My review of Alec Wainman and Serge Alternês’s Live Souls has now been republished not only at The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, but also at The Tyee, as “As Europe Roils, New Glimpses of Fighting Fascists 80 Years Ago”.
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.
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” ). 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).
George Orwell is probably the most famous English political writer of the twentieth century. As such, it is surprising, in Homage to Catalonia, to read him telling us that, at the front of the Spanish Civil War, “the political side of the war bored” him (208). He says of his initial impressions of Catalonia that
the revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names–PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT–they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (197)
This book, then, part memoir and part political analysis, documents a change in Orwell’s perspective, a form of politicization. For, in his words, “everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later” (198). Homage to Catalonia is, as much as anything, an account of how and why Orwell took side, and began to view the array of political acronyms as more than just some alphabet soup. For it turns out that the war had everything to do with politics–“it was above all things a political war” (197)–and so boredom or disinterest are no longer viable options. It is in the name of politics that a certain–largely fictitious–narrative of the conflict had been propagated, and it is likely that it is in the name of politics that the Republic would be lost.
Yet, if this is the message of the book, Orwell remains strangely ambivalent about it. He tells us, at the start of his first extended disquisition on the internal struggles between Anarchists and Communists, that “if you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.” As he notes, he separates out the analysis from the memoir “to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters” precisely so that the disinterested reader can pass over them and continue following Orwell’s personal journey unperturbed. In other words, in this conflict in which “everyone” has to take sides, the reader is carefully shielded from this responsibility. In fact, in later editions of the book the “political” chapters are relegated to appendices, pushed even more to the margins of the main narrative. But does this not allow precisely the depolititicization, or refusal to engage in politics, against which Orwell’s book is otherwise written? Orwell wants both to protect us against the “horrors of party politics” and (if we are curious to read through the appendices that contain them) to tell us that they are essential to any understanding of the situation in Spain–and indeed, Europe as a whole. At one and the same time, the book both directs us to the centrality of political disagreement and aspires to shield us from it.
It may then be better to think of this as an infrapolitical book, in the sense that it is about what is simultaneously a necessary link and an absolute breach between war and politics. The Spanish Civil War is at the same time a thoroughly political war and absolutely non-political at the same time. The “horrors” of politics are both inevitable and to be avoided if at all possible. Orwell has both to show the connections between the “common decency” for which he came to fight (197) and the political machinations that make it both possible and impossible, and at the same point to keep them utterly separate. This is, of course, an impossible task, which is why in some sense this is an impossible book, fractured and somewhat absurd. But it is in that fracture that we see the struggle between politicization (taking sides) and commonality (common decency) played out, which are the stakes of the war itself, which ultimately can only be understood in these infrapolitical terms.
Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.
Giorgio Agamben’s short book Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm comprises two brief essays, one on the Athenian concept of “stasis” or civil war, the other on the role of the multitude in Hobbes’s Leviathan. What links them, he tells us, is the notion that “the constitutive element of the modern State” is “ademia [. . .] that is, [. . .] the absence of a people” (vi). Obviously enough, this will come as something of a surprise to “the Western political tradition” for which, as Agamben notes, the “concept of people” is “arguably the fundamental concept” (39). Think after all of the opening of the United States constitution, for which “we the people” are presented as that country’s basic political bedrock.
Agamben proposes instead the multitude as the core concept of political theory. So far, so good, and no doubt also so Italian. But what Agamben adds to the work of (say) Toni Negri and Paolo Virno is the observation that “the multitude is the subject of civil war” (40) and, further, that it is thus through civil war that the political realm is established. Or, as he puts it in his discussion of the Greeks:
it constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family [oikos] and the political space of the city [polis]. [. . .] In the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicization and depoliticization, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticized in the family. (12)
For, as Agamben points out, Solon’s law explicitly punishes those who do not take part in civil war: such people forfeit their rights to citizenship; “not taking part in the civil war amounts to being expelled from the polis and confined in the oikos” (13). Civil war is, therefore, not (as we tend to see it) simply the point at which the political dissolves, as the state fractures and society is reduced to warring factions. It is also constituent, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city,” however much today, by contrast, we regard it as “something that one must seek to make impossible at every cost” (16).
To put this another way (in terms that Agamben himself does not use), it is civil war that is the threshold or hinge between infrapolitics and politics per se. He offers here a theory of the ways in which the political emerges and is dissolved. Moreover, in his study of Hobbes, Agamben further offers civil war as the process by which what he calls the “dissolved multitude” (the multitude subject to biopolitical power) is transformed into the “disunited multitude” that makes itself known by turning on the absent people (absorbed into the figure of sovereign power, the Leviathan). And though it is not entirely obvious how these two conceptions mesh with each other, in both cases civil war has to remain an intimate possibility in the heart of any and every political order. For sovereignty, at least until the coming of the end times, can only remain an (optical) illusion, a trick of representation. In the meantime, “no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude” (49). Agamben thus reverses the eschatological tendencies inherent (as I have argued elsewhere) in Negri’s vision of the multitude: here it is only the state that dreams of a substantial presence and unity to come. The multitude, by contrast, is located on a perennial threshold, figured as civil war, between house and city, infrapolitics and the political.
The sting in the tail of Agamben’s analysis, however, is given only sotto voce, in a digression or coda to the first essay that’s presented in smaller font than the rest. This is the observation that “the form that civil war has acquired today in world history is terrorism. [. . .] Global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stake of politics” (18). This only goes to show once again that (whatever Negri thinks) nobody should look to the multitude for their salvation. But instead of denying the possibility of civil war, trying to exclude it from the political order, we need to recognize that order’s indebtedness to it, and pick one of the many sides (who says there should be just two?) that any such conflict opens up. For this is the very paradigm of the political, of the perpetual emergence and dissolution of political activity as such.
Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.
If the problem that André Malraux’s Days of Hope poses is that of the confrontation between the virtues and emotions of human subjectivity–hope, courage, enthusiasm–and a new form of mechanized warfare that puts a premium on objective technological efficiency, this is complicated by the fact that the very opposition repeatedly breaks down. For on the one hand the machines cannot be so easily reduced to an instrumentalized, technical logic. And on the other hand, the figure of the human is constantly in danger of disappearing or of being subsumed into a more general and impersonal landscape of affect. In short, the machines seem to take on a life of their own, while the men (and women) fighting the war have trouble holding on to their appearance of individualized identity.
Some of this blurring of the machinic and the human is a matter of perspective. After all, Malraux shows us the war from the air, a point of view that might be imagined to offer a broader and more objective panorama, but which in practice simply confounds established certainties. Hence when the Republican Flight brings along a local peasant, to help them locate a hidden Falangist airstrip, at first his local knowledge of the terrain proves useless, as he is unaccustomed to looking down on it from above: “His mouth half-open, and tears zig-zagging down his cheeks, one after the other, the peasant was straining every nerve to see where they were. He could recognize nothing” (395). But more broadly, even for seasoned pilots, from the air things take on a different aspect. On one of their early mission, for instance, they see a road “studded with little red dots. [. . .] too small to be cars, yet moving too mechanically to be men. It looked as if the roadway itself was in motion.” This turns out to be a column of Fascist lorries, but to see them as such requires the pilot to have “a gift of second sight: seeing things in his mind, not through his eyes.” And even then, he retains the impression that the landscape and infrastructure itself has come to life as he observes a “road [. . .] that throbbed and thundered–the road of fascism” (86).
But even closer to the ground, the distinction between the animate and the inert is often hard to discern. At one point, for example, during the defence of Madrid, we are provided with the perspective of a fire-fighter named Mercery high up on his ladder, who imagines himself battling “an enemy with more life in it than any man, more life than anything else in the world. Combating this enemy of a myriad writhing tentacles, like a fantastic octopus, Mercery felt himself terrible inert, as though made of lead” (342). Shortly thereafter, machine-gunned by a Fascist plane, he is described as “living or dead” as he “still clung to the nozzle of his hose”–as though the border between life and death had here become strictly undecidable, or perhaps (however briefly) irrelevant. Elsewhere, even the confrontation between infantry and tank, which is otherwise staged as the classic clash between man and machine (for faced with the tank only the dynamite-laden “dinamiteros [. . .] can face the machine on equal terms” ), is also put into question. At Guadarrama we discover that “a machine can seem startled on occasion.” Faced with anti-tank machine guns, “four of them–three in the first line, one in the second–tilted up simultaneously with an air of puzzlement: ‘What on earth is happening to us now?’” (310).
And at the Battle of Teruel, things are further complicated by the deployment of a loud-speaker, a machine that talks: “inert, yet alive because it spoke” (381). Later, as the noise of battle dies down, it is described in personifying terms: “the loud-speaker had been waiting for this lull” (384). More generally, the technology of mass reproduction–represented here by cartoon characters such as “Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Donald Duck” (368)–conjure up “the modern fairyland, the world in which those who are killed all come back to life” (369). Technology both brings to humanity death and destruction but also offers the world forms of (re)animation that trouble the very distinction between human and inhuman, living and dead.
If then the machines increasingly take on a life of their own, what distinguishes the human? At the best in the novel, the men and women who populate it eke out a fairly shadowy and precarious existence. Again, this is partly a function of the recurring aerial perspective: from on high or far off, people either disappear are easily dehumanized, for instance (in the case of deserters going over to the enemy) appearing to be no more than “insects waving their antennae” (305) or (in the case of Fascists flushed out of the forest) adopting “the same panic-stricken scamper as the herd of cattle they had just stampeded” (398). Again, however, even on the ground they tend to dissolve into the environment: “shadows,” “ghosts,” “wraiths,” and “shadowy forms” in the Madrid mist, for example (265, 266, 267, 270); or collectively constituting “a frenzied mass” (204) or a “panic-stricken mob [. . .] like leaves whirled together and then dispersed by the wind” (225). Even in terms of the novel’s own representational strategy, which constantly jumps between locations and discrete episodes, there is little attempt to give many of the characters much realist depth or rounded individuality; they tend simply to incarnate particular positions or singular attitudes, becoming spokespeople for (say) Anarchism or Communism, or exemplary instantiations of stubbornness or self-sacrifice.
If there is something that, for Malraux, can (still) be said to be distinctly human, it is perhaps the face. This perhaps is why the novel repeatedly recurs to the human face, and to the notion that the face somehow stands in for individual character (men are variously described, for instance, in terms of a “jovial solid-looking jowl”  or a “predatory face, hook nose, and twinkling eyes”  and so on), and also more generally for shared humanity. In an atmosphere frequently characterized by gloom and indiscernibility, Malraux often has faces suddenly revealed or lit up, as for instance when an explosion at Toledo catches a group of dinamiteros “open mouthed, their cheeks lit by the livid purplish sheen of flame and moonlight mingled [such that] each saw the face that he would wear in death” (199). Or when an aeroplane is caught in a searchlight and “a sense of comradeship in arms pervaded the cabin flooded with menacing light; now for the first time since they began the flight, these men could see each other” (234; emphasis in original) and as a result, in the aftermath, each of the crew “had vividly before him the picture of the features of his comrade as they had been thrown into relief for that brief moment” (235). There is something about the face of the other that gives us both his (or her) truth, and reminds us of some shared commonality.
Except, of course, that warfare also destroys the face and our perception of it. On the one hand, the novel repeatedly gives us instances of blindness, either permanent or temporary, which make it impossible to see the face. And the face of the blind is also somehow grotesque, we are told: the father of the blinded airman Jaime tells us that he “can’t bear to look at his face” (279). But war also mutilates its victims such that there is no face to be seen. This is what happens to Gardet, another airman, whose plane crashes towards the end of the book: his face is “slashed wide open from ear to ear. The lower part of the nose was hanging down.” As a result, would-be rescuers flee from the sight, and Gardet muses “If I look at my mug just now, I’ll kill myself” (409). Even bandaged up, the effect is that of “a tragic bas-relief of Armageddon” (411).
Throughout, then, Malraux tries to maintain the distinction between human and machine (as well as between the human and he animal), but ultimately the war puts such differences into question. More likely, we end up with a variety of hybrid combinations of man, machine, and nature, in which what is presumptively object is animated and gains features of subjectivity (such as affect and agency), while men and women defer or abdicate some part of their subjectivity as they take up their places in the “endless flux of things” (423). Sometimes these hybrids are empowering, as with the case of the pilot who “feel[s] the contact of the stick, welded to the body, identified with it” (401). Sometimes they are grotesque, as with the battering ram used at the siege of the Montaña Barracks, a “strange geometrical monster” (32) wielded by men on either side of it, one of whom dies under fire and “slump[s] across the moving beam, arms dangling on one side, legs on the other. Few of his companions noticed him; the battering-ram continued lumbering slowly forward, with the dead body riding it” (33). Here, man and machine, animate and inanimate, dead and alive all come to constitute a collective apparatus of war in which any categorical distinctions are untenable if not irrelevant. This complicates any notions of fraternity. Yet such is modern warfare. And in so far as war teaches us how to live (Manuel, perhaps the novel’s major character, tells us that “a new life started for me with the war” ), it is also, quite simply, modern life.
Hope is at best an ambivalent sentiment: it both resists and recognizes doubt. “Hope springs eternal,” but we “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” It is also strangely passive: when we hope something happens (or that it doesn’t), we are acknowledging that it is somehow beyond our control. When we hope, we lay ourselves open to circumstance and fate. So hope is both resilient and fatalistic: hope against hope.
Something of this ambivalence can certainly be seen in André Malraux’s Spanish Civil War novel, L’espoir (translated variously as Man’s Hope or Days of Hope). On the one hand, the book tracks the first few months of the war, before factional infighting had destroyed a Revolution whose “driving force,” one of Malraux’s characters tells us, “is–hope” (37). On the other hand, even at this early stage the Republic’s weaknesses are clear and it often seems as though hope is all its adherents have, and even that is “gasping to survive, like a man who is being throttled” (44). It’s all too easy for an apparent cause for optimism to be revealed as nothing more than a “charitable lie” (93). Malraux’s characters are therefore torn between a self-defeating realism and a hope they know (not so very) deep down to be impossible and self-deluding. Hence the revolutionary spirit is described as a “Apocalypse of fraternity” (100). It embodies all the virtues of human sociability and commonality, but for that very reason it is doomed: “the apocalyptic mood clamours for everything right away. [. . . But] it’s in the very nature of an Apocalypse to have no future. . . . Even when it professes to have one” (102).
Hope alone, then, is insufficient, not least because this (Malraux suggests) is a new kind of war: “a war of mechanized equipment”; and yet the Republicans are “running it as if noble emotions were all that mattered!” (98). But Malraux doesn’t allow this question to be fully settled. Instead, his characters continuously argue (at times, bicker) about the role of technology, organization, and efficiency in determining the war’s outcome. For the intellectual, Garcia, for instance the problem is that the Revolutionaries are taking the Russian Revolution as their model, forgetting that this was not so much “the first revolution of the twentieth century” as “the last of the nineteenth. The Czarists had neither tanks nor ‘planes; the revolutionaries used barricades. [. . .] Today Spain is littered with barricades–to resist Franco’s warplanes” (99). Later he points out that, whatever bravery the disorganized Republican militias may demonstrated, “mass courage in the field [. . .] can’t stand up against ‘planes and machine guns” (176). And as for the Republicans’ ragtag airforce, endlessly waiting for Russian planes that never come (while Hitler and Mussolini ensure that Franco is endlessly supplied), as Garcia says to the airman Magnin: “I doubt if you expect to keep your Flight up to the mark on a basis of mere fraternity” (102). For Garcia, “this would be a technicians’ war” (98).
By contrast, however, other voices vouch for fraternity, courage, and hope, even in the cause of a losing side–and even, indeed, if they ensure that the cause itself is lost. The anarchist Negus, for instance, declares that “it’s courage gets things done. Cut the crap!” (171). And from a rather different perspective, Hernandez, a career army officer who refuses to join Franco’s mutiny, declares that “a world without hope is . . . suffocating. Or else, a purely physical world” (195). Speaking of the militia, who too often resemble a disorganized and ineffective rabble, he says that “if nothing in you responds to the hope that animate them, well then, go to France, there’s nothing for you to do here” (196). And to Garcia, Hernandez asks “What’s the point of a revolution if it isn’t to make men better?” and argues that it can be brought about by “the most humane element of humanity.” (180). To which Garcia responds that “Moral ‘uplift’ and magnanimity are matters for the individual, with which the revolution has no direct concern; far from it!” (183). But even Garcia concedes the dangers involved: that “a popular movement, or a revolution, or even a rebellion, can hold on to its victory only by methods directly opposed to those which gave it victory” (102). For to lose hope it to give in to cynicism, and to put one’s faith in technology is to put efficiency and effectiveness on a pedestal, and ultimately you are a hair’s breadth away from fascism, at least as it is defined here: “The cynical action plus a taste for action makes man a fascist, or a potential fascist–unless there’s loyalty behind him” (143).
There is, however, perhaps a third option, beyond this opposition between dignified humanism on the one hand and technocratic pragmatism on the other. For the technology that does indeed pervade everything in the novel (almost always, for instance, there is a radio on somewhere in the background) has effects that are as much aesthetic as military. There are frequent comparisons with the movie industry, for instance: Madrid is described as “an enormous film studio” (36); an in Toledo “the fierce light of a film studio played on ruins like the wreckage of a temple of the East” (161); the aviator Scali is compared to “an American film comedian” (118); Hernandez’s friend Moreno’s face is described in terms of its “screen-star symmetry” (195). And at the very end of the first part of the novel, when Hernandez is facing a fascist firing squad, he thinks of it as some kind of grotesque cinematic scene: “yes, all was ready for the camera” (220).
All of which suggests that the true stakes of the war (and the revolution) may not be so much moral or political as in the realm of representation. Hence, listening to “the strident triumph of fraternal unity” as a parade of troops goes by, the American journalist Slade comments that “There’s a spark of poetry [. . .] in every man, and one day he has to come out with it” (37). His friend, Lopez, replies that “we’ve here right now a mob of painters” and argues the need for a revolutionary art or “style” that’s “got to be something definite, not a vague abstraction like ‘the masses’” (38). “One day,” he continues, “that new style of ours will catch on in the whole of Spain, just as the cathedral style spread over Europe, and their painters have given Mexico a revolutionary fresco style” (40). And so perhaps this is where Malraux’s hope is invested: the Republicans may indeed lose the war, and the Revolution may indeed be doomed (may have to be doomed for it not to become itself simply the mirror image of the fascism that opposes it), but somehow an aesthetic style may survive these losses, and take hold not only in Spain but also far beyond.
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” ).
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.
This summer I’m teaching a course on Spanish Civil War novels. As usual, comments welcomed. Below I’ll be putting links to all relevant, related posts:
- Serge Alternês and Alec Wainman, Live Souls
- Francisco Ayala, La cabeza del cordero
- Ramón Sender, Réquiem por un campesino español
- Javier Cercas, Soldados de Salamina
- Camilo José Cela, San Camilo, 1936 I
- Camilo José Cela, San Camilo, 1936 II
- Ana María Matute, Primera memoria
- André Malraux, Days of Hope I
- André Malraux, Days of Hope II
- Julio Llamazares, Luna de lobos
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia I
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia II
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls I
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls II
- Alberto Méndez, Los girasoles ciegos
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.