Soldados de Salamina

Cercas, Soldados de Salamina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: Spanish Civil War novels.

San Camilo, 1936 I

Cela, San Camilo

Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936 opens with a scene in front of the mirror, and consistently returns to this same site of reflection and self-observation. At first, the mirrored gaze brings familiarity, perhaps a sort of comfort. The English translation has it: “A man sees himself in the mirror and even feels comfortable addressing himself in a familiar way” (3). In the Spanish, though, this is not a particular individual, but a generic, impersonal third person: “Uno se ve en el espejo” (13). This is the way things are in general, at least at first sight: in the mirror, we see ourselves and feel we know what we see. But it is not long before the reflection becomes both more uncertain and more specific, revealing something that perhaps we would rather not see. A second glance is less reassuring: “the quality of the pane is not good and the image that it reflects shows bitter and disjointed features [. . .] maybe what’s happening is that it reflects the astonished face of a dead man still masked with the mask of the fear of death” (3). So by the time the second chapter comes around, also opening with a mirror, the address is both more personal (second person rather than third) and more desolating: “Look at yourself in the mirror and don’t break out crying, it’s hardly worth while for you to break out crying because your soul is already more than damned” (32). And it is not long before the reflection provokes a real ambivalence, the mirror seeming to exert a strange hold on a spectator who can’t bear to look but can’t turn away: “look at yourself in the mirror and escape from the mirror, it’s like a gymnastic exercise, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror and so on until you can’t take it any more” (34). And why? Why “are you scared to look at yourself in the mirror?, yes, you’re scared to look at yourself in the mirror, are you afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks?, yes, you’re afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks” (49). Here as elsewhere, in the novel’s insistent repetitions and reiterations, we end up discovering that what we are returning to is the scene of a crime, a crime in which we are both victim and victimizer, murderer and murdered, the dead and the damned.

The crime, of course, is the Spanish Civil War, and the second-person narrator is both particular and general: it is a young student, about twenty years old; it is Spain; it is all of us. “You, you, you,” the narrative voice addresses himself, but also the reader, in a tone that both strives for self-knowledge and seeks at all costs to avoid it, in what is effectively one long, sprawling denunciation of the murderous desire written on all our faces–or, what is perhaps worse, the nonchalant ignorance and self-preoccupation that allows others to murder in our name. For sometimes it is by looking too hard in the mirror that we miss what is going on elsewhere, the violence that is about to break out without our lifting a finger to stop it. For we are both perpetrators and bystanders to a history that could not take place without us, but which we barely notice, or only indirectly. We are too close to the scene of the crime either to avoid its implications (and our complicity) or to understand them: “Seen from close up history confuses everyone, both actors and spectators, and is always very tiny and startling, and also very hard to interpret” (61). Because ultimately “history is full of Narcissuses” but “it will do no good to run away, do not close your eyes, contemplate your full and true (or full and false) image in the mirror, take advantage of your being as though hypnotized, [. . .] the miracle is not likely to occur but you must not give up that hope” (112). Cela is here returning to the civil war, to the very outbreak of hostilities, recognizing the narcissism involved but unwilling to give up on the miraculous possibility of hope for self-understanding none the less. You can’t look at it directly; but you can’t quite look away. Self-reflection and self-ignorance alike open up to moral quagmires. The best you can do, perhaps, is a gaze that looks aslant: indirect, interrupted, but repeated and insistent.

Hence this novel of the civil war is also somehow about anything and everything but. In the first instance because (at least as the first part comes to a close) the war itself has yet to break out. The conflict is (only) on the horizon; it’s a matter of rumour and fear, potential but not full actuality. We hear of the murder of Lieutenant José Castillo, a Republican policeman–a murder that took place on July 12, 1936. We register the assassination the following day of the right-wing politician José Calvo Sotelo. Who is behind these deaths? Falangists? Communists? Or was Castillo, for instance, merely the victim of a crime of passion? Cela passes on all the various stories that circulate around and try to explain the violence: “Listen, couldn’t he have been hit by a taxi as he was crossing the street?” (68). Meanwhile, off stage, something larger is brewing: “They say there is going to be a military coup to guarantee law and order and to save the Republic” (68). No wonder that fear stalks Madrid, that “the country is nervous, the spark can fly at any moment, maybe it has already flown with these stupid deaths, and the fire, if it breaks out, will be hard to contain” (71). But none of this is shown directly or straightforwardly. For (in the second instance) everything is at the margin of the narrator’s own concerns and preoccupations: with his family, his friends, his girlfriend Toisha, his own anxieties and fantasies about sex and health and the day to day. To put this another way, this is less a political novel than an infrapolitical tale par excellence. Cela’s interest is less in the political shenanigans and conspiracies, or even the broad structural tensions and open conflicts, that lead to the open violence of the war itself, than rather in everything that is not itself directly political but without which politics itself would be unthinkable, unworkable. Hence also the novel’s meandering, nonlinear, repetitive style, a “stream of consciousness” that belongs to no one single individual, but which presents the fragmented reflection of an uncertain, ambivalent multitude that at any moment will be cast as two great forces–Fascist and Loyalist, Right Wing and Left–that are supposedly mutually incommensurable. Cela writes against that political fiction, with all its reductiveness, to give us instead a more complex (non)narrative glimpsed in a distorting mirror for which we are inevitably always on both sides of the divide.

Crossposted to Infrapolitial Deconstrution Collective.

Live Souls

The Spanish Civil War is edging towards the far horizon of living memory. There are no more than a dozen veterans still alive. They include Fernando Macarro Castillo, better known as Marcos Ana, a poet who signed up with the Republican Army and later spent twenty-three years in one of Franco’s jails. He is now 96 years old. And José María Gárate Córdoba, who fought on the Nationalist side and went on to be a military historian. He is 97. Or the Englishman Stanley Hilton (now living in rural Australia) who, at nineteen, jumped ship in Alicante and joined the International Brigades. He, too, is 97 years old. No doubt there are others who were only children at the time, indelibly marked by the first “total war” to be fought on European soil, in which civilians were directly targeted as in the infamous bombing of Guernica. But there cannot be many left. Next year there will be fewer. Very soon there will be none. And then the conflict will have passed fully into history.

Live Souls

But history has a way of catching up with us. Live Souls (Ronsdale Press, 2015), a collection of photographs (plus brief memoir) by Alec Wainman, who served in Spain as a volunteer ambulance driver and interpreter, is a reminder that the past is nearer than we think, the repercussions of this internal conflict broader than we might imagine. For the struggle between Franco’s insurgent Nationalists and Spain’s legitimate Republican government was always an international affair, as the former were enthusiastically backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Mexico and the USSR weighed in for the latter, and the rest of the world watched on and waxed sanctimonious. In some ways, the war of 1936 to 1939 was a dry run for the subsequent World War Two, as what would become the Axis powers tried out novel tactics of aerial bombardment and mass terror, while the true stakes of Allied anti-fascism were laid bare: the UK and France (among others) chose not to intervene where they felt their national interests were not at stake. In frustration and anger, thousands of (mostly) young men such as the Anglo-Canadian Wainman, fresh out of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, travelled to Spain to help in any way they could, believing that the Republican cause transcended national boundaries.

But the global impact of the Spanish Civil War is not measured in geopolitics alone. The Republic’s defeat prompted a diasporic exodus of its adherents: throughout Europe but also to many countries of Latin America. And those who had fought alongside them also ended up at all four corners of the world: Stanley Hilton in a remote town on the border between Victoria and New South Wales, and Wainman on what must have seemed the equally isolated Canadian Pacific Coast, about as far away from the battlefields of Madrid, Catalonia, and Valencia as one could imagine. Here, in Vancouver, he dedicated himself to teaching Slavic languages and culture at the University of British Columbia, apparently telling few of his friends or colleagues of his experiences back in the heady days of 1937 and 1938. He died in 1989 and his archive of 1600 photographs taken in Spain with a trusty Leica was thought lost until, very recently, his son (who goes by the name of Serge Alternês) tracked them down, salvaged from the home of a retired London publisher. Now available, together for the first time, in this handsome volume, these images chart the tenacious persistence of memory, the resonance of surprisingly intimate encounters that radiates outward from then to now.

With few exceptions, almost all these pictures are portraits. The first, indeed, is the figure of the photographer himself, snapped close-up (a “selfie,” perhaps?) on a Barcelona street car. His head is back, and he looks somewhat warily at the camera lens from behind glasses that reflect the light from the street and so render the photographic subject slightly opaque, reticently fleeing our gaze. Equally, another photograph that features Wainman, in his khaki shorts, leaning on the bonnet of the ambulance he drove, is strangely out of focus and blurred. This is a portraitist who happily effaces his own image and subjectivity in order all the better to let those portrayed fix their own self-representation. On the page facing the picture of Wainman with his ambulance, for instance, is an image of John Cornford, the British Marxist poet whose “Full Moon at Tierz” and “To Margot Heinneman” are classic meldings of politics and romantic elegy. To add to the mythos of doomed romanticism, Cornford famously would go on to be killed in action at twenty-one. But in this picture, he’s perhaps surprisingly smiling, raising his fist in a salute that seems almost comic, self-consciously humorous. Wainman’s portrait opens up a perspective that goes beyond the time-worn cliché.

And so it is throughout the collection. We perpetually get the sense of a curious eye that lets itself be drawn by its surroundings and by the dispositions of those who are facing the camera. In nearly every case, the people we see are aware that they are being seen, and so participate in their self-representation. The cover image is another good example: it shows what appears to be a veteran militiaman, with an ammunition belt over his shoulder, amusedly looking at us with half-closed eyes as he takes a drag of a cigarette, while next to him a younger man, barely out of adolescence, extravagantly strikes a pose with his fist in the air. Behind them, a small crowd cheerily look on, observing this to-and-fro between photographer and his subjects, self-fashioning and its capture on film. The glory of this book is not that it shows us its varied array of combatants, volunteers, nurses, patients, peasants, children, and so on as they actually are, but rather that it allows them to show themselves as they want to be seen, devoid of any particular propagandistic intent.

Hence perhaps the book’s title. The “life” of these live souls comes through in the poses they strike, and in the freedom that the photographer gives them to strike them. If this is a claim to authenticity, it is so in that it is the record of a series of interactions: the truth of the encounter, of bodies that meet and become subjects through the medium of the camera gaze. The very last image, for instance, is of a young girl in the Basque country in 1939, at war’s end. She stands in front of a laden donkey, her head slightly bowed, her feet a little askew, one arm behind her back but the other (she hopes) almost nonchalantly balanced on the basket by her side. With a broad smile she looks directly at the camera. Here I think the caption gets it wrong in stating that “life remained the same as before for those children who were not orphaned or evacuated.” How could it? But what we see, in all the tension between the awkward pose and the beaming face, is the determination that, despite everything, life will go on. And this book, too, is the product of a similar determination: that even as the past slips into history, as memory becomes unreliable and at best second-hand, the soul of Republican Spain should continue to resonate into the future.

Reposted at The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

Reposted also at The Tyee, as “As Europe Roils, New Glimpses of Fighting Fascists 80 Years Ago”.