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How Anglo writers stole the story of the Spanish civil war

When we think about writing about Spain's civil war, we go first to Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Why were Spanish authors mistrusted?

Nationalists in Mérida, 1936. Some Spaniards felt foreign “adventurers” treated their war as sport. Photo: Getty Images
Nationalists in Mérida, 1936. Some Spaniards felt foreign “adventurers” treated their war as sport. Photo: Getty Images

An English speaker asked to name countries colonised by the Americans and British in the 20th century would be unlikely to think of Spain, yet if someone asks you where you learned what you know about the Spanish civil war the answer is likely to be Homage to Catalonia or For Whom the Bell Tolls – or a history by Hugh Thomas, Stanley Payne or, more recently, Paul Preston, Antony Beevor or Helen Graham. Another prime source, out of print now but used by students for a couple of decades, was the 1980 Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, which, as the poet and editor Michael Schmidt pointed out in a review for the New Statesman at the time, included next to no Spanish writing.

One of the reasons for this Anglocentric view of the war was that, for decades, Spanish authors were mistrusted. Mario Vargas Llosa confessed that as a young man in Peru in the 1950s he read nothing by Spanish writers living on the Iberian Peninsula, “because of a prejudice as widespread in the Latin America of those years as it was unjust: everything published over there reeked of fustiness, sacristy and Francoism”.

Among the things that made Vargas Llosa change his mind was belatedly reading Carmen Laforet’s 1945 autobiographical Gothic novel Nada, about a young woman living with dysfunctional relatives in post-civil-war Barcelona. (Imagine something between – and as good as – The House of Bernarda Alba and The Girls of Slender Means.) The rest of Europe was and still largely is oblivious to this Spanish postwar era – it began in 1939, after all, and a lot was going on then – but it was a time of poverty as well as of psychological readjustment to dictatorship. A superficially very different fictional version of the period from Laforet’s, almost hippie-ishly pastoral but with an under­current as dark as a sewer full of corpses, is El Jarama (The River) by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio. It is set on a hot Sunday in the mid-1950s, in the countryside south of Madrid, not far from where Barajas Airport stands today. A dozen young people have come out from the city to swim, picnic, laze around and flirt in a place where, only 18 years earlier, tens of thousands fought for Madrid.

Both novels are wonderful: all one can say is read them (they’re available in good translations). In the case of El Jarama, though, British readers need to know a few things in advance. One is that the novelist, who is still alive, is the son of a famous Falangist: Rafael Sánchez Mazas, whose own story is the starting point of Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis. Another is that the fictional party’s all-but-blithe forgetfulness symbolises a phenomenon that has since become a big topic of contention in Spain: was there a tacit deal to suppress the recent past, or were matters more complicated, even more benign? And how much does it affect our reading that, of the thousands of Jarama casualties, a few hundred were from the UK?

International involvement has been crucial to Spain’s modern history. No overall account of the period would be adequate if it didn’t mention facts such as the death of Felicia Browne, an English artist who volunteered on the republican side and was shot in the course of an attempt to blow up a nationalist munitions train, or the support given to the nationalists by the wildly aggressive South African poet and correspondent Roy Campbell. Our mythologising of the civil war, though (don’t we all wish we had been Laurie Lee?) needs to take account of the fact that foreign involvement wasn’t welcome to everyone in Spain, and helped to escalate what was from the outset a proxy war. This is among the reasons why we should read what the Spanish in Spain have written and look at the films they have made – not only since Franco’s death in 1975 but under his regime.

There are too many of them to discuss here and many ironies were involved. Carlos Saura, for example, like other dissi­dent Spanish directors, was trained at the official film school established under Franco in 1947. In Saura’s half-encoded 1966 attack on the regime, La caza (The Hunt or, better, “the shooting party”), the arrogant, self-absorbed businessman Paco is played by Alfredo Mayo, whose roles had included the one Franco meant to be an idealised version of himself in his own film, Raza.

Some artists worked deep undercover. Among the most active of these, as well as the most powerful imaginatively and politically, was Jorge Semprún, who had fought with the French Resistance, had been imprisoned in Buchenwald and, once democracy came to Spain, was for a while minister of culture. His The Long Voyage, also translated as The Cattle Truck, first published in 1963, is a classic of the “long” Second World War. Others, however, produced their art more openly and some were actively helped by the regime. Some, in fact, worked for it.

The most controversial of this group, and the most extraordinary, by any measure, was Camilo José Cela, who won the Nobel Prize in 1989. The dictator was still in power when his novel San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969. Its hectic, reiterative, unparagraphed, sparsely punctuated narrative is set in Madrid in the first days of the civil war. Figures who have come to dominate Spanish history books make occasional appearances but the focus is on ordinary people. Historical events, the narrator says, are generally credited to some powerful individual rather than to “the people . . . perhaps more than twenty or thirty thousand men, each with his moving little novel stuck to his heart”. It sounds like a republican sentiment, yet Cela worked for the nationalists as a censor and a spy, was appointed to various official bodies under Franco and became a somewhat scandalous senator.

The scandals were mainly a matter of his disrespect for everything “appropriate”. Most of San Camilo, 1936 is set in one or other of a range of brothels in the centre of Madrid, including one establishment known as the League of Nations, “because there they’ve got everything, Moors, Germans, Belgians, Frenchwomen, Portuguese, everything”. Cela’s novel insists that the important always coexists with the trivial: a fly in someone’s coffee with José Calvo Sotelo’s assassination; the early days of conflict with what was happening in the Tour de France. And this perceptual indiscriminacy is connected with what is said more overtly about the war: “. . . they kill priests, they kill Andalusian peasants or they kill schoolteachers, it depends on who’s doing the killing, but finally . . . everything stays the same only with more people dead”.

Cela shows the underlying confusions in the conflict’s polarities: for instance, that a republican might have had conservative sympathies more in tune with some of the internally divided fascists (Cela’s word) than with the supposed position of the similarly faction-ridden republican government. This book is pointedly dedicated to conscripted Spanish soldiers, “all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral . . .”

By “adventurers from abroad”, Cela meant not just the German, Italian and Moroccan troops on one side and Soviet Russians on the other, but volunteers from all over the world, many of whom died – 2,000 Germans on the republican side, 1,000 French, 900 Americans, 500 British. But “killing Spaniards like rabbits”? Was he really saying that the likes of John Cornford, George Orwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner thought the war was a kind of sport?

It’s true that some of their statements can seem unconsidered in retrospect. In his introduction to that oddly slanted but invaluable Penguin verse anthology, Valentine Cunningham pointed out that Cornford, who was killed near Córdoba, went out with the intention of staying “a few days, firing a few shots and then coming home”. Orwell’s early assertion that the whole point was to kill people on the other side comes across as even more swashbuckling. Warner, meanwhile, for all her expertise in Tudor ecclesiastical music, cheerfully enthused about the republicans’ burning of churches and smashing of shrines. However idealistic and self-sacrificial such participants were, and however much their views matured during the bitter course of their experiences, reading them does provide glimpses of the kinds of attitude Cela resented.

There were people who held back. The short-story writer and New Statesman journalist V S Pritchett, who had lived in Spain in the 1920s, was bemused by the suddenness and, as he saw it, naivety of other writers’ involvement after the military uprising in July 1936. Stephen Spender’s best poems of the time are full of uncertainty and an accurate sense of impending dissolution. W H Auden’s much-criticised ambiguity was partly due to his being repelled not only by the republican slaughter of priests, but by what it felt like, even for someone who thought he was an unbeliever, to be in a place that had expelled religion.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is the book that, more than any other, anticipates Cela’s challenge while being exposed to it. Hemingway knew Spain well, spoke Spanish and was battle-hardened. Yet he, too, was an “adventurer”, to whom physical danger was at least as attractive as the communist dream from which his hero, Robert Jordan, is fast waking up. Jordan, though implausibly hard-headed in military matters for the young literary academic he is supposed to be, is convincing when he vacillates about the rights and wrongs of what he’s up to in Spain.

No. There was nothing to be gained by leaving [these people] alone. Except that all people should be left alone and you should interfere with no one. So he believed that, did he? Yes, he believed that. And what about a planned society and the rest of it? That was for the others to do.

The moral-political dilemmas in this thrilling, tragic romance are real and important. Yet even at its most self-aware and engaged, Hemingway’s version of the civil war elevates its military tourists. For Whom the Bell Tolls begins, after all, with the tall, blond Jordan, a sabotage specialist, being guided through the mountains by an old Spaniard. Soon we’re in the cliché-thicket of every 19th- or early-20th-century British or American travel book about Spain: wine poured from a skin, smells of Mediterranean food cooking in the open air. Even Hemingway’s well-intentioned efforts to take us more deeply into his Spanish characters by reproducing their idioms – “I obscenity in the milk of thy fathers” – can be comically distancing and patronising in effect.

Jordan is fully conscious of his and other foreigners’ outsiderness. What he doesn’t think about is the extent to which the expertise and equipment they brought to the conflict worsened it. It’s the American who gives the orders, the American who teaches the Spaniards how to mount a machine-gun, the American who plants the explosives, the American who in this way literally (as well as figuratively with Maria) makes “the earth move”. Still, Hemingway is too good a writer to rest on this complacency. The novel ends, after all, with the dying Jordan sighting his gun on a nationalist officer whom the reader knows to be a decent man.

You would think that the passing of time would restore complexity to matters that were formerly simplified but the opposite is often the case, and a tendency to sentimentalise the Spanish civil war is heightened in Britain by our love of lost causes; think of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”. To me, the best way to get at the truth about mid-20th-century Spain involves at least two things. One is remembering that to impose (what we hope is) our own moral template on (what we think we know about) the past may be satisfying but isn’t reliable. Another is looking at what good Spanish artists produced in Spain at the time.

“Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936” by Jeremy Treglown is published by Chatto & Windus (£25)

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