¡No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War
edited by Pete Ayrton.

Pegasus, 2016.

Hardcover, 448 pages, $26.

Reviewed by Helen Andrews

Let it stand uncontested that the term “cultural appropriation” is political correctness of the cheapest and most manipulative kind. Still, it is ridiculous that neither of the great Spanish Civil War anthologies published in English features a single Spanish writer—not Murray Sperber’s And I Remember Spain, not Valentine Cunningham’s superior Spanish Front. Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Andre Malraux, yes. Ernest Hemingway, inevitably. But no Spaniards. Whose war was it, anyway?

An anthology that seeks to amend this bizarre omission, as Pete Ayrton’s does, is therefore a tantalizing prospect. How did the war look from the inside? Did the Spanish resent being made the vanguard of the fight against fascism, or relish it? Were the volunteers of the International Brigades a boon or a bother? Did they make fun of Hemingway behind his back (“Ay, el Barbudo will not shut up about death”)?

The answer that emerges from ¡No Pasarán! is essentially null: The geopolitical issues that brought so many foreigners to Spain in 1936 do not seem to have impinged on the native consciousness very much. Nor indeed did the foreigners themselves, which is unsurprising when you consider how few of the volunteers spoke their language. The selection from Francisco García Pavón’s Los Liberales features a Russian pilot who courts, marries, and whisks away a village senorita—incidentally without mastering any more Spanish than “bonita” and “te amo”—but that is the exception. Which perhaps proves that allowing native voices to tell their own stories is an idea with some merit to it, insofar as it reminds outsiders that we are not as important as we think we are.

Mostly the themes the Spanish writers deal with are those common to all war writing: suffering, the loss of innocence, the senselessness of violence. Juan Goytisolo’s memoir is of particular interest as representing a perspective completely missing from foreign accounts—that of the “well-off Barcelona bourgeois” who attempted to sit out the war entirely by staying with relatives in the countryside far from either the roiled city or the front line. He describes with delicate menace how the war inched ever closer to them in their hideout. First it was just “a few ironic comments” about the hardships of evacuee life, then tales of bombings and executions picked up via radio and passed along as rumor, then the arrival of a monarchist spinster bearing tales (“which my family thought were exaggerated”) of Republican atrocities in Madrid, and finally the day when Goytisolo’s mother takes the train into town for her weekly shopping and does not come back.

Goytisolo’s book was written in the 1980s from exile in Paris, which suggests one of the challenges facing Ayrton in his search for Spanish texts: There simply was not much for him to choose from, since very little was published in Spain under Franco that would fit the bill, due to the taboo erected around the war and the strictures of the censorship office. Censorship did not preclude works of real excellence, even genius. José Maria Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God, represented here by a nine page excerpt, became a best-seller under Franco in the 1950s, and there is nothing blunted or propagandistic about that novel. Gironella was a devout Catholic who fought with the Carlists, yet the sample Ayrton presents is an even-handed psychological portrait of a mob that desecrates and burns a church. From the potbellied Communist who leads the charge to the aggrieved cripple who grabs a fistful of wafers and lampoons a communion ceremony, Gironella grants each participant the dignity of having comprehensible motivations for their actions, however monstrous.

Still, all of the Spanish texts that appear in this book are mediated in one way or another, either by the constraints of the dictatorship, the distortions of exile, or the fog of memory—and sometimes not even memory. Javier Cercas, the cleverest writer among them, was born in 1962. There is not one for whom “Guernica” is a place first and a Picasso painting second. For the raw experience of the conflict, unfiltered by myth (though not necessarily unfiltered by politics!), we must look to foreign writers.

Cultural appropriation aside, no one could accuse Ayrton’s foreign selection of lacking diversity—Polish Communists, Argentine Jews, American poetesses, as well as the usual suspects Orwell, Dos Passos, and Laurie Lee. The jewel among the more obscure authors is Gamel Woolsey (real first name Elizabeth), a South Carolina beauty with a Mayflower pedigree who married the Bloomsbury intellectual Gerald Brenan, whose books about Spain were much more famous than his wife’s. Andalusia had been their home since 1931, long before the war started, and so she depicts Spaniards as real people, friends and neighbors, and not bit players in her own political drama. The local grandee, for example, “always somehow reminded me of a charming, aristocratic, Spanish Wilkins Micawber”:

Don Carlos and his family particularly attracted me because they reminded me of my half-brother and his family who lived on the cotton plantation he had inherited from our father (where I was brought up) in a state of extraordinary happiness and improvidence, with half a dozen riding horses and no money to speak of. . . . He was unfortunate in having a famous name, though he had not inherited much besides, except this strip of land along the sea on which he had built a small house and a part share in the family house which we had bought from him and other members of the family. But a famous name at that period brought death to a great many harmless and innocent people. One of Don Carlos’s nephews, a boy of eighteen, was taken away and shot because he had this too well-known name.

The most surprising kind of diversity in Ayrton’s selection is ideological. One expects to find Communists in a Spanish Civil War anthology—Victor Serge, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Esmond Romilly, the snottily rebellious grandson of a Scottish earl and nephew to Churchill who eloped with Jessica Mitford (it is somehow gratifying to learn that he writes very badly). One expects to find anti-Communist liberals like Orwell and Koestler. But Ayrton gives us the full run of the ideological spectrum, not just Catholic monarchists like Gironella but genuine true-believing fascists.

Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s magnum opus Gilles has never been translated into English, for obvious reasons. He was a notorious Nazi collaborator who might well have met the fate of Brasillach had he not committed suicide in March 1945. Based on the six pages Ayrton translates here, I would not venture an opinion on Gilles as literature, but as a document of the French fascist mind circa 1939 it is fascinating. The scene is a boat in the Mediterranean which the three occupants—Frenchman, Irishman, and Pole—hope to put at Franco’s disposal as a transport vessel. They discuss the world fascist revolution in precisely the same terms as the Communists do theirs.

“When Fascism is master of Europe, it will need Catholicism and will recast it.”

“Until then you Fascists would renounce the Church before you renounce Fascism?”

“Yes,” said the Pole. “Fascism needs our help more than the Church.” . . .

“I think,” Walter [the Frenchman] said, “that you can make for Fascism the same distinction you make for the Church. In the same way as for the Church you do not conflate its political and its spiritual leadership, so for Fascism you would not place its universal principle on the same level with the powers that embody and, at times, misuse it.”

The Left’s willful blindness on the nature of the Spanish conflict has been so egregious and so long-lasting that it is useful to be reminded that their side did not have a monopoly on that vice. The only failing of Ayrton’s selections from the right is that he did not find at least one relatively sympathetic Francoist volunteer. He might have tried Peter Kemp, author of the war memoir Mine Were of Trouble, a dashing and gentlemanly figure who was doubly a minority in being one of the few British volunteers on the Nationalist side and, among these, one of the only Protestants.

Ayrton’s previous polyglot anthology was themed on the Great War (No Man’s Land, Pegasus 2014), and there is a certain symmetry to his having chosen for his sequel a conflict that was in so many ways that one’s opposite. World War I was a bloodbath of the most appalling meaninglessness; the Spanish war suffered from, if anything, a surfeit of meaning. One became a symbol of self-propelling mechanized savagery; the other, of human moral choice. There were those among the volunteers who came with the express purpose of proving to themselves and to the world that heroism was still possible after such a war as the last one, which had made the very concept seem obsolete. The stories in ¡No Pasarán! prove that there were many, even among those who accomplished nothing else with their service in the Spanish Civil War, who at least accomplished that.  

Helen Andrews is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and has written for National Review, First Things, and other publications