sur le vif sont intégrés aux scènes de fiction pure. La distribution composée d’inconnus renforce encore cet aspect et confère aux différentes anecdotes une authenticité qui sait ne jamais tricher avec la vérité des sentiments.

Cette osmose est sans doute due à la dérive d’un projet qui ne devait constituer initialement qu’un post-scriptum au roman écrit en 1937. Les deux œuvres n’ont d’ailleurs finalement que très peu de points communs, sinon cette passion de la liberté qui allait conduire l’auteur dans les rangs de la Résistance.

See also the film’s IMDB page.

Days of Hope II

André Malraux

If the problem that André Malraux’s Days of Hope poses is that of the confrontation between the virtues and emotions of human subjectivity–hope, courage, enthusiasm–and a new form of mechanized warfare that puts a premium on objective technological efficiency, this is complicated by the fact that the very opposition repeatedly breaks down. For on the one hand the machines cannot be so easily reduced to an instrumentalized, technical logic. And on the other hand, the figure of the human is constantly in danger of disappearing or of being subsumed into a more general and impersonal landscape of affect. In short, the machines seem to take on a life of their own, while the men (and women) fighting the war have trouble holding on to their appearance of individualized identity.

Some of this blurring of the machinic and the human is a matter of perspective. After all, Malraux shows us the war from the air, a point of view that might be imagined to offer a broader and more objective panorama, but which in practice simply confounds established certainties. Hence when the Republican Flight brings along a local peasant, to help them locate a hidden Falangist airstrip, at first his local knowledge of the terrain proves useless, as he is unaccustomed to looking down on it from above: “His mouth half-open, and tears zig-zagging down his cheeks, one after the other, the peasant was straining every nerve to see where they were. He could recognize nothing” (395). But more broadly, even for seasoned pilots, from the air things take on a different aspect. On one of their early mission, for instance, they see a road “studded with little red dots. [. . .] too small to be cars, yet moving too mechanically to be men. It looked as if the roadway itself was in motion.” This turns out to be a column of Fascist lorries, but to see them as such requires the pilot to have “a gift of second sight: seeing things in his mind, not through his eyes.” And even then, he retains the impression that the landscape and infrastructure itself has come to life as he observes a “road [. . .] that throbbed and thundered–the road of fascism” (86).

But even closer to the ground, the distinction between the animate and the inert is often hard to discern. At one point, for example, during the defence of Madrid, we are provided with the perspective of a fire-fighter named Mercery high up on his ladder, who imagines himself battling “an enemy with more life in it than any man, more life than anything else in the world. Combating this enemy of a myriad writhing tentacles, like a fantastic octopus, Mercery felt himself terrible inert, as though made of lead” (342). Shortly thereafter, machine-gunned by a Fascist plane, he is described as “living or dead” as he “still clung to the nozzle of his hose”–as though the border between life and death had here become strictly undecidable, or perhaps (however briefly) irrelevant. Elsewhere, even the confrontation between infantry and tank, which is otherwise staged as the classic clash between man and machine (for faced with the tank only the dynamite-laden “dinamiteros [. . .] can face the machine on equal terms” [197]), is also put into question. At Guadarrama we discover that “a machine can seem startled on occasion.” Faced with anti-tank machine guns, “four of them–three in the first line, one in the second–tilted up simultaneously with an air of puzzlement: ‘What on earth is happening to us now?’” (310).

And at the Battle of Teruel, things are further complicated by the deployment of a loud-speaker, a machine that talks: “inert, yet alive because it spoke” (381). Later, as the noise of battle dies down, it is described in personifying terms: “the loud-speaker had been waiting for this lull” (384). More generally, the technology of mass reproduction–represented here by cartoon characters such as “Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Donald Duck” (368)–conjure up “the modern fairyland, the world in which those who are killed all come back to life” (369). Technology both brings to humanity death and destruction but also offers the world forms of (re)animation that trouble the very distinction between human and inhuman, living and dead.

If then the machines increasingly take on a life of their own, what distinguishes the human? At the best in the novel, the men and women who populate it eke out a fairly shadowy and precarious existence. Again, this is partly a function of the recurring aerial perspective: from on high or far off, people either disappear are easily dehumanized, for instance (in the case of deserters going over to the enemy) appearing to be no more than “insects waving their antennae” (305) or (in the case of Fascists flushed out of the forest) adopting “the same panic-stricken scamper as the herd of cattle they had just stampeded” (398). Again, however, even on the ground they tend to dissolve into the environment: “shadows,” “ghosts,” “wraiths,” and “shadowy forms” in the Madrid mist, for example (265, 266, 267, 270); or collectively constituting “a frenzied mass” (204) or a “panic-stricken mob [. . .] like leaves whirled together and then dispersed by the wind” (225). Even in terms of the novel’s own representational strategy, which constantly jumps between locations and discrete episodes, there is little attempt to give many of the characters much realist depth or rounded individuality; they tend simply to incarnate particular positions or singular attitudes, becoming spokespeople for (say) Anarchism or Communism, or exemplary instantiations of stubbornness or self-sacrifice.

If there is something that, for Malraux, can (still) be said to be distinctly human, it is perhaps the face. This perhaps is why the novel repeatedly recurs to the human face, and to the notion that the face somehow stands in for individual character (men are variously described, for instance, in terms of a “jovial solid-looking jowl” [9] or a “predatory face, hook nose, and twinkling eyes” [18] and so on), and also more generally for shared humanity. In an atmosphere frequently characterized by gloom and indiscernibility, Malraux often has faces suddenly revealed or lit up, as for instance when an explosion at Toledo catches a group of dinamiteros “open mouthed, their cheeks lit by the livid purplish sheen of flame and moonlight mingled [such that] each saw the face that he would wear in death” (199). Or when an aeroplane is caught in a searchlight and “a sense of comradeship in arms pervaded the cabin flooded with menacing light; now for the first time since they began the flight, these men could see each other” (234; emphasis in original) and as a result, in the aftermath, each of the crew “had vividly before him the picture of the features of his comrade as they had been thrown into relief for that brief moment” (235). There is something about the face of the other that gives us both his (or her) truth, and reminds us of some shared commonality.

Except, of course, that warfare also destroys the face and our perception of it. On the one hand, the novel repeatedly gives us instances of blindness, either permanent or temporary, which make it impossible to see the face. And the face of the blind is also somehow grotesque, we are told: the father of the blinded airman Jaime tells us that he “can’t bear to look at his face” (279). But war also mutilates its victims such that there is no face to be seen. This is what happens to Gardet, another airman, whose plane crashes towards the end of the book: his face is “slashed wide open from ear to ear. The lower part of the nose was hanging down.” As a result, would-be rescuers flee from the sight, and Gardet muses “If I look at my mug just now, I’ll kill myself” (409). Even bandaged up, the effect is that of “a tragic bas-relief of Armageddon” (411).

Throughout, then, Malraux tries to maintain the distinction between human and machine (as well as between the human and he animal), but ultimately the war puts such differences into question. More likely, we end up with a variety of hybrid combinations of man, machine, and nature, in which what is presumptively object is animated and gains features of subjectivity (such as affect and agency), while men and women defer or abdicate some part of their subjectivity as they take up their places in the “endless flux of things” (423). Sometimes these hybrids are empowering, as with the case of the pilot who “feel[s] the contact of the stick, welded to the body, identified with it” (401). Sometimes they are grotesque, as with the battering ram used at the siege of the Montaña Barracks, a “strange geometrical monster” (32) wielded by men on either side of it, one of whom dies under fire and “slump[s] across the moving beam, arms dangling on one side, legs on the other. Few of his companions noticed him; the battering-ram continued lumbering slowly forward, with the dead body riding it” (33). Here, man and machine, animate and inanimate, dead and alive all come to constitute a collective apparatus of war in which any categorical distinctions are untenable if not irrelevant. This complicates any notions of fraternity. Yet such is modern warfare. And in so far as war teaches us how to live (Manuel, perhaps the novel’s major character, tells us that “a new life started for me with the war” [428]), it is also, quite simply, modern life.

Primera memoria

Matute, Primera Memoria

In Ana María Matute’s Primera memoria, the civil war is doubly displaced. In the first instance, the novel is set entirely on an island in the Balearics, so while the conflict rages on the mainland, news comes only indirectly via the newspapers and the radio. In the island’s atmosphere of “hypocritical peace,” the conflict comes to seem ghostly or “phantasmatic: far away and close up at the same time, perhaps more fearful because it couldn’t be seen” (15). The narrator, a fourteen-year old girl named Matia, finds herself stranded there as she is visiting her grandmother when hostilities break out. A brief vacation turns into months of isolation in a world she doesn’t fully understand. Second, Matia’s sense of distance from both her surroundings and the war is exacerbated by her youth. Her extended stay coincides with a point of transition as she hovers on the threshold of adulthood but has yet quite to put childish things aside. The war is most certainly an adult affair and Matia has her own preoccupations as she is forced to study alongside her fifteen-year-old cousin, Borja, who with his mother (Matia’s aunt) is likewise unable to return to the mainland. Their tutor is an ex-seminarian, not much older than them, called Lauro. The two of them escape from their family and Lauro as often as they can, to indulge in all the usual activities of coming of age and extended vacations: idling, smoking, drinking, conspiring, exchanging confidences in hushed tones, and fighting and finding love with the local youths. All this leaves little time to worry too much about the war’s progress.

And yet, distant and displaced as it is, the war pervades everything. There is a marked sense of tension throughout the island, and an undercurrent of violence and hatred. The young people have their own war among themselves, which pits them against each other along battle lines that clearly inscribe class difference: young Borja, future inheritor of his grandmother’s estate, ropes in on his side not only his cousin Matia but also the local doctor’s son and the children of his grandmother’s majordomo; against them are arrayed a ragtag group of kids from the local village, including the sons of the blacksmith, the carter, the carpenter, and the washerwoman. But their conflict also invokes older enmities, as they scrap on the site where years before the island’s Jews had been burned alive. Cruelty and suspicion are all around, as if burned into the landscape by the harsh and unforgiving sun.

It is just that the conflict remains mostly repressed, a matter of rumour and innuendo. But if the truth were told, the lines of alliance and enmity would be more complicated than they first appear. Matia’s and Borja’s fathers, both fighting on the mainland, are ranged on opposite sites of the conflict: the one a Republican, the other a colonel with the fascist forces who (Borja proudly boasts) “can order whoever he feels like to be shot by a firing squad” (58). What’s more, when Matia and Borja come across a dead body, a man shot by the local bully boys for supposedly being a “red,” it slowly emerges that the victim’s family is strangely entwined with their own. His son, Manuel, may well be Borja’s half-brother, both of them (Manuel knows and Borja likes to think) bastard offspring of a distant and somewhat mysterious relative, Jorge de Son Major, who has broken off from the family and is now a semi-recluse who shelters behind his property’s high walls, attended to only by an aged retainer. The kids pluck up their courage and visit, hoping perhaps for some kind of resolution, but inside the walled garden all they find is further confusion and mockery: a hall of mirrors in which nothing is quite as it seems and Jorge urges a parody of matrimony on Matia and Manuel while the retainer (Matia thinks) “poison[s]” them with his guitar music. No wonder that Matia should conclude that the “pathetic grown-ups” are “dirty and kitsch” (154), and that she should cling on to childhood (her doll, fairy stories) as long as possible.

So the truth will not be told. The novel ends with a dramatic scene of confession and revelation that in fact serves only to muddy the waters still further. Meanwhile, Borja effectively blackmails both Lauro and Matia, in his cousin’s case by threatening to denounce something that isn’t in fact true, but that is perhaps all the more believable as Matia herself has been trying to get Borja to believe it. As a result, Matia becomes complicit in the expulsion of her friend Manuel from the island. This is a punishment that, given the ill will and malice that infect the place, might almost be taken to be a liberation. But Lauro’s fate indicates otherwise: as Borja and Matia’s long vacation finally comes to an end, he enlists in the army only (we are told by a narrative voice that occasionally interjects to indicate that all this is a memory from long ago) to be killed at the front just a month later. There seems little chance of relief in this novel marked by claustrophobia, fear, suspicion, hysteria, malice, and hatred.

However much the children are repeatedly escaping–they avoid the war by being on the island; they slip away from their lessons and from their imperious grandmother–they end up all the more tangled up in everything. Displacement is an illusion, if it doesn’t just make things worse. This is a bleak book, and while you may want to applaud its refusal to indulge in the kind of moralizing search for heroes that mars other narratives of the war, when you realize that it’s merely the first in a trilogy you have to hope that things get better in the subsequent volumes. But the fact that their titles are Los soldados lloran de noche (Soldiers Cry by Night) and La trampa (The Trap) suggests that they probably don’t.

Days of Hope I

André Malraux

Hope is at best an ambivalent sentiment: it both resists and recognizes doubt. “Hope springs eternal,” but we “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” It is also strangely passive: when we hope something happens (or that it doesn’t), we are acknowledging that it is somehow beyond our control. When we hope, we lay ourselves open to circumstance and fate. So hope is both resilient and fatalistic: hope against hope.

Something of this ambivalence can certainly be seen in André Malraux’s Spanish Civil War novel, L’espoir (translated variously as Man’s Hope or Days of Hope). On the one hand, the book tracks the first few months of the war, before factional infighting had destroyed a Revolution whose “driving force,” one of Malraux’s characters tells us, “is–hope” (37). On the other hand, even at this early stage the Republic’s weaknesses are clear and it often seems as though hope is all its adherents have, and even that is “gasping to survive, like a man who is being throttled” (44). It’s all too easy for an apparent cause for optimism to be revealed as nothing more than a “charitable lie” (93). Malraux’s characters are therefore torn between a self-defeating realism and a hope they know (not so very) deep down to be impossible and self-deluding. Hence the revolutionary spirit is described as a “Apocalypse of fraternity” (100). It embodies all the virtues of human sociability and commonality, but for that very reason it is doomed: “the apocalyptic mood clamours for everything right away. [. . . But] it’s in the very nature of an Apocalypse to have no future. . . . Even when it professes to have one” (102).

Hope alone, then, is insufficient, not least because this (Malraux suggests) is a new kind of war: “a war of mechanized equipment”; and yet the Republicans are “running it as if noble emotions were all that mattered!” (98). But Malraux doesn’t allow this question to be fully settled. Instead, his characters continuously argue (at times, bicker) about the role of technology, organization, and efficiency in determining the war’s outcome. For the intellectual, Garcia, for instance the problem is that the Revolutionaries are taking the Russian Revolution as their model, forgetting that this was not so much “the first revolution of the twentieth century” as “the last of the nineteenth. The Czarists had neither tanks nor ‘planes; the revolutionaries used barricades. [. . .] Today Spain is littered with barricades–to resist Franco’s warplanes” (99). Later he points out that, whatever bravery the disorganized Republican militias may demonstrated, “mass courage in the field [. . .] can’t stand up against ‘planes and machine guns” (176). And as for the Republicans’ ragtag airforce, endlessly waiting for Russian planes that never come (while Hitler and Mussolini ensure that Franco is endlessly supplied), as Garcia says to the airman Magnin: “I doubt if you expect to keep your Flight up to the mark on a basis of mere fraternity” (102). For Garcia, “this would be a technicians’ war” (98).

By contrast, however, other voices vouch for fraternity, courage, and hope, even in the cause of a losing side–and even, indeed, if they ensure that the cause itself is lost. The anarchist Negus, for instance, declares that “it’s courage gets things done. Cut the crap!” (171). And from a rather different perspective, Hernandez, a career army officer who refuses to join Franco’s mutiny, declares that “a world without hope is . . . suffocating. Or else, a purely physical world” (195). Speaking of the militia, who too often resemble a disorganized and ineffective rabble, he says that “if nothing in you responds to the hope that animate them, well then, go to France, there’s nothing for you to do here” (196). And to Garcia, Hernandez asks “What’s the point of a revolution if it isn’t to make men better?” and argues that it can be brought about by “the most humane element of humanity.” (180). To which Garcia responds that “Moral ‘uplift’ and magnanimity are matters for the individual, with which the revolution has no direct concern; far from it!” (183). But even Garcia concedes the dangers involved: that “a popular movement, or a revolution, or even a rebellion, can hold on to its victory only by methods directly opposed to those which gave it victory” (102). For to lose hope it to give in to cynicism, and to put one’s faith in technology is to put efficiency and effectiveness on a pedestal, and ultimately you are a hair’s breadth away from fascism, at least as it is defined here: “The cynical action plus a taste for action makes man a fascist, or a potential fascist–unless there’s loyalty behind him” (143).

There is, however, perhaps a third option, beyond this opposition between dignified humanism on the one hand and technocratic pragmatism on the other. For the technology that does indeed pervade everything in the novel (almost always, for instance, there is a radio on somewhere in the background) has effects that are as much aesthetic as military. There are frequent comparisons with the movie industry, for instance: Madrid is described as “an enormous film studio” (36); an in Toledo “the fierce light of a film studio played on ruins like the wreckage of a temple of the East” (161); the aviator Scali is compared to “an American film comedian” (118); Hernandez’s friend Moreno’s face is described in terms of its “screen-star symmetry” (195). And at the very end of the first part of the novel, when Hernandez is facing a fascist firing squad, he thinks of it as some kind of grotesque cinematic scene: “yes, all was ready for the camera” (220).

All of which suggests that the true stakes of the war (and the revolution) may not be so much moral or political as in the realm of representation. Hence, listening to “the strident triumph of fraternal unity” as a parade of troops goes by, the American journalist Slade comments that “There’s a spark of poetry [. . .] in every man, and one day he has to come out with it” (37). His friend, Lopez, replies that “we’ve here right now a mob of painters” and argues the need for a revolutionary art or “style” that’s “got to be something definite, not a vague abstraction like ‘the masses’” (38). “One day,” he continues, “that new style of ours will catch on in the whole of Spain, just as the cathedral style spread over Europe, and their painters have given Mexico a revolutionary fresco style” (40). And so perhaps this is where Malraux’s hope is invested: the Republicans may indeed lose the war, and the Revolution may indeed be doomed (may have to be doomed for it not to become itself simply the mirror image of the fascism that opposes it), but somehow an aesthetic style may survive these losses, and take hold not only in Spain but also far beyond.

San Camilo, 1936 II

Cela, San Camilo

There are radios throughout Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936. One of the major characters, the ardent Republican Engracia, even has a boyfriend who repairs radios. But they often go unheard. At the crucial moment at which the news comes through that a “part of the army in Morocco has risen in armed rebellion” (152) it seems that nobody is listening. We are told of the maids Paulina and Javiera, for instance, that they “always have the radio on, but turn it off whenever the news begins, it’s so boring” (153). When more information starts to come through of events in North Africa and the Canaries–and at the novel’s first mention of Franco–it’s said that “few people listen to the radio, and fewer still at eight o’clock in the morning, at that time hardly anyone thinks of listening to the radio [. . .] you really have to be a morning person and the inhabitants of Madrid tend not to be morning people, it’s not worth it” (157). So it takes some time to register what is going on.

In fact, even by the end of the novel (almost two hundred pages later), it is hardly clear that many, if anyone, have really registered that an epochal change has taken place, a historical rupture opened up. The first mention of the phrase “civil war” comes a good fifty pages after what, with hindsight, would become known as its outbreak, and even then it is presented as a future possibility that might yet be averted if the army would only “bring peace and prevent all these events from degenerating” (213). But there is some vacillation here: if peace still has to be brought, does this not imply that war has already broken out? Amid all the uncertainty on which Cela’s novel thrives, the very border between peace and war becomes diffuse, undecidable. In the book’s epilogue the narrator’s uncle, Jerónimo, declares that “we Spaniards live in a start of permanent civil wars, in the plural, all against all, but also in an inhospitable civil war against ourselves and with our wounded and suffering hearts and battlefields” (358). But this sounds more than anything like a Hobbesian state of nature, as if the problem were that there is no Spanish “civil society” at all, no nation over which contending sides could fight.

And indeed, Uncle Jerónimo comes out against the nation, but in favour of the patria or fatherland: “the fatherland is more permanent than the nation, and more natural and flexible, fatherlands were invented by the Great Creator, nations are made by men, fatherlands have a language with which to sing and trees and rivers, nations have a language that’s for promulgating decrees” (357). In short, in Jerónimo’s hands–and the epilogue is given over almost entirely to his voice alone, in contrast to the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that characterize the book until that point–the novel shifts from what I early called infrapolitics to an avowed antipolitics whose (in fact, merely disavowed) political investments are clear enough. For Jerónimo is less opposed to politics than he is to the liberal institutions of the nation state that he–like Franco–is quite prepared to sacrifice for the greater good of a notional “fatherland” whose purported legitimacy and authority are given by God himself. Hence also the novel’s rather chilling final lines, declaring that “whatever you think this is not the end of the world, [. . .] this is but a purge of the world, a preventative and bloody purge but not an apocalyptic one [. . .] we can calmly go sleep, it must be very late already, I assure you that suffering is less important than how you conduct yourself, let’s go sleep, it must be very late already and the heart gets weary with so much foolishness” (366). All is well, please move along, nothing to see here, just a little housecleaning and the fatherland will rise again.

There is a logic to this conclusion, if we take what has gone before, with Madrid portrayed as a hotbed of licentiousness and prostitution, as a sign that the stables now need to be cleaned out and the corruption of politics erased. This is more or less the argument of Paul Ilie who, in a remarkably angry article (I have seldom seen one angrier) on “The Politics of Obscenity in San Camilo, 1936, claims that Cela goes out of his way to portray the Republic as obscene so as to justify the (eminently political) rejection of politics. At the same time, Imre points out, Cela wants to have his cake and eat it: what he provides is “political pornography” that “seeks to titillate bourgeois taste by means of verbal prurience, immoral suggestiveness, and sado-erotic anecdote” (51, 47).

But instead of dwelling on the all-too familiar hypocrisy of this rhetorical tactic, another way of reading the novel would be to emphasize the ways in which the final epilogue doesn’t so much follow on from what has gone before as attempt to capture it, ultimately without success. For something always escapes–and here, that something is plenty. To put this another way: the epilogue is a betrayal of everything that makes the rest of the novel so fascinating and worthwhile, even if it is a betrayal that has been building from the start, long planned from the very moment at which Cela gives us his narrator staring at the mirror, idly masturbating, wondering whether to sleep with a prostitute who smells of “grease and cologne” (14). All this is obscene enough, indeed, but it is what gives the novel its substance. Without it, there would be nothing; by contrast, the transcendent fatherland peddled by the epilogue is a paltry fiction indeed. This has hardly been a novel of “trees and rivers.” It’s not the betrayal that defines and constitutes the book; it’s what is betrayed.

And whatever one thinks of governments and decrees, in fact these are hardly the key elements of the community (however corrupt) that San Camilo, 1936 depicts. If anything, it’s the call and response of radio and multitude that defines the historical situation that Cela outlines. For in the end “in a city of a million inhabitants it’s enough that a couple of dozen listen to the radio, if the rumour comes from a dozen different sources it floods the city in a couple of hours” (161). Rumour, the voice(s) of the anonymous multitude, a collectivity that fucks and shits and fights and stumbles, is what gives life to history and to the city, and ultimately to the novel that parasitically tries to capture it, too.

Soldados de Salamina

Cercas, Soldados de Salamina

Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) is a hybrid, metafictional (or self-reflective) blend of fiction and fact, novel and history or testimony. It is metafictional in so far as the story it tells is purportedly the story of the writing of the book itself: the narrator and protagonist is a Spanish writer called Javier Cercas who is writing a book with the title Soldados de Salamina. The book (the book we are reading) ends as the narrator, looking at his own reflection in a train window while the day outside fades into night, suddenly envisages the book (the book he is writing) “complete, finished, from beginning to end, from the first to the last line” (206). The book (the book he is writing) can take shape now that the narrator has found “the part that was missing in order for the mechanism of the book to function” (165), that being the story of a former soldier named Antoni (or Antonio) Miralles, which occupies the third, final, and longest section of the book (the book we are reading). The narrator sees his book coming together as he returns home from a meeting with Miralles, as the train hurtles through the dark to its destination, and as the book (the book we are reading) races to its own conclusion, whose final words both refer to Miralles’s wartime campaigns and resonate with the rhythm of the tracks: “onwards, onwards, onwards, ever onwards” (“hacia delante, hacia delante, hacia deltante, siempre hacia delante” [207]).

Rather than taking away from the realism of the text, if anything the metafiction enhances it, making the book seem less metafictional per se (less a fiction about a fiction) than self-reflective: a fact about a fact. After all, it is undeniable that Javier Cercas the author has written a book entitled Soldados de Salamina; we hold it in our hands. So when the narrator, also names Javier Cercas, claims to have done the same, we tend to believe him. Moreover, many of the central elements of the book are a matter of historical record: Cercas hears about Miralles thanks to a conversation with Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean novelist who (in the real world as much as in the world of the novel) lived in a small town in Catalonia not far from (author and narrator) Cercas’s own home. And both the book Cercas is writing and the one we are reading, which the story of Miralles completes, deal with the escape of writer and politician Rafael Sánchez Mazas, who in real life and fiction alike was a founding member of the fascist Spanish Falange, from a Republican firing squad. And when the book (the book we are reading) includes a photograph of a handwritten page from a diary written by Sánchez Mazas (57), this is indeed a snippet from the historical archive, the image of a page written in Sánchez Mazas’s own hand about his time as a fugitive from the retreating Loyalist army.

This dramatic episode from the last days of the Civil War sounds almost too good an inspiration to be true for a blocked writer (as both narrator and author are said to have been): the book, the one we are reading at least, tells us twice that it is a “story that sounds very much like something from a novel” (“una historia muy novelesca” [33, 196]). And yet, we are told even more often, the book that the narrator is writing is not a novel at all: it is a “true tale” (“relato real”), that is (as the narrator explains to his rather ditzy girlfriend), it is “like a novel [. . .] except that, instead of being one long lie, everything in it is true” (66). But of course the fact of the matter is that, unlike the book the narrator is writing, the book we are reading is neither one long lie nor completely true. Cercas the narrator (whose father has just died) is not quite Cercas the author (whose father is still alive). And whereas Sánchez Mazas and Bolaño, for instance, are historical figures much as they are depicted in the book, the same is decidedly not the case for the “missing” part of the narrative, the Republican veteran Miralles. It is as though Cercas (the author) had followed the (alleged) advice of Bolaño to Cercas the narrator (perhaps also Cercas the author): “’You’ll have to make it up,’ he said. ‘Make what up?’ ‘The interview with Miralles. It’s the only way you can finish the novel’” (167).

So, does any of this matter? Well, let’s take seriously the notion that Miralles and the (made up) interview with him were indeed (as we are told) “the missing part to complete the mechanism that was otherwise whole yet incapable of performing the function for which it had been devised” (163). What function does Miralles enable the book to perform?

Miralles is a veteran not only of the Spanish Civil War (in which he is on the losing, Republican side) but also of World War Two, in which he fights–ceaselessly, without respite–as a member of the French Foreign Legion, from North Africa to Normandy to Paris (he is in the first Allied unit to liberate the French capital) and on to Germany and Austria. As such, he converts defeat into victory, and what is more (the book claims) we are all in his debt. Three times Cercas imagines him marching to join up with Montgomery’s forces in Libya, “carrying the tricolor flag of a country not his own, of a country that is all countries and also the country of liberty and which only exists because he and four Moors and a black guy are raising that flag as they keep walking onwards, onwards, ever onwards” (192). The tragedy is that his service is now forgotten: the narrator sees people cross the “Place de la Libération” in Dijon “and across all the plazas in Europe going about their business, not knowing that their fate and the fate of the civilization they’d abdicated responsibility for depended on Miralles continuing to walk onwards, ever onwards” (193). Hence the book’s function becomes testimony to this unsung hero, and his fallen comrades, none of whom (unlike the fascist Sánchez Mazas) would ever have a street named after them. But, Cercas tells us, “as long as I tell his story Miralles would somehow live on,” and the same with all his former comrades in arms: “they would live on even though they’d been many years dead, dead, dead, dead” (206). No wonder Soldados de Salamina had such success when it was published in 2001: just as the last veterans of the Civil War were coming to the end of their lives, Cercas gives literature the function of ensuring that their memory, or the memory of their memories, should live on through the documented fiction (or the fictional documentation) of the hunt to record the fragile traces they left in passing.

But without this fictional supplement, without this (supposedly) “missing part” added to a “mechanism that was otherwise whole,” the book would be rather darker and more disturbing–if also substantially more interesting. Because ultimately Sánchez Mazas is a far more complex character than Miralles, and not simply because he is more than a mere literary character, however much his story sounds like something from a novel.

Sánchez Mazas, whose tale Cercas tells fairly straightforwardly in the middle section of the novel, was no hero. If anything, he was something of coward who simply caught a lucky break in managing to flee a fate that he eminently deserved. For who more merited execution than “Spain’s first fascist” (80), the chief ideologue of the Falange, who “had worked during the twenties and thirties harder than almost anyone so that his country would be submerged in a savage orgy of blood” (49)? Yet the book ends up treating him with a strange sympathy, and not only because it focuses on a moment at which–terrified, cowering in the undergrowth of a Catalan forest at the mercy of a Republican militiaman who unaccountably decides not to give him up–he is at his weakest and most vulnerable. For the point that Cercas makes is that even (or especially) in his triumph, in the aftermath of the fascist victory as he rose briefly to prominence in Franco’s regime, ultimately he (too) was on the losing side.

For it is not just left-wing revolutions that are betrayed: however much he refuses to admit or apologize for it, he had “contributed all his forces to igniting a war that destroyed a legitimate republic without as a result managing to bring about the fearsome regime of poets and Renaissance mercenaries of which he had dreamed, but only a banal government of knaves, thugs, and sanctimonious prigs” (132-33). In short the Falange, too, was betrayed by Franco, just as it had urged Franco and his ilk to betray Spain. There is little honour among thieves, Cercas suggests, but at times Sánchez Mazas also emerges as almost a tragic figure who in the end was sold out but also sold himself out as he gave up on politics and literature alike to become the very image of the decadent bourgeois against whom in his youth he had been the first to rebel. “Sánchez Mazas won the war and lost the history of literature,” Cercas quotes Andrés Trapiello telling us, but in fact this was a self-inflicted defeat: he might perhaps have become a great writer, but he ended up merely a good one. And as for winning the war, yes (unlike the fictional Miralles) he has a street in Bilbao named after him, but otherwise he is basically forgotten. Indeed, if it were not for the stunning success of Soldados de Salamina, he would be more forgotten still. The irony is that, though he doesn’t figure in the list the narrator makes of those whose memory the book will perpetuate, Sánchez Mazas lives on in part thanks to Cercas’s novel, which takes its title indeed from the book that (we are told) Sánchez Mazas would have written about his time as a fugitive, but never did. However inadvertently, Cercas finds himself stepping in to complete some part of the disgraced fascist’s legacy.

The character of Miralles, then, though presented as part of a paean to memory and the power of testimony, in fact functions within the novel to help us forget its own portrayal of Falangism. It is a “missing part” in an almost quite literal replay of the Derridean pharmakon: both poison and cure. For however much this book’s explicit narrative is posed against the discourse of forgetfulness promoted by the so-called Transition to democracy after Franco’s death, in fact for much of the time it serves to prove that once you start digging up the past there’s no telling what you may find. Better therefore, as antidote to such unwelcome memories, to invent a caricature hero, indelibly scarred but indefatigable warrior for all the right causes. Cast testimony aside. Don’t look back. Onwards, onwards, ever onwards.

Spanish Civil War novels

Live Souls

This summer I’m teaching a course on Spanish Civil War novels. As usual, comments welcomed. Below I’ll be putting links to all relevant, related posts: