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Agustí Bartra: Crist de 200.000 braços [Christ of 200,000 Arms]

Argelès-sur-Mer is now known as a seaside resort in the South of France but, in the latter stages of and after the Spanish Civil War, it was a concentration camp for Spanish Republicans fleeing Spain. It housed over 100,000 prisoners (hence the title), mainly men, and conditions were grim. Agustí Bartra was one of the prisoners there.

Though he did write prose, Agustí Bartra is best known as a poet. Some of his poems have been translated into English – you can read a small selection here – though his prose works have not been translated into English.

This novel is set entirely in the Argelès-sur-Mer camp but it is written by a poet and, while we do confront the grim realism of the conditions in the camp, there is a certainly a poetic feel to much of the novel.

He starts off by pointing out that the beach was deserted one month prior to the time of writing but now has 100,000 men living there. It is not, he says, a city like other cities but a city of defeat. He repeats this several times. The beach has gone, the seagulls have gone. There is no wood left for fires or building shelter. There are no sounds of children or women. Apart from the men and their guards, all that is left are fleas, lice and rats. As for the food, it is lentils today, lentils tomorrow and lentils the day after.

They suffer not only from the fleas and lice, but from scabies and dysentery. It is bitterly cold, with little shelter and it rains a lot. The sand gets everywhere. To sleep, they have to dig a hollow in the sand and wrap themselves up in their blankets.

We follow four men who have become close companions. They are known only by their last names: Puig, Vives, Róldos and Tarrés. Vives gives us some of the narration, through his diaries, and is, presumably, based, at least in part, on Bartra himself. Róldos always seems to be smiling and is cheerful, despite his situation. He has had a lung removed and clearly has tuberculosis. He also lost his wife in childbirth and his daughter is now living with her grandparents.

Their next door neighbour is a gruff brute of man whom they nickname Caliban. We never know his real name. Vives makes the comparison, in one of his many philosophical ruminations, between the Caliban type and Pascal’s thinking reed. Despite their initial feelings towards him and despite his loud snoring, by the end they have become on much better terms with him.

There are, in fact, five of them, as Róldos has adopted a stray dog, whom they name Niebla (=Mist). Niebla will remain a close companion during the course of the book.

Shelter is key but to build even a crude shelter needs wood and that is in short supply. Somehow, Caliban has managed to build himself quite a substantial shelter but is reluctant to let them have even a single stick to build theirs. However, Róldos somehow manages to scavenge cigarette butts all over the beach and he manages to exchange these for sticks, including with Caliban, and gradually they are able to build themselves a crude shelter, covered with their blankets.

To entertain themselves, they tell stories but each one is something of a strange story. Vives starts, telling a tale about a Roman tyrant in what is now Germany, who is celebrating his wedding. He gives the German slaves a day of rest and Herik the Bard tells a tale but it is of the glories of the past and the loss of their culture. His punishment is to have his tongue cut out. However, when he is taunted to continue, he opens his mouth and a strange red vapour comes out, covering the whole area and showing scenes of the glories and beauties of their past but also the brutality of the Romans. Tarrés’ tale of when he was wounded during the war and protecting the body of a dead comrade is equally moving.

The daily grind is just that. Nothing much happens. Guards ride around on horses. There is an announcement when the Spanish Civil War has officially ended. They now see themselves as survivors of a great catastrophe, with their own destiny, more or less, in their own hands. They talk – about the war (though not much), their past, their lives before. Puig thinks continually of his girlfriend, Joana, and has erotic fantasies about her.

There is an escape attempt. Tarrés does manage to escape by swimming round the guard posts. However, while resting after his swim, he is caught by a gendarme. The pair fight and the gendarme retreats but Tarrés returns to the camp.

This could have been fairly matter-of-fact but, as it is written by a poet it is very well told, mixing the poetic and even philosophical with the grim reality of the camp. The comradeship between the four men, who remain loyal to one another to the end, and even their comradeship with Caliban are key to the tale, as, of course, is the sense of defeat and loss hanging over them. Sadly, it has not been translated into English.

First published 1968 by Martínez Roca
No English translation
First published in French as Christ aux 200 000 bras by Riveneuve in 2016
First published in Spanish as Cristo de 200.000 brazos by Plaza & Janes in 1970