2022 La guerra del gallo

In some ways there is nothing more real than armed conflict–it is after all a matter of life and death. But in other ways there is nothing more surreal, more phantasmatic. And if one literary response to warfare emphasizes its grim materiality (think, say, of Erich Maria Remarque’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front), another stresses the absurd: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Likewise, it may seem odd to think that one of the best-loved TV shows of the twentieth century portrayed the Korean War with canned laughter, but that was exactly what M*A*S*H did. War: it makes us laugh as well as making us cry.

Juan Guinot, 2022 La guerra del gallo

While Juan Guinot’s debut novel 2022 La guerra del gallo isn’t perhaps as funny as he thinks or hopes it is, it certainly makes hay with the absurdity of war. And the second half especially has all the (il)logic of a rather bad dream. Indeed, I was more than half-expecting that that’s how the book would end: with the revelation that the titular “war of the cock” was nothing but the febrile fantasy of a protagonist whose grasp of reality is tenuous throughout.

It’s another commonplace to note that war drives us mad; that even if we were once lucid, the experience of battle is enough to make us lose our mind. Today, the medicalization of this effect goes by the name of PTSD; in other times, it was known as shell shock. The difference with Masi, Guinot’s (anti-)hero, is that he goes crazy not because he has seen war up close and person, but because he hasn’t. He is an adolescent at the time that the Falklands/Malvinas conflict breaks out, and though he eagerly signs up to fight as a patriotic Argentine, “to his dismay the [call-up] letter never arrived, the war ended sooner than anticipated, and the final result of the conflict was so disastrous that it left him shocked and he started to show all the signs of an ex-non-combatant; he saw Englishmen everywhere” (27). Traumatized by Argentina’s defeat, and above all that he could play no part in it, he therefore vows personal revenge against the colonial power of the English “pirates” whom he blames for all his ills.

Masi’s obsessive preparations for the future war of triumphant vengeance are at times no more than faintly ludicrous: he stalks the suburban rail services for spies, for instance, and when he finds one (identified by the fact that he’s wearing a “Kiss” t-shirt), he follows him, shouting at him to “go home” to the annoyance of the so-called spy and his fellow-passengers alike. But more often he is frankly deranged, and ultimately he (literally) gives his father a heart attack when, on receiving as a present a small styrofoam globe, he shouts out “I have the world in my hand. Now they won’t stop me. [. . .] English bastards, I’m make them shit fire” (52). Then, kneeling over his father’s corpse, Masi pledges “My victory will be yours” (53).

Unsurprisingly, the boy is carted off to a mental hospital. Equally unsurprisingly, he believes this to be a dastardly trick of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. In any case, decades pass and he is still far from cured when, in late 2021, he finally escapes his imprisonment and, with globe in hand and balaclava on head, he sets off on his new mission: to liberate the Rock of Gibraltar.

The world has changed by 2022 and here the object of Guinot’s satire shifts. For it turns out that everyone in this dystopian near future is effectively deranged and has lost the power to distinguish between reality and the imagination, the real and the symbolic. For the War of the Cock ends up being a dispute between France and Portugal in which two Dr Strangelove types, one on either side, decide to launch missiles against each other. This is the result of a deadly televised reality show in which boxers from the two nations brawl for the exclusive claim to their shared national symbol, now sponsored by a nefarious mega-corporation called BioCorp.

In the middle of the mayhem, and as the collective eyes of the world remain glued to their TV screens, Masi makes his way through Spain on a deserted train in the company of a stray dog with apparently supernatural powers. (There is much magic in the book; Guinot would have been better advised to leave it out.) And in the final dénouement he does indeed manage to expunge the stain of Argentine defeat forty years previously, by expelling the English from Gibraltar and raising the Argentine flag on top of the Rock. But the pity is that almost nobody notices. By 2022 if it doesn’t happen on television (and Masi’s antics don’t), then it might as well not have happened at all.

It would be hard to accuse Guinot’s book of subtlety or even of much sophistication. But then that’s perhaps partly the point. War is stupid, he’s telling us, and it makes fools of us all, whether we are doing the fighting or not. On the other hand, this novel is often so farcical that it makes one pine for at least a little of the bloody materiality that Guinot suggests we have forgotten in our militaristic obsessions. After all, the strange thing is that this is a war book in which there are barely any casualties: the French and Portuguese missiles collide midway in the heavens with little damage done, as the entire population of southern Spain is hunkered down in their bunkers to watch TV; at the end, the only victims are Gibraltar’s Barbary apes, who collectively leap to their deaths in the Mediterranean. If this were the only idiocy of war, then surely there wouldn’t be much to fear.


Patricia Ratto, Trasfondo

The Falklands/Malvinas war was a conflict fought as much, if not more, at sea as on land. A majority of the casualties on both sides came from attacks on shipping, especially if we include the British losses from landing craft at Bluff Cove. Five larger ships were also sunk, including HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyer. For the Argentines, almost half their dead came from one incident: the controversial sinking of the General Belgrano. But it was largely thanks to the loss of the Belgrano that there were no naval battles in the strict sense, that is, no ship-to-ship conflict. All the British ships were hit by shore-based aircraft; the Belgrano itself was torpedoed by a submarine. And in response to the cruiser’s destruction, the Argentine fleet was recalled to base for the duration of the conflict.

With one exception. From May 2 to May 17, 1982, the submarine ARA San Luis was the sole representative of the Argentine navy in active operation. It is this ship’s story that is the subject of Patricia Ratto’s Trasfondo.

The novel is essentially a ghost story. For a submarine is always in some sense a spectral presence: largely invisible, hard to locate, registered only by faint echoes, yet the source of intense anxiety and fear. A submarine is a fantasmatic object par excellence. Yet Trasfondo shows that from the perspective of the submarine and its crew, the ships on the surface and even the war as a whole were equally ghostly and unknowable. Down below–and the San Luis was almost permanently submerged–neither sea nor sky could be glimpsed; the enemy could be discerned only through careful attention to faint traces on the Sonar. The few times that the vessel surfaced, it found only gloom and fog. On the whole it was out of range of any communication or maintained radio silence. As Martín Kohan notes, its crew were at the center of the action, but in some ways were further removed from the war than anyone.

On board, time becomes elastic and the combination of boredom and tension plays strange tricks on the mind. The crew are soon lost in “a labyrinth of echoes and rumours, as they wait for what the sea may bring them” (72). Small details become both comfort and distraction: a jar of capers that rolls around the boat; the narrator’s boots that seem to have a life of their own. Some draw, some read, others play cards to pass the time. It’s better to be doing something, no matter how futile. Most of the men put on their lifejackets as the enemy approaches (the youngest crewmember never takes his off), but they know that this will do them little good in the event of disaster. For if they are hit, “There won’t be time for anything, no time to call out, no time to escape, no time to hear, no time to see, the blood will stain the water with a thunderous red that bit by bit will be diluted until it is just water again” (79). Often enough it seems as though this doomed mission is already at an end: “Perhaps we are all dead already, one coffin piled up on another, but we simply haven’t noticed yet. Can one really die and not know it?” (71).

At the core of the book is the question of the relationship between knowledge and death: the knowledge of death, but also the knowledge that death either enables or obscures. Ratto reports that she was inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s observation about the Nazi concentration camps, that the only “comprehensive witness, who has experience of it all [. . .] would be the one who dies in the camp and so, paradoxically, the one deprived of a voice with which to testify. Meanwhile, those who survive have the voice to tell of what happened, but their experience is partial, incomplete. What we have, then, is always a lacuna, a grey zone that is impenetrable, inaccessible, without a voice to narrate it.” In Trasfondo, Patricia tries to give voice to this dead zone at the heart of any tragedy, any war, only to find that it is less the place of clarity and understanding than a new depth of epistemic murk where even the border between life and death itself becomes unstable, uncertain.

Los pichiciegos II

Los pichiciegos

See also pichiciegos

Almost at the end of this Falklands/Malvinas conflict novel, the last survivor (though he doesn’t know it yet) of a doomed colony of Argentine deserters who call themselves “pichiciegos” hears the sound of engines at a distance. He sits down to wait for whatever vehicles might be making the noise as it gets closer, but all of a sudden everything goes silent. Without taking too much time to ponder the matter, he reflects that this is just one more mystery in a “war that would forever lack any explanation” (209). So when he, much later, tells the book’s shadowy narrator “You think you know, but you don’t. You don’t know” (127) and “You don’t understand a thing” (152), he’s not simply referring to the notion that you had to have been on the islands to understand his experience. There’s something about the war itself that defies all explanation.

What were they doing there in the first place? Fogwill plays up the inhospitality of the archipelago: all mud, driving rain and snow, barren hills, the odd sheep. Who would want to live in this godforsaken place? “You’d have to be English, or like the English, to get stuck in there and die of cold while all the while you had Argentina so huge and so beautiful and always sunny” (94). But not even the English, more focused and efficient as they are, seem to be able to make head or tail of things: not even they “understood what was going on” (96). The pichiciegos–the name comes from a small Argentine armadillo that burrows into the ground–show no love for the British, but nor do they buy the patriotic propaganda that urges them to continue fighting for Argentina, for a cause that makes no sense at all. Deserters, they have opted out of the war, dug themselves a shelter somewhere in no man’s land, and hope merely to make the best of things by scavenging scraps from the battlefield.

But beyond the basic mystery of what the war was all about (“two bald men fighting over a comb,” as Jorge Luis Borges famously put it), there are other strange occurrences on the islands. At one point a couple of the pichis report that they have seen a pair of nuns, “giving out papers among the sheep that were wandering all around them. [. . .] ‘I saw them. He saw them. [. . .] Two nuns. It was at least ten degrees below!’” (102, 103). Were these just visions produced by the men’s exhaustion and fantasies? Or are these apparitions no more (or no less) spectral than the deserters themselves, who many believed to be the “dead, living underground, which after all was half true” (109). The pichiciegos haunt a strange buffer zone: between the two sides at war, but also between life and death. No wonder then that they might be more attuned to other strange events and circumstances, without for all that understanding things any the better.

“And what about you?” asks the narrator of the sole survivor, in a scene that hints at analysis or therapy, “do you believe that I believe what you’re telling me?” “Just note it down,” he replies. “That’s why you’re here. Take notes, think hard, and come to your own conclusions” (105). And ultimately this is what the book requires of us, its readers: not so much to believe as to think, and to come to conclusions that can only ever be provisional at best. For if war teaches us anything–and even this may grant it too much pedagogical or moral import–it is to doubt the power of any explanations.

Link: Hugo Sánchez, who fought in the Falklands/Malvinas, gives a brief opinion on Los pichiciegos: “The most real thing I read about the Falklands/Malvinas is a book of fiction.”

El “cipitío” en el Salvador Sheraton

El cipitío en el Salvador Sheraton

This short book describes itself as a “literary chronicle/collage about the FMLN Offensive in San Salvador, from November 11-21, 1989.” Of course, the offensive didn’t just take place in the country’s capital: as the book itself notes, the guerrilla’s tactics involved multiple strikes throughout the country, preventing the armed forces from concentrating in any particular zone. There was “bloody combat in San Miguel, Usulatán, and Morazán in the East; La Paz, San Vicente, and Cuscatlán, in the Centre; Cabañas and Chalatenango, in the North” (25). Nor was this the first time that the guerrilla had been active in the city: the war had never been simply a rural rebellion, and the FMLN had never adopted the Maoist strategy of (say) Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, which involved encircling the cities from the countryside. And yet, in November 1989, the war came to San Salvador in new ways, for instance in that the guerrilla moved (more or less) in the open in working class suburbs such as Mejicanos and Soyapango, while for its part the state for the first time bombed these parts of its own capital city from the air.

Briefly, this long-running “low-intensity” war became resolutely high-intensity for everyone, not just for the peasants of far-flung departments such as Chalatenango or Morazán. San Salvador was briefly the scene of urban warfare reminiscent of Beirut or Sarajevo. Nobody was entirely safe, as was demonstrated by the two notable events that are this book’s focus: the extrajudicial killing of the country’s most prominent group of intellectuals, six Jesuit scholar-priests at the Universidad Centroamericana; and the guerrilla incursion into the capital city’s wealthiest neighbourhood, Escalón, when for a couple of days they occupied one of its foremost luxury hotels, the Salvador Sheraton. The hotel’s guests at the time included the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States plus a number of US Green Berets. Anticipating a possible hostage rescue operation, (then) President George H W Bush sent down an elite group of Delta Force operators. So November 1989 was the moment when El Salvador almost became Vietnam, with a direct engagement between the guerrilla and the US armed forces.

But El “cipitío” is not particularly interested in framing the Salvadoran revolution in terms of a Cold War proxy conflict. Rather, it envisages the guerrilla to be accompanied by “thousands of spirits [who] watch approvingly and guarded the periphery: they are Indians who had died in 1524, 1832, 1932… There were the defenders of Cuscatlán, the “Land of Treasures. There was Tayte Anastasio Aquino, the Indians Feliciano Ama and Chico Sánchez, and with them, in every one of the guerrilla… the “Negro” Farabundo Martí” (16). So the portrait the book paints is of a hybrid postcolonial revolt, with Aztec and Mayan elements as well as the specifically Salvadoran sprites the “cipitío” of the title and his companion the “ciguanaba,” a ferocious woman warrior. The cipitío transforms a guerrilla detachment into spirit beasts–a jaguar, a quetzal, a deer, and so on–to whisk them invisibly past the sentries and roadblocks and into the heart of the territory claimed by the Salvadoran bourgeoisie and international capital. And once their point is made, he (literally) spirits them away again, to fight another day. For this is a struggle that won’t come to an end in any eleven-day “final offensive,” or even with the peace accords three years later. This is a “long war” indeed (to borrow James Dunkerley’s phrase), and it continues to this day.

No me agarran viva

No me agarran viva

As (almost) always with testimonio, Claribel Alegría and D J Flakoll’s No me agarran viva is caught in the tension between the typical and the exceptional, or the two meanings of the exemplary: example of or example for. Thus the book’s prologue begins with the declaration that Eugenia (the FMLN combatant who is the text’s main focus) is an “exemplary model of self-abnegation, heroism, and revolutionary sacrifice” (7).

Is she an example, then, in the sense that she provides for us–or others–to aspire to and follow? Or is she exemplary in that hers is just one among many such stories? The prologue continues by stressing the second of these two readings, asserting that she is “a typical case, rather than an exception, of so many Salvadoran women who have dedicated their efforts, and even their lives, to the struggle for the liberation of their people” (7). And yet the book that follows consistently suggests the opposite, that in almost every way her capacities and her commitment exceeded that of those around her. As her immediate superior, Comandante Ricardo, puts it: “Eugenia was one of those who contributed most, through her experience, the sureness of her political ideology, her party militancy as much as in her sense of mission and organizational ability” (147/144; translation modified). Or in the words of her partner, Javier, who gives the “definitive summary of the life and death of his wife and comrade”: “Eugenia’s life was exceptional” (147/145).

The way that the book deals with this tension is ultimately by vacating Eugenia’s life of almost any individuality beyond the superlatives. Perhaps this is another sense in which she is a “model”: she so fully plays the role of the exemplary guerrilla that she is otherwise empty inside. She has almost no interior life. Everything is devoted to the cause. Even her marriage is described in terms of consummation to the struggle: “The wedding was their initiation into a clandestine way of life. [. . .] Some of the guests left the church in protest because their vows included the promise to keep helping the people” (65/79). Indeed, wherever love is mentioned it is as likely to be love of the people or love of the party as it is to be any kind of romantic attachment to Javier. Throughout, with the one exception of some very brief comments by her sister almost at the end of the book (concerning her enthusiastic but out-of-tune singing and her careless driving), she is overwhelmingly a person devoid of personality.

All of which gives an ironic double meaning to the book’s title: “They Won’t Take Me Alive.” This testimonio surely doesn’t capture much if anything of Ana María Castillo Rivas (her real name), her life and her singular vivacity, offering us instead no more than a beautiful corpse, a revolutionary icon under an assumed name. She escapes us, as much as she escapes the Salvadoran security forces, if at the high cost of sacrifice and glorified death.

See also: War.


Robert Capa

A collection of posts on war, in connection with a course on armed conflict in the Hispanic world:

Un día en la vida

Un día en la vida

“Books were always being written differently from how one spoke” muses the narrator of Manlio Argueta’s Un día en la vida/One Day of Life (110/141). But not this one, perhaps. It’s a novel based on interviews with Salvadoran peasants and it abounds with the country’s typical linguistic forms, such as the use of “vos.” It also features characteristic words and expressions that include “cipote” for kid, “chucho” for dog, “chele” for blond or light-skinned, not to mention a whole range of terms for the flora and fauna of the countryside. Indeed, in interview, Argueta responds to a question about his “particular use of Salvadoran vernacular” with the comment that “it is a way of promoting the oral language as our own wealth [. . .]. I do this to reaffirm our own values, local values, so as to know that we exist.” Just as the book’s title asserts the particular within the general, the specific day within a much broader life, so the book’s language is unapologetically local, tied to a place that is not simply El Salvador as a whole but more specifically still rural El Salvador, here the department of Chalatenango in the country’s north, near the Honduran border.

To reproduce the forms of speech of the rural poor is also unmistakably a political choice, not least at the point at which the book was published, in 1980. It’s not simply (indeed, hardly at all) a matter of cultural nationalism. Rather it is one of the country’s most distinguished writers and intellectuals (he is now head of the National Library) affirming the vitality and expressive capacity of a whole social stratum that had been marginalized and oppressed, abused to the point of either breaking or exploding. For this is also a novel that comes from a very particular point in time: just before the formation of the FMLN, an alliance of various armed groups, and the outbreak of revolutionary insurrection. In the decade or more or civil war that would follow, up until the peace accords of 1992, Chalatenango would forever be one of the areas where the guerrilla had most support and freedom of maneuver. It was a “liberated zone” almost from the start, ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. To some extent, this book is Argueta’s contribution to the combat.

This novel anticipates the war to come. As Gareth Williams notes, it is “the narrativization of an impending insurrection whose violence is arranged around collective martyrdom, sacrifice, and rapture as will-to-power” (The Other Side of the Popular 192). We hear the age-old history of the abuses that the peasants receive from the landlords and their hired men, not to mention the myriad other “authorities” with their posturing machismo and absolute disdain. We see, moreover, a gradual escalation of violence: the peasants are slowly gaining consciousness (“conciencia”) of their exploitation and refusing to dismiss it as one of life’s many sufferings; they are beginning to agitate and organize in more formal ways to claim their “rights,” encouraged by a new set of priests inspired by liberation theology. In response, the authorities respond ever more brutally, trying (at times quite literally) to dismember the body of the campesinado and stick it in the ass to the priests.

The crunch comes when the novel’s protagonist and dominant voice, Lupe, is faced with the mangled remains of her husband, Chepe, more dead than alive, who is dragged to her door for her to confirm his identity. Seeking to protect herself, her family, and her neighbours, as well as in honour of a pledge she has made to Chepe in the past, she constrains her emotions and denies that she knows him. What follows is her grand-daughter’s vision of a grotesque counter-violence, of the corpse of one of the soldiers who has been tormenting them: “His eyes and his mouth were open, and no matter how much they tried to shut his eyelids they would open again, and no matter how much they pulled on his big toes, his mouth would not close” (166/215). Lupe fears that this is a nightmare, but her grand-daughter articulates the logic of the novel when she tells us that it is anything but.

Los girasoles ciegos

Los girasoles ciegos

Los girasoles ciegos was Alberto Méndez’s only book of fiction, and he published it late in life, at the age of 63. Indeed, he died shortly after its appearance, and so didn’t live to see the extent of its tremendous critical and popular success, its multiple prizes and its film adaptation a couple of years later.

Méndez was less a writer than an editor: he worked for many years in the publishing industry. And this is nowhere more evident than in the second of the four interlinked stories that comprise this brief collection: “Second Defeat: 1940 or Manuscript Found in Oblivion.” For what else do editors do then deal with manuscripts and attempt to rescue them from actual or potential oblivion? And here the story is framed and consistently interrupted by editorial interventions that remind us both of the materiality of the text and the limits of our powers of interpretation. For the project to rescue anything from oblivion can never be fully successful. Something (as they say) always escapes.

But not every escape is successful. Or rather: for every escape there are as many blockages and dead ends. For here, the manuscript is the narrative of a failed attempt to flee Franco’s Spain. A young man and his pregnant wife have trekked up into the hills, but the woman dies in childbirth leaving the father and infant child in an isolated hut as winter approaches. In a tattered notebook, with a script that becomes steadily more cramped as the physical limits of writing and body alike loom ever closer, the man documents what he knows will be a voyage without return. Much of what he writes, especially on the margins of the page, is illegible or uncertain, and much else is unstated or indescribable. But we glean that he is a former poet, a youthful rebel and somewhat romantic adherent to the Republican cause. Now, however–and as the editor notes, he writes this in all caps and in a style imitating print–he declares himself “A POET WITH NO VERSES” (47).

Méndez’s book is devoted to such silent poetry, or poetry of silence. And he is aware that writing will never redeem the oblivion of defeat; on the contrary, the fatal seduction of writing is its claim that such redemption might be possible. Rather, it is careful editing, attention to the limits of the text, that reminds us that ultimately what is once forgotten can never be unforgotten. The best we can do is to recover the oblivion itself. Or in the words that he takes as his epigraph, from Carlos Piera’s introduction to an anthology of poetry (another series of texts embedded within other texts), the task is to “[accept] the existence of a void as part of us” (9).

This void is perhaps the same as the one that recurs in the book’s final pages, as the denouement of the title story, the “Fourth Defeat.” Here, a man who has been forced into hiding in his own house (another failed escape) finally emerges to save the honour of his wife, pursued by a lecherous priest, but also because his confinement has become intolerable. He recognizes that by showing himself he also dooms himself, that all he can manage is a final gesture that at one and the same time accepts and refuses the finality of defeat. He throws himself into the atrium of his apartment building. This leaves his son with an impossible memory–impossible because he realizes that he could not in fact have been tall enough to look though the window and watch his father’s body disappear from view. Like Méndez himself (born in 1941, after the war), he cannot have witnessed the trauma that haunts him. But nor can he now forget it.

See also: War; Spanish Civil War novels.

Réquiem por un campesino español


If Francisco Ayala’s La cabeza del cordero skirts the question of causes–and indeed, perhaps, of causality itself–preferring to see the civil war as an absurd irruption of violence that comes almost from nowhere, Ramón Sender’s Réquiem for un campesino español is, by contrast, all about origins. So much so, indeed, that his book, too, ends up stopping short of addressing the war directly.

The story is told in flashback and counterpoint. A priest, Mosén Millán, is preparing to give the requiem mass for a young man–Paco el del Molino–who was killed a year previously. The church is empty save for an altar boy who flits around, humming or singing almost under his breath the ballad that has apparently already converted del Molino into a popular hero. Meanwhile, the priest thinks back over the intersections between Paco’s life and his own, as the church is a constant presence in everyone’s lives in this small village, from baptism to wedding and funeral. But never more so than in this case, as we gradually learn, and the story of Paco del Molino becomes the story of Millán himself. No wonder the book bore his name as its title when originally published, for it is less about the downfall of the young campesino than it is about the failures of the church.

Paco el del Molino had been an altar boy in his time, and one day accompanied Millán on a pastoral visit to a gravely ill man in need of the last rites. But in Paco’s eyes, at least, it turns out that the man needed far more than this: for the visit takes the priest and his assistant to a scene of extreme poverty, where the people live in caves, with little more than rags to their name. Asking Millán about why such misery should exist and what might be done about it, Paco gets decidedly short shrift: “That’s how life is, and God has made it so for his own reasons” (38). For the boy, this isn’t good enough.

But the times they are changing, and these changes affect even the most remote of villages. Some years later, elections are called and Paco is at the forefront of a group of councilors determined to fix some age-old injustices. They refuse to pay the absentee landlord for the right to graze their animals on his land. “What men have made, men can unmake,” he takes the liberty of telling the landlord’s majordomo (75). The entire social hierarchy, from the monarchy down, seems to be tottering as men and women like Paco start to question the unwritten customs that perpetuate gross inequality. The village is abuzz.

The reaction is swift, sharp, and ruthless. Hired thugs come from the city and a massacre ensues. Only Paco has the sense or quick-wittedness to make good his escape and go into hiding. But this is where the long, intertwined history between the priest and his former acolyte, between the church and the people, reaches its tragic dénouement. For it is Millán who discovers the location of the rebel’s hideout, and gives it up to those in his pursuit. He even is persuaded to speak to del Molino in person, to convince him to hand himself in. He does so on condition that the fugitive will be given a fair trial, but he must know as well as anyone that such promises from the landlords’ men are worthless. Sure enough, before long the priest is forced to witness as they take the young man off for summary execution. And his response to Paco’s pleas now are as inadequate as his attitude to the cave-dwellers was before: “Yes, my son. You are all innocent. But what can I do?” (101). His “son” dies with the name of his spiritual father on his lips: “He turned me in… Mosén Millán, Mosén Millán” (104).

A year later, waiting for the mass to start, in a church empty of all but the altar boy and his ballad plus (belatedly) representatives of the very men who put Paco to death, the priest has plenty of time to consider his betrayal.

As an allegory of the war as a whole, Sender’s tale is reductive and one-sided. For one thing, this is a conflict without any actual fighting: Paco gets a couple of rounds off at his pursuers, but leaves them with no more than the lightest of injuries. The people are the purest of victims; their oppressors, the purest of victimizers. Yet strangely the church is allowed the virtue of at least embarrassment and regret for its failure to protect its flock. Which is why it is better to stress that this is a story of origins, a description of deep injustice and the sanctioned violence that kept it in place. No wonder people would go on to fight (in fact) tenaciously for the Republican side, inspired in part by the ballads telling of folk heroes such as del Molino. But in the end this novella is no more revealing than such a ballad, with its caricature villains and easy moral lessons. Surely the war deserves more than this.

See also: War; Spanish Civil War novels.

La cabeza del cordero

La cabeza del cordero

It may seem strange that the first story in La cabeza del coerdero, Francisco Ayala’s collection of short stories about the Spanish civil war, has, at first sight, nothing to do with the war itself. It concerns, rather, an encounter between two cousins, one of whom tells the other of a strange manuscript whose writing cannot be deciphered. Anticlimactically, however, the mystery is left unresolved as the two men part before they can even locate the piece of paper in question. The “message” that gives the story its title is oblique at best. We may end up wondering if it even exists, or if it is not merely an invention of fervent imagination and small-town gossip in what is depicted as a backwater in which little of real import ever happens.

But “El mensaje” sets the tone for what follows, not least in making clear that ten years on (the book’s first edition came out, in Argentina, in 1949), it was still hard to imagine approaching the conflict directly or unequivocally. Indeed, only one of the subsequent tales (“El Tajo”) is set during the war itself, and even here we are a long way from the main event, on a quiet front on which there is no actual fighting. The story’s protagonist, a Lieutenant Santolalla, describes his experience of the war in terms of “an empty, useless period of waiting, that at first brought to the mouth the delicious taste of holidays in the distant past and that later, even its darkest hours, he had learned to endure [. . .] as one of life’s many inconveniences, like some kind of temporary illness, a flu about which you could do nothing but wait until it went away of its own accord” (116). Ayala is not telling us that this is what the war was like–though it’s worth being reminded that every war has its lulls and its longueurs. But it is about as close as he can take us to the violence itself. For all of a sudden, pretty much out of nowhere, comes a brief moment of senseless destruction that will haunt Santolalla for years to come.

So a second theme that we now see that “El mensaje” has introduced is the notion of unpredictability: throughout the stories, characters are constantly surprised, constantly made aware that their best guesses of what is around the corner are profoundly misguided. In the title story, “La cabeza del cordero,” for instance, a traveller has no sooner installed himself in his hotel in Fez, Morocco, than he finds that his arrival is apparently expected by remote relatives of whose very existence he had been utterly unaware. Or in “El regreso,” a man returning to Spain after a period of exile in Argentina comes up with a series of hypotheses about the fate of his former best friend and his family, only to be taken aback by the one eventuality that he had failed to consider. In each case, moreover, these surprises don’t bear further examination: the cousin in “El mensaje” takes the first bus out of town; the traveller in Fez resolves to move on as quickly as possible to Marrakesh; and the returning exile in “El regreso” turns his back and “on the way made the decision–that I would delay carrying out no more than was unavoidable–of returning to Buenos Aires” (184). Initial curiosity, in other words, turns very soon to revulsion or denial.

La cabeza del cordero, in other words, takes on the responsibility of representing the war, but soon finds it absurd, inscrutable, impossible, too traumatic for anything but the gibberish that the character in the final story, “La vida por la opinión,” produces over a long period of hiding. Given the disillusion, disappointment, and distress, better perhaps “Not to think about anything.” “As if,” Ayala immediately reminds us–and perhaps himself–“it were possible not to think about anything” (245).

See also: War; Spanish Civil War novels.