Book: Uncertain glory
Author: Joan Sales (Translated by Peter Bush)
Publishers: MacLehose Press
Price: Rs 699
The story of the Spanish Civil War has been written by the vanquished, not by the victors. That truism owes little to the dishonesty of Eric Hobsbawm, who refused to add up the atrocities on the Republican side. The two writers who gave La Guerra Civil household recall in the Anglophone world were George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia, 1938) and Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940). Orwell’s Catalonia, perhaps the most authentic treatment of the Civil War by a foreigner, was published before the Falangist victory in 1939. Forty years after Franco’s death, it is still difficult to come to terms with the past in Spain. But the fate of Catalan, recognised as an official language by the Second Republic and suppressed under Franco, provides retrospective insight into a political-cultural battle that pre-dated and succeeded the Civil War. In Castilian (Español) fiction, the war received a pioneering treatment in Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, as late as 2003. Since 2016 is the 80th anniversary of this “dress rehearsal” for World War II, it is only in the fitness of things that the first Catalan novel from the losing side, long recognised as the Civil War’s masterpiece, is now available in a brilliant English translation.
Joan Sales’s Uncertain Glory (Incerta Gloria) was first published in 1956, in a heavily censored edition. 1956 was also the year Juan Goytisolo managed to escape Francoist Spain and “find refuge in the freedom of Paris”, taking over as Spanish reader at Gallimard. Goytisolo helped bring Sales’s novel to a French readership, as part of his efforts to publicise Spanish writers subjected to the “preventive surgery practised by the guardians of public morality in their own country.” Sales had kept reworking the novel till a more complex and expanded edition appeared in 1971 — censorship had slackened in Franco’s last years —which is Peter Bush’s source. Sales also added the sequel El Vint de la Nit (The Wind in the Night), coming out in translation this year. The story of the text of Uncertain Glory is, thus, part of the Civil War’s more certain legacy.
The novel is informed by Sales’s own experience of fighting. But its verisimilitude rests, ironically, on his treatment of the war as mostly the backdrop to a human drama, encompassing its sights, sounds and smells, whether in Barcelona or in the villages on the Aragonese front, where Sales himself had seen action. His humour, verging often on the Rabelaisian and the macabre, offers comic relief while sharpening the pervasive sense of loss that works as shorthand for the tragedy of war. With two sections in epistolary form and the last a memoir, the novel uses three narrators — Lieutenant Lluís Ruscalleda (or Lluís de Brocà), a lawyer posted in Lower Aragon, who is absorbed by the countryside and its Anarchist-torched recent history, chasing a maid-turned-aristocratic widow who renders him out of depth; Lluís’s girlfriend Trini Milmany, a student of geology hailing from an Anarchist family left behind in Barcelona to raise their infant son alone; and Cruells, a medical adjutant and aspiring priest serving with Lluís.
But the narrative’s pace and its intellectual underpinning hinge on the passages through it, and on the presence-in-absence of Juli Solerás, anti-hero, Lluís’ old friend and Trini’s confidant. His philosophical monologues can instantly plummet from profundity to nonsense, injecting Sales’s tale with a cynicism that, while distanced from the author and not billed as a moral anchor, provides insight into the “uncertain glory” of love and war, passion and youth, political ideals. Solerás’s idea of a successful Spanish-themed novel, for instance, is an indictment of the country and, at the same time, of the superficiality of foreigners: “the hero just has to be a bullfighter and the heroine a Gypsy and by the third chapter they must be fornicating in a tropical jungle full of wild bulls”. The outsider will “turn this huge mess into stirring stories of bullfighting and Gypsies”.
Yet, as far as the bitter truth goes, Lluís’s lonely and wily widow cannot be surpassed: “A ridiculous business. Tragedies [are] ridiculous.” There is no other way of looking at, say, the massacre of a group of friars by the Anarchists — who also murdered her Francoist husband and dug up the mummies of long-dead friars as macabre exhibits.
In the war’s early days, Catalan Anarchists had begun a slaughter of priests that picked up pace as the conflict drew to its close. Sales’s honesty stems from a humanity that bothers as much with the crimes of his own side as with the ugliness of the enemy. It fleshes out those fighting for the Republic, many of them still possessing personal faith, giving the lie to the Falangist myth that the Republicans were all communists. Goytisolo’s preface sums up Uncertain Glory thus: “Written by an eyewitness from the camp of the defeated, it contained no political message and yielded no ground to glib partisan flag-waving… The duty of bearing witness to ‘the truth against the red lie and the black’”.
In his ‘Confession’ prefacing the text, Sales writes: “A moment comes in life when you feel that you are waking from a dream. Our youth is behind us… perhaps youth has never been anything but a gloomy storm streaked by flashes of glory, of uncertain glory, on an April day… In other times, there was greater fervour… there wasn’t so much pedantry around and people didn’t try to hide the passionate intensity we all carry within us under theses, messages and abstract theories. We are sinners thirsting after glory. Because Thy Glory is our end.” After the military, the most important Falangist constituency was the church. But this religious affirmation comes from a former communist, whose character Solerás would have been surprised by the accuracy of his own prophecy: “the day will come when all pedants will be Marxists.”
Sales has distilled the paradox of the immutability of a changing human history. The epigraph to Part One is from Gracián’s EL Criticón: “‘What do you see?’/ ‘I see,’ said Andrenio, ‘the same internecine wars two hundred years hence…’” Our instincts still rebel against the idea that we are “entirely ghostlike” and Lluís recalls Spinoza writing “I feel and experience that I am eternal”. Yet, how do we determine “which part of us must remain unchangeable?”
Are we the rock or the cloud? In the countryside, Lluís has an epiphany: “The landscapes of Lower Aragon look sentimental enough, but they aren’t at all baroque… At first I felt bewildered here, until I realised these landscapes belong not to space but to time; they aren’t landscapes, they’re simply moments in time… When you’ve discovered their secrets, you wouldn’t change them for any other in this world.”