Testimonio and the Politics of Truth


This semester I’m teaching what my university designates as a “research-intensive” seminar, and figured that this would be an opportunity, among other things, to thematize and question the practice of “research” itself. This I am aiming to do by means of an investigation into Latin American testimonio and the “politics of truth,” with current events in the USA and elsewhere as an ever-present backdrop to our discussions.

You can check out the course website, but here’s the blurb, and below it are links to posts I’m writing in connection with the course…

“The question of ‘truth’ and its importance (or its unimportance) is at issue now more than ever. Oxford Dictionaries have declared that their ‘word of 2016’ was ‘post-truth.’ The idea of ‘post-truth’ is that people are less concerned with whether something is true or not, than with how it makes them feel. It is argued that some of the most decisive political events of the past year–not least the rise of President Elect Donald Trump in the USA–can be explained by this phenomenon.

“If research (fact-checking, investigation) no longer seems to count, or to make much difference to how people think or act, its usefulness or legitimacy is now in question.

“So we will not simply be practicing research in this seminar. We will also be thinking about what it means to do research, what is the point of doing research, and how our ideas about research might have changed over time.

“As a way to think about these issues, we will be reading a series of texts from Latin America that deal with testimony, witnessing, and historical investigation. They include Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre, Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón, Elizabeth Burgos and Rigoberta Menchú’s Me llamo Rigoberto Menchú, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s El hablador. These often deal with issues of great importance for ordinary people: state violence, human rights, cultural identity. But their truthfulness has also been questioned, or they have even questioned what we think to be true. We will look therefore at the controversies and debates that these texts have provoked. And we will research them, but we will also ask ourselves about what we are doing (and why) as we do such research.”

La noche de Tlatelolco


One of the repeated chants of Mexico’s student movement in the 1960s, among the many reproduced in Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco, is a demand for dialogue: “DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE.” As one of her informants puts it, this is because “the government’s been talking to itself for fifty years now” (30; 38); or as another puts it, “The PRI,” the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, “doesn’t go in for dialogues, just monologues” (86; 90). Hence no doubt the form of Poniatowska’s own book, composed as it is of a multitude of snippets (of interviews, pronouncements, chants, newspaper articles, and so on) from all sides. Dialogue proved impossible in the real world, on the streets or in council chambers, as it was cut short by the violent repression of the student movement, the imprisonment of its leaders, and particularly by the massacre at Tlatelolco, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, that gives this book its title. But it is as though that impossible dialogue were now (almost) realized on the page as slogans face headlines, and witnesses from a variety of backgrounds speak of their experiences, one after another. Moreover, as Poniatowska makes little overt effort to impose a unified narrative or reconcile disparities (though there is no doubt that there is artfulness and intention in the ordering and placement of the various fragments), it is almost as if we catch that dialogue in midstream, any conclusion endlessly postponed.

But I say that this fantasy of dialogue is only almost realized on the page, not merely because it is in the nature of testimonio (as we have seen for instance with Biografía de un cimarrón) that the written word betrays, by fixing and so deadening, oral expression. It is also that the extreme fragmentation here threatens to undermine any attempt to make sense at all, refusing not only the forced coherence of the authoritarian state but also any unity to which the student movement itself might aspire. Even the chant itself, as it is printed here, breaks down the demand for dialogue into its constituent syllables and no longer respects either the unity of the word or its separation from any other: “DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO.” In the frenetic repetition of the march, meaning slips away to be replaced by sheer sound, by elements that could be recombined in more than one way, to more than one end or effect. The onus then is on the reader to pick up and combine the pieces, but even so it is not clear that any single narrative could ever gather together all the fragments and make them cohere. But then surely this is part of the point: if ever there had once been a chance for dialogue, now not even literature (or testimonio) can bring that moment back.

Poniatowska does not claim to establish the truth of what happened at Tlatelolco. Even as she effectively undermines the official version of events, she makes little attempt to substitute it with a new, more authoritative, version. She wrests the monopoly of the truth from the state, without presuming to claim ownership of it herself.

For hers is less a fact-finding mission than a therapeutic howl that puts language to the ultimate test. As she says in one of her very few editorial interventions, halfway through the book, even to consider delving for the truth would be somehow offensive to the victims: “Grief is a very personal thing. Putting it into words is almost unbearable; hence asking questions, digging for facts, borders on an invasion of people’s privacy” (199; 164). Instead, what she aims to provide is a space for the expression of that inexpressive grief that makes the animal within us (bare, unqualified life) come to the fore, as with the mother that Poniatowska describes as “so stunned that for days and days she uttered scarcely a word, and then suddenly, like a wounded animal–an animal whose belly is being ripped apart–she let out a hoarse, heart-rending cry, from the very center of her life.” This is “the sort of wild keening that is the end of everything, the wail of ultimate pain from the wound that will never heal” (199; 164). As such, even to call La noche de Tlatelolco an exercise in therapy is to say too much, as it would imply that healing can someday come–a claim as offensive and intolerable as the high-handed notion that there is some relationship between truth and reconciliation, or even that either were ever desirable. No. What matters is less what these fragments say than what they can never say, or what they say only by revealing the insufficiency and arrogance of any claims to truth or certainty. These pages, if they express anything, are the place for “the mute cry that stuck in thousands of throats, the blind grief in thousands of horror-stricken eyes on October 2, 1968, the night of Tlatelolco” (199; 164).

Biografía de un cimarrón


The key to a testimonio is almost always found in its paratexts–its preface or introduction, epilogue or afterword. Which itself is odd enough: if this is a genre noted for, indeed for some defined by, its presentation of a story as it is, without literary pretensions, it is remarkable how much varnish its truth seems to require. But then it is these paratexts themselves that claim to offer the guarantee of veracity and legitimacy, often enough by laying bare (apparently) the mechanism of the text’s production, assuring us that what we see is really what we get. Moreover, it is in these supposedly ancillary texts that the testimonio’s editor or compiler, who otherwise usually removes his or her traces from the text itself (so that the informant can speak unadorned), outlines his or her role as the stand-in for the reader. For if the essence of the genre is its basis in the oral discourse of a subaltern presumed to be an outsider to literate culture, the original interviewer has to vouch for the bona fides of that original contact, even as he or she betrays it by subsequently translating oral exchange into written form. We are then to imagine ourselves in the editor’s place: listening more than reading, hearing the subaltern “speak,” as our proxy did for us once before. It is in a testimonio’s introduction or preface, then, that the book’s compiler often attests to his or her personal, affective, unmediated relationship to the book’s narrator, conjuring up a bond into which the reader can project themselves even as the editor outlines all the intermediary steps required for that fantasy to stick.

So it is, then, with Cuban anthropologist Miguel Barnet’s introduction to Biografía de un cimarrón (1966), the testimony of former runaway slave Esteban Montejo, which assures us that the book is based on a “living dialogue” between interviewer and interviewee (15). Barnet tells us that, having identified Montejo as a suitable source–mostly because of his extreme age, but also because of the intrinsic interest of his life–he put to good use “the customary resources of ethnological research” (for ethnologists have their customs, too). He tried to resolve some of Montejo’s immediate problems, to do with money, women, and health. He then gave him some small gifts: tobacco, badges, photos. And so the conversation began, if not quite along the lines that Barnet had originally envisaged when he thought that this would be primarily a study of the survival of African religious traits among Cuba’s black population. Indeed, at the outset, Barnet tells us, things were decidedly difficult, as Montejo “showed himself to be rather surly” (16). Perhaps the usual ethnological blandishments had not been enough! But even the tale of these difficulties serves its purpose, in that Barnet is telling us the story of how Montejo came (almost) to trust him, in the end even to “identify with us,” once he “realized the interest of the task at hand” (16). The gap between letrado and subaltern is visibly shrinking as the introduction proceeds.

But testimonio cannot rely on gifts, identification, or affective pact alone. Technology, specifically tape recording, is also a ubiquitous guarantee both of authenticity in that it (quite literally) captures the voice verbatim, and of the seriousness of the investigator’s research in that he or she can then go back over the interview and deepen his or her familiarity with the subject. As Barnet puts it: “Many of our sessions were recorded on magnetic tapes. This allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the linguistic forms, turns of phrase, syntax, archaisms, and idioms of [Montejo’s] speech” (18). The interviewer can thus immerse himself in his informant’s world, even if such immersion then begins to provoke doubt… “The need to verify facts, dates, or other details led us to have conversations with veterans who were more or less his contemporary. But none of them were old enough to have lived through the periods or events that Esteban related” (18).

Ultimately, the paratextual attempt to guarantee the veracity of the text as a whole ends up offering hostages to fortune. The description of the methodology by which the book came into being reminds us, whether we like it or not, of the multiple mediations that give the lie to the direct reproduction of experience that the book otherwise wishes to tell us it is presenting. We are reminded of editorial interventions, such as paraphrase and reordering of the narrative, even as they are justified on the grounds that “if we had faithfully mimicked the twists and turns of his language, the book would have made itself difficult to understand and excessively repetitive” (18). The paratext, then, itself a form of excess or supplement to the main text, exists to rein in the excesses of a different order that would otherwise disrupt any reading of the text. The tightrope or balancing act inherent in any testimonio becomes apparent, as it tries to remain faithful or true to its subject, without falling into the trap of becoming “excessively” so. Only a judicious pruning, or unfaithfulness to the source, can ensure that the text does not slip into incoherence or even nonsense.

Barnet’s introduction is interesting in that his relationship with Montejo seems to have been particularly complex, indeed verging on antagonistic–for all that he claims to have subdued or overcome Montejo’s original surliness. The anthropologist is eager to admit that “undoubtedly, many of his tales are not rigorously faithful to the facts. [. . .] His version is subjective. [. . .] It reflects our informant’s approach to things” (19). But this is less an admission of the testimonio’s weakness than an attempt to attest to its main strength. For unlike many similar narratives, Biografía de un cimarrón does not claim to be typical, or at least not in any simple sense. The very fact that Montejo was a runaway slave (who, we come to learn, spent much of his time alone, not trusting others) marks him out as different and distinct. Montejo is a renegade as much as or even more than he is a representative of nineteenth-century Cuba. But then that is because, Barnet implies, he is perhaps a man out of time: his “honesty,” his capacity to be true to himself (if not the facts), mark him as a “revolutionary” avant la lettre, even if his story never actually touches on Castro’s campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. In the end, it is the fact that Montejo doesn’t entirely trust us, and is not entirely to be trusted in turn, that ensures less his tale’s veracity (because the truth doesn’t really matter) than its political charge.

Operación masacre

Operacion masacre

Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre is an investigation into the extra-judicial assassination, on the part of the Buenos Aires provincial police, of a group of men initially suspected to be part of a Peronist uprising on the night of June 9-10, 1956. As much as an account of what actually happened in the hours shortly before and after midnight on those dates, the book is also the story of the investigation itself. Walsh describes how he was initially reluctant to follow up on a rumor about the events he had picked up in a café, but then threw himself into the pursuit of the facts, driven by outrage at the authorities but above all by sympathy for those who had, against the odds, actually survived. He soon finds himself on what is effectively a crusade for recognition and justice, though he is aware of the price he may one day pay for the trouble he is perceived as causing. Indeed, much later, during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, Walsh’s voice is finally silenced when he is killed by soldiers in a confrontation in downtown Buenos Aires, his body dragged away to be burned and thrown in a river.

But Walsh evidently believes that the dangers inherent in seeking out the truth are more than merely personal. In the introduction to the first (1957) edition of the book, he writes that “too much truth can lead to madness, wiping out a people’s moral conscience.” But he goes on implicitly to welcome this eventuality: “One day the tragic history of the June killings will be written down in its entirety. And then we will see the shock overflow our borders” (265). The truth, in short, is something not to be taken lightly; its effects are collective and potentially catastrophic. But ultimately we should take the risk of the madness and destruction it brings with it. After all, he concludes: “I happen to believe, with complete earnestness and conviction, in the right of every citizen to share any truth that he comes to know, however dangerous that truth may be. And I believe in this book, in the impact it can have” (266).

But Walsh is not content simply to leave things there, as an ominous warning for the future. He himself does whatever he can to ensure that the murky details of this “tragic history,” still incomplete when he first publishes it in 1957, should in the end come out. A second and a third edition of the book come out in 1964 and 1969 respectively. Each time he feels that he has better pinpointed the chain of events and responsibility that led to these mostly innocent men having their lives ended or, if nothing else, transformed as they were grabbed from an informal gathering in a private house and finally gunned down in a (frankly, botched) execution on the outskirts of the city. But with each new edition of the book, one also feels increasing frustration and even despair on Walsh’s part as the officials he identifies as the guilty parties continue to evade any repercussions or consequences. In the end, as in the epilogue to the 1969 edition, Walsh’s tone becomes almost frantic and apocalyptic as he expands his frame of reference to “a portrait of the dominant oligarchy” and concludes that “within the system, there can be no justice” (299, 300).

In the first place, the problem is that the investigation threatens to become interminable. The truth “in its entirety” is not so easy to uncover. There are numerous points at which Walsh admits to doubt or uncertainty, in part because witnesses are absent or unreliable, or because their testimonies contradict each other. In the end, even relatively basic facts such as the number of men taken out to the killing zone elude him. The book’s opening paragraph has to admit that “We will never know it all” (31). There will always be a penumbra of doubt however dedicated the effort to ferret out the facts. And so, for all Walsh tries to give substance and materiality to events and participants, they remain strangely ghostly, just out of reach.

But there is a worse possibility: that Walsh may manage to uncover the truth, or enough of it that should count, and yet nothing might happen anyway. At one point in his enquiry, seeking to track down yet another survivor, he comes across a little girl in the street who tells him “The man you’re looking for [. . .] is in his house. They’ll tell you he isn’t, but he is.” To which Walsh replies: “And do you know why we’ve come?” Coolly, calmly, the girl responds: “Yes, I know everything.” And though we never find out this young girl’s name, Walsh gives her one: “OK, Cassandra” (24). For Cassandra was of course the Greek princess, daughter of Priam, who was blessed with the gift of prophetic knowledge but cursed (by Apollo) never to be believed. In fact, Walsh does believe this girl (and finds the man he is looking for as a result), but he must already be thinking of himself as a Cassandra figure, destined to reveal the truth but to no avail. No wonder at times (and increasingly as new editions come out), his prose becomes increasingly strained and reliant on rhetoric as though he were trying to compensate for the fact that the truth alone will never set us free.

For the real scandal is not so much the truth itself as the fact that truth-telling does not have quite the power that Walsh ascribes to it. Perhaps it isn’t all that dangerous. Perhaps “speaking truth to power” (as they say) only puts the truth-teller at risk. Or it may even be that when Walsh is finally gunned down, it is for something else entirely.

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.

For Whom the Bell Tolls I

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Halfway through Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist Robert Jordan is thinking both forwards and back to Madrid. Forwards because, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, stuck in a cave behind Fascist lines waiting to begin a tremendously risky and seemingly ill-fated operation to blow up a bridge, he distracts himself by imagining what he will do if and when his mission is successfully concluded. “Three days in Madrid,” he thinks. The capital is under siege, of course, but even so it would offer creature comforts unimaginable on the front lines: a “hot bath [. . .] a couple of drinks.” There would be music and movies: he’d take his peasant lover Maria to see “The Marx Brothers at the Opera” (231). He’d have dinner at Gaylord’s, a hotel that “the Russians had taken over” where “the food was too good for a besieged city” (228).

But all this also leads him to think back (unusually, for a man not given to reminiscence) to other experiences he has had at Gaylord’s, a place of intrigue thick with rumor and “talk too cynical for a war.” It was here that he’d met the shadowy Russian Karkov–introduced by the last dynamiter to work in the zone and described as “the most intelligent man he had ever met” (231). And it was largely Karkov who’d made “Gaylord’s [. . .] the place you needed to complete your education. It was there you learned how it was all really done instead of how it was supposed to be done” (230). For in Jordan’s (and Hemingway’s) jaded eyes, the Republican cause may be right, but it is far from pure. Behind “all the nonsense” (230) is a murky world of machination and deception that only fully comes into focus at the Russian-held hotel. This is the epicenter of disillusion and corruption, but it is also the only place to “find out what was going on in the war” (228).

The hidden reality of the war is not pretty, but in some ways (Jordan reflects) it is “much better than the lies and the legends. Well, some day they would tell the truth to everyone and meanwhile he was glad there was a Gaylord’s for his own learning of it” (230). And Jordan and Karkov talk about when and how this truth will emerge: “out of this will come a book,” Karkov says, “which is very necessary; which will explain many things which it is necessary to know” (244). Jordan himself, a Spanish instructor at a US university, has already written a book–about “what he had discovered about Spain in ten years of travelling in it”–but it “had not been a success.” Some day soon it would be time to try again:

He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly and about what he knew. But I will have to be a much better writer than I am now to handle them, he thought. The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple. (248)

Now, Jordan is not Hemingway–and Hemingway is not Jordan, though the author has surely invested plenty in his character, a man of few words who prides himself on his powers of observation and his knowledge of the human psyche. But is this novel the book that Jordan would have wanted to have written? The work of a “much better writer” that is to explain the truth of a complex war whose surface veneer is attractive but whose grim interior is more fascinating still. Perhaps.

But For Whom the Bell Tolls is not really about the war’s covert machination. Indeed, what’s interesting about the novel is that Hemingway refuses to accede completely to Jordan’s notion that the “truth” of the conflict is to be found amid the cynicism and corruption that his protagonist tells us “turned out to be much too true” (228). Or rather, Jordan himself is shown as struggling to determine where the reality of the situation lies. Up in the hills, he knows that the situation is bad, not least when he sees the “mechanized doom” (87) of the Fascist planes that roar overhead and announce, as clearly as anything, that the enemy knows of the forthcoming Republican offensive. But he can’t quite admit this: asked whether he has faith in the Republic he replies “’Yes,’ [. . .] hoping it was true” (91). To admit to the precariousness of their fate, the difficulty of their mission, would be to fall into the trap that has ensnared Pablo, the local guerrilla leader who has let fear (and alcohol) overwhelm him, because he knows that their cause is long lost: he toasts “all the illusioned ones” (214) and explains himself by saying that “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools” (215).

Ultimately, Jordan–and Hemingway–know that Pablo is right. But that cynical truth has to be both acknowledged and at the same time staved off, postponed, in the name of another truth that resides within the illusion itself, the legends and lies. So what we get is an ebb and flow, a tense and agonizing interchange between these two truths, between an apparent simplicity and purity (incarnated above all perhaps in the figure of Jordan’s lover Maria–who can never be taken to Gaylord’s–but equally in Hemingway’s characteristically terse and understated style) and a darker, more cynical complexity that can neither be denied nor allowed to dominate. So the paradoxical result is that simplicity ends up being far more complex than the web of machinations that it endlessly has to deny, precisely because in fending them off it recognizes and so includes them, while the cynic can only destroy all that is pure. It preserves, in other words, the infrapolitical paradox: that what is necessary for politics is never inherent in it, but vanishes with scarce a trace.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls II.

Homage to Catalonia II

Homage to Catalonia cover

Concluding Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell tells us:

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing. (194)

To be fair, though, there’s no doubt that he has tried. Orwell is perhaps particularly attuned to smell: almost the first thing he describes is “the characteristic smell of war–in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food” (15). Or for instance, as he approaches the front line itself what strikes him is “a sickening sweetish stink that lived in my nostrils for weeks afterwards” (19). More generally, Orwell continually emphasizes the visceral, embodied, affective aspect of participation in the Civil War. He opens his account, for instance, with a brief anecdote about an almost wordless encounter with an Italian militiaman that demonstrates (he claims) “the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was though his spirit and mine had succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy” (2). Not that his feelings are always positive; far from it. Orwell is as likely to tell us of the fear or, worse, the “horror” not so much of the war itself as of the backstage machinations, the “atmosphere of suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred” (155) that clouds especially is final few weeks in Barcelona, as the Communists crack down on the Anarchists and independent Socialists. For ultimately, these internecine battles had little to do with ideology of strategy, and it was this that made them so horrific. Ultimately, Orwell tells us, he “did not make any of the correct political reflections” and was left “conscious of nothing but physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over” (175).

Of course, Orwell’s “physical discomfort” at the end is not merely a matter of the intangible atmosphere of fear and repression. He has been shot through the neck, and is physically wounded. But whereas his account of the political intrigues and day-to-day life in the coffee shops and bars is heavily imbued with the emotional undercurrent that runs through them, his tale of being hit by an enemy sniper is surprisingly distanced, stoical, and understated. As he puts it: “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail” (143). Though he reports “the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion,” he quickly finds he has “a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense” (143, 144). Once he understands that the bullet has gone through his neck, he is convinced that he is done for–“I assumed that I was killed” (145)–yet even this is depicted without much in the way of panic or doom, but as “interesting–I mean that it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. [. . .] The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaningless of it!” (145). And it is not long before he views the whole event with a sort of black humour: as everyone insists that “a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive,” he retorts that he “could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all” (154).

So there is an odd discrepancy throughout the book between an affective treatment of politics, or what we might otherwise think of as an insistence on the affective infrapolitics that underlies and escapes all political discourse, and on the other hand a notably detached, distanced perspective on the body itself, which is treated as the object of almost quasi-scientific curiosity and scrutiny. This disconnect is further highlighted by what now appears as Orwell’s rather antiquated, perhaps quintessentially English attitude to anything that smacks of the personal. His injury is treated more as a nuisance than anything else. Beyond a brief description of a train journey in Burma (92), there is little to nothing in the way of Orwell recollecting or reflecting on his own personal history. His wife features frequently, but is never deemed worthy of a name. Orwell is honest about his own failings and minor hypocrisies (“God forbid that I should pretend to any personal superiority” [101]). And we learn much about his (lack of) personal hygiene on the front, and the lice that infest his clothing. But almost always Orwell’s gesture is to universalize, to present himself as a cipher for humanity as a whole: the lice, for instance, prompt the thought that “in war all soldiers are lousy [. . .]. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae–every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles” (54).

Perhaps all this is because, in the end, Spain itself is something of a cipher for Orwell. Indeed, he claims not to have the chance to “look at Spain” at all until very late in the day, once he is finally discharged. With his “discharge papers in [his] pocket,” he tells us that “For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain” (164). But even this Spain ends up being more a country of his own invention or fantasy than a real place: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that exists in everyone’s imagination” (143). By implication, then, everything else that he has witnessed and described–the May Days in Barcelona, the Aragon Front, but also the militiamen and shopkeepers and so on–is in some sense not Spanish. They have all somehow obscured from view some other, supposedly more “real” Spain that would accord with the collective fantasy of what the country should be like. In short, the strange thing about the Spanish Civil War in Orwell’s eyes (but perhaps not only his) is that it is not really “Spanish” at all. And no doubt this is why his final thoughts are not with Spain but with England and its “deep, deep sleep [. . .] from which I sometimes fear that we will never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs” (196).

See also: Homage to Catalonia I.