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Joan Sales: Incerta glòria (Uncertain Glory)

O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away!

The title of this novel comes from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and is quoted by the very intellectual Lluis, our hero, in this novel as well as mentioned by Sales himself in a foreword, saying it sums up his novel. Sales fought in the Civil War (on the Republican side, of course) and he started writing this novel in Barcelona in 1948, after nine years of exile. It was first published in 1956 with the nihil obstat of the Archbishop of Barcelona, after Franco’s censors had banned it, as it expresses heretical ideas often in disgusting, obscene language. Sales continued to work on it and a more comprehensive version was published in 1971. An English translation was made available (free of charge!) by the American Institute for Catalan Studies, where I first saw it, before Maclehose Press and the New York Review of Books published a more widely distributed version.

Sales himself served at the Madrid and Aragon fronts as an officer, before joining the famous Durruti Column, which had just executed all of its officers for trying to convert them into a regular army outfit. He saw at first hand the conflicts between the anarchists and the communists and was even arrested himself by his own side, though later cleared.

Lluis is with a unit in Aragon. He quotes Napoleon as saying that the two plagues of war are lice and pornographic novels and this is shown by his friend, Juli Soleràs, who refuses to wash and is reading the Horns of Roland, apparently a pornographic novel. Soleràs’ interests include spiritualism, theosophy, Freud, existentialism, surrealism, and anarchism, for which Lluis admires him, as they were somewhat ahead of their time back in 1936. Lluis had applied to be with the unit to be with Soleràs, though they do not seem to get on too well. Juli says of himself I’m the only one who lives life as if he were someone else, a life that doesn’t fit, a life that feels alien.

The unit manages to take a village called Olivel held by the anarchists but there was nothing to do, as the anarchists had fled, though they had killed the lord of the manor and the monks in the local monastery, before fleeing. The villagers welcome the unit. There is little to do. Inevitably, there is a lot of drinking, and flirting with the local women. Lluis explores the monastery and rescues some old books. He and Soleràs again fall out. The world is so lovely, yet we turn our backs on it to manufacture private sordid little hells. Lluis comments.

We follow Lluis in this first part of the book and his interactions with various people, including Soleràs, Cruells, the religious, Baudelaire-loving orderly, whom we shall meet in more detail in the third part of the book, his various colleagues and commander, his landlady, who looks after him very well, and, in particular, Maria d’Olivel. Maria is the widow of the lord of the manor, by whom she has two children. She is very much resented in the village, as she was an ordinary working lady whom Enric, the lord of the manor, took a fancy to. The villagers maintain that they were never married but she maintains that they were but, in the turmoil, she cannot prove it. She asks Lluis to help her which, as he also takes a fancy to her, he does. (He is a lawyer by training.)

Lluis has a common-law wife, called Trini, and son back in Barcelona. They had met as students – she studied geology – and were involved together, along with Soleràs and many others, in various demonstrations and other political activities. Indeed, we learn a fair amount about what was happening in Barcelona prior to the Civil War. Lluis clearly has ambiguous feelings towards Trini, to the horror of Soleràs, who knew Trini before Lluis did and who is clearly attracted to her.

However, it is not all peaceful, as the unit has to go into action and it is very much in the war is hell category, with blood and gore all around, though Lluis, Soleràs and Cruells all survive. Could I give you a coherent account of what happened in those two weeks? No. Battles leave no memories. You say and do things as if dictated to by someone else. I vaguely remember I was on the move – and that’s all.

The second part of the novel focuses on Trini, in the form of letters she writes not to Lluis but to Soleràs. She sees Soleràs as a brother, though he clearly wishes for something more. She writes very long and detailed letters, which fill us in what is happening and what did happen in Barcelona before and during the Civil War, including the horrors, such as air raids and the mass murder of people opposed to the republicans, including many professing Christianity. Indeed, Trini herself converts to Christianity, despite having grown up in a decidedly atheist household. She meets and shelters Lluis’ uncle, also a Christian, who says Whoever comes out the winner, I will have lost, a view apparently shared by many. Trini writes to Soleràs as she does not get many letters from Llluis. We do not see Soleràs’ letters to her but we know some of the things he says. He tells her, for example, about Maria d’Olivel.

The third part focusses on Cruells, whom we have seen a certain amount in the first part. Some of it involves him listening to Soleràs. They have one thing in common – a difficult aunt. Soleràs believes that he was born for better things but But what can we do? We were all born to conquer the universe, and we conquer bugger-all!. Soleràs is very dogmatic. For example, of the Spanish novel, he says if a novel with a Spanish theme is going to succeed, 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; anything else is a waste of time and time is money and at the end of this war – and I assure you it’s a war that’s as shitty as any – novels will be written that are especially stupid, as sentimental and risqué as they come while of foreigners he says Foreigners are idiots; I know what I’m talking about because I’ve travelled. The world would be a better place if there weren’t so many foreigners.

Much of this book follows the old dictum that war is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror (see see the Straight Dope for more on this expression). We get the sheer terror bit in this section as well, as the Fascists are having much more success, through a combination of better technology (helped by the Germans and the Italians), better organisation and less internecine strife. However, much of the time the unit is placed in what is called a dead front, i.e. an area just far enough away from the fighting that they do not get hit. Some of the officers even have their wives there (Trini is one of them). Inevitably the war does come calling.

Of course, much of this dead time is spent both in drinking and women but also in much philosophising. We were at a loss, understood nothing, exhausted and disillusioned. What was the point of so much toil, sacrifice and spilt blood? What were we defending? Why hadn’t the freedom to worship our Catholic religion – the religion of the majority of Catalans? – been re-established? and They have come to crucify one another, on both sides. It’s the same story in every war and that’s why there will always, always, always be wars. Because man was created to sit by the fireside with his beloved, yet he feels the need to crucify.

As you can see they are generally disillusioned, particularly those like Cruells who do have religious feelings. Soleràs is even more sceptical than Cruells while Lluis flirts and tries to distance himself from everyone and everything, burying himself in his shell.

There is no happy message to this book. We know how the war ended and, from the Republican point of view, it was a disaster and remained so till 1975 (when Franco died). Sales gives us a very long, rambling book, which shows signs of having been written and rewritten. It is certainly worth reading to get the Catalan perspective on the war and, more particularly, not a one-sided partisan perspective but one that see the faults of the Catalan side, with its anti-religious stance and the viciousness of the Anarchists randomly killing anyone who did not subscribe wholeheartedly to their point of view. It remains the classic Catalan Civil War book.

First published 1956 by Aymà
First published in English by American Institute for Catalan Studies in 2002
Translated by David H. Rosenthal (American Institute for Catalan Studies edition); Peter Bush (MacLehose Press edition)