Archive for January, 2003

January 1, 2003

BOOK REVIEW: The Forging of a Rebel

Arturo Barea…..Rating: 5 Stars

We had to fight them. This meant that we would have to shell or bomb Burgos and its towers, Cordova and its flowered courtyards, Seville and its gardens. We would have to kill so as to purchase the right to live.

I wanted to scream.

The Spanish Civil War is more relevant to Americans than it might have seemed a few years ago. In the aftermath of 9/11, it is easier to imagine the reality of a Madrid under sustained shellfire. In the environment of hysterical political correctness which exists on so many campuses, it is easier to understand how a casual remark could land someone in front of a firing squad. And in a time of suicide bombings, the slogan “Long Live Death” (first adopted by the Spanish Foreign Legion and later by the Fascist movement) becomes even more chilling.

This book is “about” the Spanish Civil War, but it is not conventional military or political history. It is the story of Spain in the first half of the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of one man. The writing is so rich, dense, and vivid that reading it is like finding yourself inside someone else’s dream.

Barea tells his story in three sections, the first concerned with his childhood and early youth. The portraits of Spain’s poor are both gripping and humane. You will not forget Barea’s mother, a laundress who often must break the ice on the river in order to do her washing. Nor will you forget their friend Signora Segunda–an indomitable beggar woman who trains her dog to hold the collection plate in his teeth, thereby encouraging more contributions. Much of Barea’s childhood, however, is spent in the company of relatives who are financially better off–his uncle the proud blacksmith, his grandmother the atheist, his snobbish and religiously-obsessed aunt. With his mixed upbringing, Barea is known as the “washerwoman’s son” to the rich boys at school and the “little gentleman” among the poor. Leaving school at 14, he takes a job as a bank clerk, in an environment straight out of Charles Dickens.

In the second section, Barea is called up for military service. The colonial war in Morocco might be called “Spain’s Vietnam,” but this would be to understate its devastating influence–which shook the country and paved the way for further social distruption. Barea is revolted by the bloodshed, the tactical stupidity, and the corruption at all levels.

In Morocco, he encounters the charismatic but almost insane Colonel Millan Astray–he of the slogan “Long Live Death”–who will later become a leading figure in the Fascist revolution. He does not meet the future dictator Franco, but passes along a chilling description of him. After leaving the army, Barea works for a firm providing patent assistance and other business services, and achieves a fair degree of financial success. His sympathy for Spain’s poor, however, continues to develop, as does his opposition to Spain’s rigid class system.

The third section is concerned with the Spanish Civil War per se. By now a committed Republican, Barea serves as chief censor of foreign press reports, and meets many well-known figures–Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos–who are covering the war. From his office in the Telefonica tower, he is observes Madrid under shellfire: Buildings slit open by bombs exhibited shattered, fog-soaked rooms with swelling, shapeless furniture and fabrics, their dyes oozing out in turgid dribbles, as though the catastrophe had happened years before…In the houses of the living, the fog billowed through the broken window panes in chill wads.

Fascist atrocities do not blind Barea to the atrocities committed by his own side, which he reports unblinkingly. Churches are burned, innocent people are executed. In the overheated emotional climate, the most trivial things can prove fatal. On one occasion, Barea is showing a friend how tall a child was–“like this,” he says, holding up his hand to indicate the height. He is accused of giving the Fascist salute, and is saved from the firing squad only by the intervention of credible friends.

Barea is an acute describer of character and of social patterns; he also has a brilliant sense for landscape and how it influences human life. On walking in Castile:

There are only three things, the sun, the sky, and the earth, and each is pitiless. The sun is a live flame above your head, the sky is a luminous dome of reverberating blue glass, the earth is a cracked plain scorching your feet. There are no walls to give shade, no roofs to rest your eyes, no sring or brook to cool your throat. It is though you were naked and inert in the hand of God.

On the Moroccan town of Xauen: ..an infinitely old city in a gorge hemmed in by mountains…its tranquil streets, in which echoed the hoofs of the little donkeys; its muezzin intoning his prayers high from the minaret; its white-veiled women with nothing but the sparkle of their eyes alive in their phantom robes; its Moors from the mountains…On moonlit nights Xauen alwys evoked Toledo for me with its solitary, crooked little streets. And Toledo on moonlit nights has always evoked for me Xauen. They ahve the same background of sound, the river running swiftly and tumultuously, the wind entangled in the trees and in the crags of the mountains and growling in the depths of the gullies.

The New Republic called this “one of the great authbiographies of the twentieth century,” and one can only agree. In the honesty of his observation, Barea can be compared to Orwell, and if he is not as much of a political philosopher as the latter, he makes up for it with the vividness of his writing.

Conservatives need to read this book to better understand why revolutionary leftism ever came to be in the first place. Leftists need to read it to understand the crimes that can be committed by their own sort. And everyone should read it for its lyricism and simple humanity.

Highly recommended.

Advertisements