Josep Maria Espinàs: Combat de nit [Combat At Night]
This is one of those novels where it all comes together right at the very end but it is still a fascinating tale before we get there. It tells the story of a group of long-distance, overnight lorry drivers in Spain. Their journeys are long, going from Madrid to Barcelona to Zaragoza to Pamplona and other Spanish cities. They normally travel in pairs, with one driver and an assistant, alternating driving duties, with one sleeping while the other drives. The focus of the story is on Pep Martí and his assistant, Eusebio. Pep had started life working for his father, a farmer, but had got tired of the work and had come to Barcelona where he worked in the office of a transport company, before getting his driving licence and becoming a long-distance lorry driver. Eusebio is a younger man. The story starts in a café where the lorry drivers meet and have something to eat and drink before setting off. Already, we can see that Pep is not a happy man. While Eusebio does an inspection of the lorry, Pep seems to stand there, distracted. Is he checking the lorry in his own way? Eusebio does not know but knows better than to interrupt him.
The novel follows two stories, alternating. The first story concerns the journey of Pep and Eusebio from Madrid to Zaragoza. We learn that Pep is not very communicative. Eusebio has put up a photo of his blonde girlfriend in the cab (with Pep’s permission) but Pep has not put up a photo of his wife or two children. Eusebio is happy to drive whenever told to but Pep changes his mind more than once – deciding to drive and then deciding to hand over to Eusebio. We gradually learn that Pep is starting to feel old, though he is only forty, and not feeling too well. We see two accidents – a lorry turned over and another accident where Pep has to drive the lorry in a narrow space to avoid the damaged lorry and nearly goes over into the ditch at the side. But the travails of driving at night, even in good weather, are made clear by Espinàs.
While we are told this story we are also being told another story, but in the form of legal documents. Soon after Pep and Eusebio leave for Zaragoza, a man comes into the café looking for a lift to Zaragoza. The café owner refers him to a driver called Andreu who, as he does not have an assistant, is happy to take the man for company. The legal documents, however, are concerned with an accident. It seems that Andreu has been involved in an accident. According to him, he had been driving along with his assistant asleep in the bed, when he saw another lorry coming on the other side of the road. The lorry suddenly swerved in front of him. Andreu took evasive action, by swerving to the right but is too late to prevent the other lorry hitting him in the middle. Andreu has a few minor injuries and his assistant is thrown out of the bed and breaks an arm. However the other driver, who is on his own, has been killed. Our first thought is why is Andreu with an assistant and not with the passenger he was going to take? We continue to get various legal documents throughout the book – witness statements from Andreu, his assistant and the café owner, the police report, the investigator report, the statement from the investigating ministry that they consider Andreu to blame, saying it was unlikely that the other lorry would have swerved in front of him without reason, the transcript of the trial and the decision of the judges. However, there is one slight variation. The witness statement of the café owner, instead of mentioning Andreu and his assistant, mentions Pep and Eusebio. The next document, however, refers to Andreu and his assistant. We have also been getting hints all along that things are really not good with Pep. Is it really his accident? And, if it is, why is it disguised as though it was Andreu to blame?
Espinàs tells an excellent story of lorry drivers struggling with their machines under not particularly pleasant conditions. He shows the camaraderie between them (and does not omit to mention the bond between fellow Catalans). On the whole, despite this camaraderie, they tend to be fairly solitary humans, inevitably because they spend a lot of time alone in the cab. Eusebio points out that he and Pep have little time for conversation as one of them is usually asleep while the other is driving. Sadly, only three of Espinàs’ books have been translated into English and only one novel (long since out of print) and this one is only available in Spanish but also out of print.
First published 1959 by Aymà
No English translation
Published in Spanish as Combate en la noche by Destino in 1961