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.

embarrassment

I’m about a quarter of the way through Read’s book. It does have some virtues, not least in retelling some of the early history of British Hispanism. Those were very much the days of the gentleman amateur, a continuation of the eighteenth-century “grand tour.” Apparently the founding editor’s contribution to the first issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (in 1923) was entitled “Literary Pilgrimages in Spain” (20). I buy Read’s argument that, at least in these heady days before the Spanish Civil War, the Northern Hispanist found in Spain “an organic, pre-individual, pre-capitalist community, comparable to the ‘merrie England’ of contemporary English critics such as F. R. Leavis, but in the case of Spain, refreshingly real, surviving, that is, into the 20th Century” (20).

Two points, however:

First, if academics are always torn between two fantasies, either of their vital importance as the new “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, or of their marginality and insignificance, mere spectators of the real theatre of power, Read insistently plumps for the first illusion over the other. His particular inflection is a Marxism of a fairly vulgar variety. Hispanism is endlessly found to act in the service of either capital or the state, often both. “Thrown into relief,” for instance, “is Hispanism’s ideological role in the (re)production of the whole social order” (14). Indeed he even presents the possibility that the fate of social reproduction is at stake in the choice of syllabus in specific courses: “the control of the content of Golden Age courses served the purposes of a conservative elite, anxious to defend the prevailing relations of production, just as surely as the superannuation of those courses is related to the need to expand the forces of production” (27). Moreover, the influence of the humble junior lecturer expanded far beyond the confines of national boundaries: “the traditional Hispanist . . . served the middle class in its capitalist exploitation of Third World Countries” (28). And in rather predictable vulgar Marxist fashion, the fact that the professoriat refuse to realize their true role in global oppression is the coup de grace of outraged critical dissection: “Needless to say,” Read strangely feels the need to say about the above founder of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, “it escaped his attention that the capitalist extraction of surplus value from workers involves a form of legalized robbery, that the freedom of these workers is constantly infringed by cut-throat managers, and that dominant classes have, throughout history, enjoyed a fuller life at the expense of those who serve them” (36).

Yes, there are moments when Read’s excoriation of Hispanism invokes the second academic illusion, when he wishes to suggest that his forbears and colleagues were so dismal that they weren’t even able to ensure the continuation of legalized robbery on the part of the British bourgeoisie. At these points, Hispanism turns out to be a “quietly conservative, marginal discipline” (26). Indeed, Read even contemplates the possibility that the Humanities in general may inadvertently resist capital expansion: “Their knowledge, over the ages, has generally been ‘useless,’ to the extent of holding back the development of the forces of production” (52). But the scare quotes around the word “useless” here indicate, I think, not so much that Read contests prevailing utilitarianism, as that he is reluctant to relinquish the notion that Hispanism must still somehow be a vital link in the chains of capitalist imperialism.

Second, Read’s book is, well, embarrassing. Interleaved with his analyses of Hispanism as an institution are a series of autobiographical essays. One of these compares his own career with that of Paul Julian Smith (professor at Cambridge and probably the most prominent figure in contemporary British Hispanism). I haven’t reached that chapter yet, but even the thought of it makes me wince. (Apparently Read writes about himself in the third person; which if anything makes it even worse.) It is very clear that Read has been advised multiple times to tone down his book, revise it, and make it less personal, less confessional, less full of.. well, of ressentiment. Read glosses Richard’s Hoggart’s famous description of the “scholarship boy” as characterized by “an unusual self-consciousness and tendency to self-dramatization” (38). This description seems to fit Read to a T. (Read, however, will claim that he is not even a scholarship boy, as he failed his eleven plus.) The book’s acknowledgements refer to the fact that one of its constituent essays was essentially rejected by the Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, and also to the fact that the book as a whole “was submitted to Liverpool University Press, and held by it for several years, before being rejected on the grounds that the Press suddenly found itself ‘over-committed'” (i). Further, the book’s preface reports the reaction of a series of friends and colleagues who had read the manuscript: Michael Sprinker “was significantly guarded in his response” (iv) while other colleagues “obviously felt that I had gone over the top in terms of political rhetoric and ad hominem criticism. More painfully, others failed to respond at all, as if embarrassed by the whole enterprise” (v). Frankly, no wonder.

So what to say about such a book that a) is not clearly (and even more excruciatingly) anticipated within its own pages and b) is not, indeed, a class condemnation of the scholarship boy for not fitting in, for being gauche, for not living up to the decorum of academic convention?

hispanism

I have now sent off my review of the Laclau and Panizza books.

The next book up for review is Malcolm Read’s Educating the Educators: Hispanism and its Institutions. The title and concept are promising, but I fear that the content is less so. We will see. My position towards Hispanism is already at best ambivalent. At the same time my work is in some ways becoming more recognizably Hispanist than ever, all the more so as I edge in on Peninsular Studies via my project on sixteenth-century piracy.