Books: The Watcher in Spanish |
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The Watcher in Spanish

And I Remember Spain: A Spanish Civil War Anthology edited by Murray Sperber

There were only five thousand English-speaking volunteers in the Spanish Civil War but fifteen hundred books in English came out of it. Murray Sperber, the editor of this exceptionally interesting anthology, seems to have read as many of them as is compatible with mental health. From English and from all the other relevant languages except Spanish—an understandable exclusion, since that would need another anthology on its own—he has chosen writings which fulfill his requirement of capturing the apocalyptic mood without being rendered senseless by it. The propaganda remains in oblivion.

The war in Spain ran from 1936 to 1939, during which years the generation now approaching middle age were busy being born. For them, the whole of life has been lived in the illumination of the lessons taught in Spain. The older generation had a rude awakening. The younger generation grew up taking it all for granted. What strikes me most about this book is its familiarity. Here are men and women at least as intelligent as I am, certainly braver and more independent than I am, yet they are agonizedly discovering in the middle of a blood-bath truths which to me seem the very fundamentals of political and artistic reality. But perhaps these things now seem clear only because they were first written in flames.

The primary lesson, of course (and the ‘of course’ is ours—there was no ‘of course’ about it then), concerned the nature of ideological war. George Orwell emerged as its chief teacher, and fittingly a piece from Homage to Catalonia closes the book. It is an up-beat extract (‘Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings’) but Orwell’s whole effect was to tell the world that totalitarianism existed on the Left as well as on the Right and that it wasn’t enough to be anti-fascist, you had to be anti-totalitarian—the informing political insight governing the interpretation of cultural history from that day to this.

Every famous name in the book can be assessed according to whether or not he submitted his independence to an orthodoxy. And often enough—just often enough to make the anthology encouraging reading—you can see orthodoxy being transformed into independence under the pressure of experience. A good artist is a good thing to be: the proof is here. There were, needless to say (and that ‘needless to say’ is ours too), some good artists who backed their side through any amount of atrocity. But on the whole the artists (especially the ones on the spot) learned that the truth is objective after all, and that ensuring it is told is a full-time job—their job.

There could have been no more pure a young Communist than John Cornford. Yet even his absurdly short life gave him ample opportunity to find out that the party’s interests were not always the people’s. In a diary-letter written on the Aragon front, he complained:

It [the party] is still concentrating too much on trying to neutralise the petty bourgeoisie when by far the most urgent task is to win the Anarchist workers, which is a special technique and very different from broad Seventh Congress phrases. But I don’t really know...

If he had lived longer he would undoubtedly have found out for certain, although judging from his incipient capacity to ask awkward questions he might have had to step lively in order to avoid being neutralized himself.

Nobody except Stalin’s executioners was fully aware at the beginning that the independent Left was Stalin’s real enemy in Spain. Orwell was pre-eminently the man who, on behalf of us all, found out. (It would have been useful, incidentally, if this book had made clear the debt Orwell owed Borkenau.) Mr. Sperber, however, perhaps falls into the opposite error of crediting Stalin with too much bloodless rationality. There was his bloodless irrationality to be contended with too. In his introduction, Mr. Sperber writes:

Even the Russians, who were sent by Stalin to prop up, then manipulate the Republic, developed so much political idealism that they were purged upon their return to the Soviet Union.

Stalin would have purged them even if the only thing they developed had been mumps. He purged them for having been abroad. After 1945 he purged his own army for having been in Germany.

The real news which came out of Spain concerned the forces for good working evil. That the forces of evil worked evil was never news. Nevertheless here are the necessary reminders of just how frightfully the Right made war. G. L. Steer’s account of the obliteration of Guernica is useful to have. A lot of the damage was done by incendiaries—the kind of interesting detail it is hard to get from formal history. Professional journalists stack up well beside the name writers. Newsmen, as A. J. Liebling once pointed out, are on the whole a disbelieving lot. This gives the best of them a fresh eye. Jay Allen, then a stringer for the Chicago Tribune, wrote a horribly clear account of how Franco’s troops killed 4,000 people after the fall of Badajoz. It is essential to have such stories readily to hand, in case one should ever be tempted into the folly of supposing that the atrocities on the Left, simply because they were, in the sense I have already defined, more interesting news, were worse than the atrocities on the Right. The fact is, it was all much of a muchness: it took a saint to choose between.

Bernanos was a royalist. There is a good piece extracted from his Les grands cimetières sous la lune. Its pity is withheld from no one: Mr. Sperber has wisely included Bernanos under ‘The Witnesses’ rather than under ‘Authors Take Sides’. ‘Let us look them in the eyes for the last time, those enemies of humankind,’ Bernanos wrote of the executioners, ‘before turning from them to the pages of another book.’ The Right’s revenge disgusted him.

Simone Weil, in a letter to Bernanos, reminded him that the Left’s time in power had been no reign of mercy. Orwell inveighed against what he took to be Auden’s conception of ‘the necessary murder’. Here, in Weil’s letter, is an even more telling indictment. There were about fifty killings a night in Barcelona. Weil would not have understood Orwell’s belief in human decency:

People get carried away by a sort of intoxication, which is irresistible without a fortitude of soul which I am bound to consider exceptional, since I have met with it nowhere.

She overstates her case—just. There is always a residuum of decency or we would never get to hear the truth: a book like this is a testament to the amount of kindness involved in seeing things as they are. And I Remember Spain is heavily to be recommended. It is, though, painfully short of critical apparatus. Before a paperback edition is even contemplated the book simply must be provided with brief critical biographies of the authors. One shouldn’t have to go to Journey to the Frontier just to check up on how long Cornford lived. And what is the truth of the revolting but highly talented Roy Campbell’s claim to be a worker? Did he ever fire a shot in anger? Such things need to be clearly set down before the people who still remember them are gone.

(New Statesman, 21 June 1974)