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.

Spanish Civil War novels

Live Souls

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:

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.

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.”

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.