Friday, February 05, 2010

Field of Honour and A Dozen on Denver

Field of Honour
Max Aub, translated by Gerald Martin

Originally published in Mexico in 1943, Aub wrote Field of Honour in 1939, only a few years after the events depicted in the book. It is the first installment of a six-novel epic about the Spanish Civil War that Aub called The Magic Labyrinth. Between the writing and the publication, Aub had been imprisoned by the French, deported to a concentration camp in the Algerian Atlas Mountains to work on a railroad the French were building, and eventually escaped to Mexico where he fraternised with many Spanish intellectuals who also had fled into exile. He obtained Mexican citizenship but, as the Introduction by Ronald Fraser notes, he never felt "totally at home there." Aub was of the generation that came of age in 1927, which included Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí and several other artists and writers, all of whose works celebrated the brief Second Republic before the military coup and the ensuing civil war.

Aub wrote about "reality's impact on me and mine on reality." He considered Spain the "labyrinth" at the core of his books, and the stories represented "real" rather than imagined events. Fraser writes that "whatever he had experienced he used 'to write what I imagine.'"

Field of Honour follows Rafael López Serrador from his rural village to the provincial capital Castellon, and then to Barcelona in the years leading up to the start of the Civil War in July 1936. Along the way, the naive, ill-prepared youth immerses himself in the seething politics of the day. Serrador learns from everyone: idealist, individualist, revolutionary, reactionary. He associates with anarchists, falangists, communists, pimps, whores, Carlists -- in short, the men and women who represented all the competing forces in Spain that eventually tore the country apart and set the stage for Franco's dictatorship.

Fraser also points out that "by literary inclination, Aub was a dramatist -- in which individuals' hopes, doubts, determinations, and despair are expressed, often with a bitter, ironic thrust." The playwright's touch is obvious. Much of the action of the novel is presented in dialog between the various characters. These long but vivid scenes reminded me of the heady days of my youth when we gathered for hours of political argument, cultural awareness, debate and polemics. Similarly, Aub's characters play word games with one another. They use puns, puzzles, poetry, and dogma in their matches of wit and ideology. They argue in the smoky bars and dimly lit streets about the class struggle, nationalism and internationalism, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish monarchy. Aub skillfully sets the scene (there also are paragraphs and paragraphs of description) -- he wants us to see, smell and feel the Barcelona he knew and obviously loved, the Barcelona on the verge of exploding, a cauldron of boiling humanity yearning to create a destiny and a future. When the explosion finally occurs, it is more shocking and abrupt than any of them anticipated, and much more definite.

I quote at length from a passage near the end of the book to provide a glimpse into the past that Aub remembered and revealed with scathing brilliance.

There are no electric lights in Barcelona. Nor a moon. Only gunfire and blazing churches. Crowds in the streets move from one fire to another. The firemen tried to go out, but the people cut the hoses. The churches burn, but not the Cathedral, nor the monastery of Pedrables. Gothic buildings are not to be burned; this is the only order the people take note of. Barcelona in the darkness but with enough churches to be able to walk round the city, with the spectacle of its dead horses and flashes of gunfire from the fascists safely installed behind their balconies and murdering with impunity. A million inhabitants whose only light is a few gigantic torches. All the churches look like the Sagrada Familia now, and Barcelona smells of bonfires. Long branches, thick tongues of sparks against the blue, black night; and the smoke against the stars. People move quietly from one place to another, with their tragic sense of life in their pockets, hoping for a miracle; realizing that a new world is being born, one which may die in its infancy, as so often before in this very same bed; but they can all smell new birth; and, suspecting it, no one says anything; all that's to be heard is the crackling of fire. Fire rising to the skies and the black city with its wounded in the doorways and killers on the roofs. You can see the belly of the smoke in the light of the flames, but not its shoulders or its crest.

For a much more in-depth and detailed review of Field of Honour, I recommend Jonathan Blitzer's article at Words Without Borders. It is excellent and can be found here.

A Dozen on Denver Booksigning

Join several of the contributors to A Dozen on Denver (including me) next week, February 11, at the Tattered Cover, LoDo, as we celebrate the formal publication of the stories we contributed to the Rocky Mountain News series commemorating Denver's 150th birthday.

My short story in the collection, Fence Busters, was a finalist for the Top Hand Award (Colorado Authors League). The story is about Kiko, a young Chicano shoeshine boy trying to make a few bucks on Larimer Street, circa 1958, who has a memorable encounter with the one and only Jack Kerouac. Hope to see you there. Here's the bookstore's announcement of the event.

February 11, 2010 - 7:00pm

Several contributors to the book A Dozen on Denver: Stories (Fulcrum), will join us to read from and sign this wonderful book. In this original tribute, twelve talented authors, including Margaret Coel, Pam Houston, Sandra Dallas, Nick Arvin, Joanne Greenberg, Connie Willis, Manuel Ramos, Arnold Grossman, Robert Greer, Diane Mott Davidson, Laura Pritchett, and Robert Pogue Ziegler, celebrate Denver’s 150th anniversary, each creating a unique story based on a different decade in the city’s colorful history. Ranging from the pioneer days to WWII aftermath to a haunting vision of the future, this lively volume offers an eclectic mix of exceptional storytelling, each complemented by contemporary illustrations.

Request a signed copy:

Tattered Cover Book Store Historic LoDo
1628 16th St.
Denver, Colorado 80202

Keep on reading. Later.

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