Fricciones

saldias_fricciones

“Then, it began” (100). This is the last line of Gabriel Saldías’s book Fricciones (Frictions) and it hardly sounds like the way to end a collection of short stories, until you realize that what is probably beginning here is, in fact, the end of the world. The story that concludes with this line is titled “Tomorrow We Talk” (“Mañana hablamos”). But it is likely there will be no tomorrow. For some reason, never fully made clear, a catastrophe is coming, some kind of sudden if predictable ecological collapse. Not that this leads to great public lamentation or panic. Sadness prevails, but all emotions have to be reined in. The story’s narrator is a young boy, and at dinner the evening before his father simply insists that he and his brother eat their dinner and be grateful for the life they have lived. “Yes, father,” the narrator replies. “I’m grateful.” Then “nobody said anything more” (97). His mother hands out sleeping pills. They head off to bed.

Such is the tenor of many of these stories. Repeatedly, the world is coming to an end, if not literally then figuratively. And those who do survive tend to regret it. In “Latin American Champion” (“Champion latinoamericano”), for instance, it seems that Russian Roulette has become a spectator sport, as people wager on what is effectively a shorter and more brutal version of the Hunger Games in some apocalyptic near future. But incredibly a champion emerges, an emotionless and otherwise nondescript ex-boxer who somehow manages time and time again to avoid oblivion while other competitors blow their brains out in front of him. He would appear to be the very figure of good fortune in the face of overwhelming risk and imminent danger, but his luck runs out not thanks to the game but when he is devoured by the incredulous crowd who leave him “as dead as it is possible for a human being to die” (19).

In interview, Saldías has said that he sees himself and his writing as “pessimistically hopeful.” To be honest, however, the glimpses of hope that his stories provide are marginal at best. In “Tomorrow We Talk,” for instance, it is true that the narrator opens up his heart on the eve of destruction, declaring his love for a classmate who goes by the name of Susie Q. Will she be his girlfriend? If not, “I think I will die.” Susie doesn’t respond to this anomalous display of emotion, though nor does she reject the boy’s entreaty outright: she agrees merely to get back to him the following day; hence the story’s title. And the last we hear is the phone ringing in the middle of the night, the narrator dashing to pick it up and shout down the line: “Hello? Hello? Susie Q?” At which point the story ends, maybe with the slight hope that the line “Then, it began” might refer then not to the end of the world but to the start of their relationship. But it somehow seems unlikely.

Likewise, another story, “Residence on Earth” (“Residencia en la tierra,” the title a nod to Pablo Neruda) is for the most part a litany of misery and dispossession. It details how the inhabitants of a nameless country, presumably Chile, have been displaced by the market, forced out of their houses by gringos backed up by state power, who destroy their homes so as to build malls, hotels, bars, cinemas, and son. Here, the protagonist’s mother writes a letter announcing that she is joining the resistance, if indeed such a thing exists, somewhere in the South. And the protagonist himself is set on enacting his own form of vengeance, as the story ends with him setting up a sniper’s rifle to assassinate one of the figureheads of the regime. But this is surely a futile act, we are left thinking, made possible only by the protagonist sacrificing his very humanity, to become the “Hard Man,” ruthless and efficient as any capitalist entrepreneur.

These are hard stories, too, in more than one sense. Often cryptic, brief and allusive, chiseled down to bare essentials, they offer little in the way of consolation for a vision that is relentlessly downbeat and dystopian. Even irony and humor, where they appear (as in “Pretty as a Sun” [“Lindo como un sol”], the tale of a Chilean returning to his country), are not enough to save us. Despair and quiet rage are the prevailing emotions. I am reminded of Franz Kafka’s famous line that “There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe… but not for us.” Except that here there is not much hope for others, either. Perhaps then we can take these stories as a series of cautionary tales, a warning of what life would look like if we abandoned hope entirely. But even that may be an overly optimistic reading of the dark but powerful imagination evidenced in this harrowing but enthralling collection.

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Una comunidad abstracta and Te Faruru

Te Faruru

In the past year or two, the young Ecuadorian writer who goes by the name of Salvador Izquierdo has published two works of what I hesitate to call fiction: Una comunidad abstracta (2015) and Te Faruru (2016). Each is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure, though the frustration itself is part of Izquierdo’s strategy. Indeed, the more frustrating of the two–the later, longer Te Fararu–is also the more interesting precisely because it outright refuses any simple resolution.

The manifest content of the two books is similar. They consist of a lengthy series of often very short paragraphs detailing facts or offering hypotheses about literary and artistic figures, texts and performances, essentially from modernism to the present. Often the form these paragraphs take is short quotations by or about the figures under discussion. So we have brief (sometimes absolutely telegraphic) musings from or about everyone from Paul Gauguin or Hart Crane to Henry Miller, Elisabeth Bishop, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Susan Sontag, along with a host of other, more obscure denizens or hangers on from the international artistic demi-monde.

The links established among the multitude of characters that thus populate each book are often at first sight tangential, almost random associations. Artists who feature (or don’t) in a book entitled Fifty Twentieth-Century Artists You Should Know (Picasso, twice, but not Ana Mendieta or Robert Crumb). Authors who changed their names (Comte de Lautréamont, George Orwell, Pablo Neruda). Writers or actors who went bald (Philip Larkin, Alfonso Reyes, Ed Harris). Men named Robert (Rauschenberg, Capa, Graves). People who came from, visited, or may have visited, Vancouver (Bill Reid, Malcolm Lowry, Kurt Vonnegut). People from or with some connection to Uruguay, however minimal (Josephine Baker, Joaquín Torres García, Martin Amis). The narrator of Una comunidad abstracta tells us that “it’s not me who’s making these connections” (58). But collectively they begin to establish patterns that respond to the particular preoccupations of this shadowy compiler of apparent trivia: people who had a child at the age of 24 (Robert Hughes, David Bowie, Bob Dylan); “I mention it,” the narrator tells us, “because, whatever else separates us, I too had a child when I was 24” (49).

“What have I said about myself?” asks the narrator of Una comunidad abstracta (86). The answer is both “not much” and “a fair bit.” This is someone concerned with the process of translation, in all its meanings, and in establishing facts while worrying as much about their accuracy as about their relevance: “Errors in books or errors within myself?” he asks about the possibility of mistakes (86). But to “err” is also to deviate, to roam, to travel (and so also to translate). These are definitely “errant” books, which roam widely with no obvious destination or purpose.

Ultimately, Una comunidad abstracta ends up being something of (quite literally) a shaggy dog tale. It seems to revolve around a lost dog, called Fito: “I write these little paragraphs [. . .] for Fito.” But this is both too neat and too unsatisfactory a key to the endless perambulations, meanderings, and circumlocutions that characterize the book. Indeed, surely it’s at best an alibi, or a metaphor for everything else that also escapes such attempts to put an end to the chain of connections and apparent coincidences. Te Faruru hints more directly at what else may lay beyond or beneath the imperfect search for order, for putting everything in its place.

In this more recent book, the narrator (although really nothing is ever narrated) may or may not be the same as in the previous one. But he shares many of the same obsessions. And he shares a little more, too, above all in a series of long footnotes that take up more space on the page as the book progresses. It is in one of these notes, for instance, that he tells us of a grandmother who once gave him a book by Eduardo Galeano, dedicating it to a “great reader” (113)–a compliment, however, that the narrator wishes quickly to disown. And another footnote tells us of a former literature teacher who also gave him a book, this time the collected works of Cavafy, inscribed to an “exceptional person” (126)–but he has to admit that he has lost touch with the teacher, and hasn’t returned to any of the authors he read with her.

In these footnotes, then, Te Faruru‘s reluctant narrator struggles with the slogan “Don’t Look Back” that otherwise reverberates through the main text, in all its various versions from Lot’s Wife to Orpheus to Bob Dylan and Pennebacker’s documentary. After all, the footnotes themselves interrupt the onward flow of the connections and interconnections that comprise the text, each point linked to the other by little more than free association with no attempt to dwell on any moment in particular: “Now I think of it” is otherwise the book’s refrain, like an exercise in ADHD. But in the footnotes lurks the shadow of something that the narrator can’t think about and can’t help thinking at one at the same time. Something that demands a narrator, however much our guide denies that this is what he is: “To relate what I don’t want to relate I’d have to begin much further back, I’d have to put together a story [or history–historia], I’d have to look back, and I don’t feel up to it” (131). Or later: “Again, I’d have to relate certain things that are neither here nor there [que no vienen al caso aquí]. It would be better to come up with a narrative, but I’m no narrator” (141).

But it may just be that the footnotes are pointing out something that’s present also in the main text. For all the injunctions to keep looking ahead, in fact it, too, is full of repetitions and returns. Its last line, after all, declares that “here, where there is nothing but repetition, the same thing happens” (157). And not only does its apparently random flow of consciousness incessantly revisit the same preoccupations, but the themes to which it returns often themselves deal with going back: Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca; and perhaps above all, Torres García’s return to Uruguay after 43 years away. For the narrator’s secret may well, it seems, have something to do with “what happened in Montevideo. To relate that episode in narrative form would shrink what I am holding on to in my memory, which wants to stay there, undisturbed [quieto]” (151). We can doubt, however, that this memory is really so quiet, so undisturbing. For it seems to be what sets in train the entire sequence of fragments that constitutes the book.

The book’s title, “Te Faruru,” is taken from a series of woodcuts made by Gauguin in the South Pacific. It means, we are told, “Here we make love” in the Maori language (81). But Izquierdo’s text is much more restless and unsettled than this title at first sight implies. The book seems to be telling us something, but we don’t know what–and perhaps neither does its author, let alone its (anti-)narrator. Or maybe all that matters is the movement itself, and by willfully frustrating us the text is warning against the childlike impulse to “connect the dots to come up with a figure that at the outset seems hidden” (23). Any story, any narrative, would ultimately be a trap, as arbitrary and at best merely fortuitous as any of the other relations and relatings that constitute these two books. So if we are to make (or find) love, it must be in the context of this uncertainty of the “neither here nor there,” of a concatenation of circumstances and encounters, errors and deviations, in which we happen to find (or lose) ourselves.

Life During Wartime

RACAL

“Life During Wartime: Infrapolitics and Posthegemony”
(with a coda of eleven theses on infrapolitics)

Presented at the III Seminario Crítico-Político Transnacional
“Pensamiento y terror social: El archivo hispano”
Cuenca, Spain
July, 2016

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time.
Can’t write a letter, can’t send a postcard.
I can’t write nothing at all.
–The Talking Heads

In what is no doubt the most famous theorist of war’s most famous claim, Carl Von Clausewitz tells us that “war has its root in a political object.” He goes on: “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means. [. . .] War is not merely a political act, but a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” (119). There is, then, for Clausewitz an essential continuity between war and politics; they share the same rationality and ends. And this notion has in turn led many to think of politics, reciprocally, as a form of warfare. The German theorist Carl Schmitt, for instance, defines politics in suitably martial terms as a clash between “friend” and “enemy”: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (The Concept of the Political 26). Moreover, this invocation of the term “enemy” is scarcely metaphorical. Schmitt argues that “an enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity” (28), and he further qualifies the particular type of enmity involved in political disagreement in terms of classical theories of warfare: the political enemy is a “public enemy,” that is a hostis, as opposed to a “private enemy.” He quotes a Latin lexicon to make his point: “A public enemy (hostis) is one with whom we are at war publicly. [. . .] A private enemy is a person who hates us, whereas a public enemy is a person who fights against us” (29).

Likewise, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci also calls upon the language of warfare to describe political activity, which he classifies in terms of the “war of manoeuvre” by which a political party bids for influence among the institutions of so-called civil society, and the “war of movement” when it is in a position to seek power directly from the state. Indeed, the notion of an essential continuity between armed violence and civil dispute informs Gramsci’s fundamental conception of “hegemony,” which characterizes politics in terms of a combination of coercion and consent, the attempt to win or secure power alternately by means of force or persuasion. War is politics, politics is war: the basic goals and rationale are the same, we are told. It is just the means that are different.

Keep reading… (PDF document)

eleven theses on infrapolitics

  1. Infrapolitics is not against politics. It is not apolitical, still less antipolitical.
  2. There is no politics without infrapolitics.
  3. It is only by considering infrapolitics that we can better demarcate the terrain of the political per se, understand it, and take it seriously.
  4. The interface between the infrapolitical and the political cannot be conceived simply in terms of capture.
  5. Only a fully developed theory of posthegemony can account properly for the relationship between infrapolitics and politics.
  6. Infrapolitics corresponds to the virtual, and so to habitus and unqualified affect.
  7. The constitution (and dissolution) of the political always involves civil war.
  8. Biopolitics is the name for the colonization of the infrapolitical realm by political forces, and so the generalization of civil war.
  9. But neither politics nor biopolitics have any predetermined valence; biopolitics might also be imagined to be the colonization of the political by the infrapolitical.
  10. None of these terms–politics, infrapolitics, biopolitics, posthegemony–can have any normative dimension.
  11. Hitherto, philosophers have only sought to change the world in various ways. The point, however, is to interpret it.

For Whom the Bell Tolls II

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Time and timing are of the essence in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The mission at the heart of the book, for which the young American Robert Jordan is to sabotage a bridge in concert with a Republican offensive, is time critical: “To blow the bridge at a stated hour based on the time set for the attack is how it should be done,” he is told by the man in charge, General Golz. “You must be ready for that time” (5). But then, ultimately, when it becomes clear that they have lost the advantage of surprise and Jordan tries to have the attack called off, his messenger cannot get through in time: “C’est dommage. Oui. It’s a shame it came too late” Golz reflects (428). His divisions are already on the move, and there is no stopping them now. Still, “maybe this time [. . .] maybe we will get a break-through, maybe he will get the reserves he asked for, maybe this is it, maybe this is the time” (430).

We never know what comes of the offensive, and whether indeed “this is the time,” though we must presume it isn’t: the book was published in 1940, and so in the aftermath of the eventual failure to save Madrid, and indeed Spain as a whole, from Franco’s forces. A sense of doom hangs over the entire enterprise: “I do not say I like it very much” responds Jordan to Golz even when he receives his orders (6). And “It is starting badly enough [. . .]. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it” he muses once he is on the scene with the bridge (16). Little by little, step by step, things go from bad to worse: the sky is full of Fascist planes; the leader of the local guerrilla gang is unpredictable and broken; unexpected snow reveals the tracks of an allied group, who are unceremoniously slaughtered; Jordan has to deal with incompetence and betrayal. By the time they finally blow the bridge they know that it is effectively a suicide mission, and what’s worse for a larger cause that is itself destined to fail. Yet still they go on with it. The book ends with Jordan, his leg broken and so unable to flee, on the verge of unconsciousness, waiting for his last fight as the enemy come up the road: “Let them come. Let them come! [. . .] I can’t wait any longer now [. . .]. If I wait any longer I’ll pass out” (470). But again, we are not told precisely what happens next. Instead, the novel’s final line (“He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest” [471]) returns us to how it all started: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest” (1). The entire book is a circle, refusing to look ahead as though to stave off the certain tragedy of what is to come, and refusing equally to look back, for the little we glimpse of the past is likewise marked by violence and shame.

Instead, the novel carves out an oasis of time: four days, or rather “not quite three days and three nights” (466), in which almost the entirety of the novel is set, between the moment at which Jordan meets the partisans and the point at which they have to leave him there by the bridge, with hardly the chance for goodbyes: “There is no time” (462). It is not as though this brief stretch is unaffected by what has gone before and what is to come: it is clear, for instance, that some unresolved Oedipal drama has brought Jordan here, while the other characters have traumas of their own that they are unable to escape; and however much they stoically (or heroically?) try to deny their intuition of a bitter finale, they are unable to dispel these presentiments altogether. But Hemingway’s point, I think, is that within these three or four days they are able to live an entire lifetime. There is something almost Borgesian about this, like the short story “El milagro secreto,” in which a man in front of the firing squad lives out what for him is an entire year between the order to fire and the bullets piercing his chest. Robert Jordan lives out his own “secret miracle” in the company of Maria, the ragged-haired young woman that the guerrillas had rescued from a previous operation.

On their last night together (Jordan’s last night tout court), “Robert Jordan lay with the girl and he watched time passing on his wrist.” But this steady temporal progression is, he feels, somehow under his subjective control: “as he watched the minute hand he found he could almost check its motion with his concentration” (378). A little later, “as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now”–and so perhaps unchecked, but also unminded–comes an extraordinary passage in which Hemingway (or Jordan) tries to delimit something like a pure present of absolute intensity:

They knew [. . .] that this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now. (379)

Of course, the watch hand cannot be detained indefinitely: its motion can at best be “almost check[ed].” And language–or writing–inevitably unfolds linearly. The sentence, the paragraph, the book must all grind inexorably to their ends. But in the meantime, perhaps, this is the time; this is their time, our time. Hemingway’s wager, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is to rescue and resuscitate a moment of exceptional intensity and vivacity, even within the earshot and in full knowledge of the bells that toll relentlessly for a death that (as in the epigraph taken from John Donne) diminishes us all.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls I.

Luna de lobos

Llamazares, Luna de lobos

Julio Llamazares’s Luna de lobos reads a little like a story of one of the so-called Japanese “holdouts,” soldiers who continued to fight the Second World War long after the official end of hostilities. In this case, though, the post-Civil War stragglers keep fighting not because they are unaware that the war is over, but because they know that in fact it isn’t.

At first, there are four of them: the narrator, Angel; Ramiro, who quickly establishes himself as the group’s leader, and his brother, Juan; and Gildo. They have been fighting on the Republican side in Asturias, in Spain’s Northwest. When the front collapses in the Autumn of 1937, they find themselves too far from the zones of continued Republican control (either around Madrid and further South or in Catalonia to the East) and a long way from the French border. So their only option is to take to the hills, near their home villages, hoping for some kind of support from their family and friends, without ever being able to go back home so long as the fascist civil guards remain in their pursuit.

Their tale is recounted in four parts, each a snapshot of a distinct year as the war comes to its conclusion and then the post-war reprisals continue: 1937, 1939, 1943, 1946. They are armed with machine gun and pistols, and make some small incursions on the hamlets in the valley, but these are mostly defensive or to secure food and shelter. Even before the war as a whole is over (and despite a vague plan proposed by one of their contacts), it is abundantly clear that they are fighting not for the Republic but for their own survival. And as time goes by, one by one they lose this war, too. Juan is the first to be killed, as he disappears on a quest to see his mother and bring back food and blankets. Then Gildo, betrayed and ambushed as they desperately try to rustle up money to bribe a local stationmaster to get them on a train to freedom. Then Ramiro. Until finally there is only one.

As this small remnant of the Republican army gradually diminishes still further, it becomes increasingly spectral, less and less human. Almost from the start, they are compared to animals, particularly the wolves of the novel’s title. They may still be alive, but theirs is a “bare life” indeed. They become ever more cut off from the community, as those who initially help them out (a shepherd who provides them with a sheep, a doctor who attends to a wound, for instance) become increasingly reluctant, either for fear of reprisals or in hope that they will simply go away. Towards the end, Angel imagines that in his years haunting the villagers he has become a “legend,” renowned as a man “indomitable and invisible [. . .] observing them from somewhere [. . .] immortal as his shadow, distant as the wind, astute, intelligent, invincible” (136). But when finally even his sister rejects him, having allowed him to rest in what is almost literally a subterranean grave under the farmyard, he realizes that he is at best an unquiet ghost, and that those who are still fully in the land of the living would rather he disappear once and for all.

Ramiro, before he dies and while he still has revenge of his own to enact, tells the local priest that the holdouts are “like God: we see everything from up there” in their hidden cave high on the hillside (93). And the narrator, the last of the group, is an angel by name and perhaps also by nature when he tells us he has “descended” at last, to visit his father’s grave (137). But he is also aware he has become “a pest for real,” “a pest whose proximity spooks both humans and animals” (125). He stands in no doubt for a memory that has to be erased for his loved ones to lead anything like a normal life. In the end, indeed, you can’t help feeling sympathy for them. His soul, he tells us, is “white” but also “rotten” (145). He is the living dead, a zombie as much as a revenant. When his sister tells him that “this land has no forgiveness. This land is cursed for you” (151), she is speaking out of simple realism.

But then there is the performative contradiction of the novel itself. It seems to be arguing for forgetfulness, in favour of the wholesale oblivion to which the Republican cause was consigned at the end of the war. It makes little effort to ingratiate either the so-called wolves or the lost cause as a whole with us: we are told, for instance, that Angel was once a teacher, but have little sense of his past life and still less idea as to why he took up arms for the Republic. The case it seems to be making is the same one made by the villagers, that these men are better off dead, that the past should remain firmly past. And yet it does so precisely by resurrecting these restless ghosts, by returning to their still-fresh graves. For something to be forgotten it first has to be remembered, and Luna de lobos is as much about remembering the collective edict to forget as it is about repeating it.

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.

See also: Days of Hope I; Spanish Civil War novels.

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.