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

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)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.