Antonio Soler: El nombre que ahora digo (Soldiers in the Fog)
This is one of those books that starts off in a way that it means to continue. A dead person is a memory but back then, during the war, they were part of a landscape, a sunset that appeared at a bend in the road even if it was still mid-morning, a flower, a neglected bush that nobody bothered to water, that grew anywhere, casting shadows over the street corners and the streets themselves. War is brutal and while, there can be occasional relief, this book does not hide the horrors of this war, the Spanish Civil War. Professor Paul Preston, a well-known expert on the Spanish Civil War, is quoted as saying, I don’t like reading novels about the Civil War, but an exception was Soldiers in the Fog, written by Antonio Soler some twenty years ago, which blew me away. I can only agree with him.
Our hero is Gustavo Sintora. He apparently left behind a series of notebooks telling of his experiences in the war and these notebooks are the basis of the novel. Whether they are entirely fictitious or not is unclear but we do know that our author seemingly obtained them from his father, Corporal (later Sergeant) Soler Vera in this book, who was a colleague of Sintora.
Sintora was caught up in the mass of people fleeing Malaga as Franco’s army approached. In his flight he ends up witha Russian troop and they adopt hm. He is a bugler and plays bugle at reveille. They suddenly leave and he is taken to Madrid where he joins Lieutenant Villegas’ unit, an entertainment unit. If British readers are expecting something like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, a politically incorrect British sitcom about an entertainment unit in Burma, during the war, they will be in for a surprise as the the book and sitcom could not be more different.
Sintora joins the unit which is based in a large house formerly owned by a marquis, who is their prisoner. They entertain the troops and also deliver uniforms to the troops and have a sideline of kidnapping the rich and priests and ransoming them, the money being used to fund their post-war activities. Nobody’s going to want us when this war is over, Sintora old son, nobody, you’d better get your head around that, mainly because the other side is going to win the war, those selfish bastards over there who tell us every night at the top of their voices that they’re going to kill us and fuck our wives..
Sintora gets to know the various colourful characters in the troop but he also gets to know Serena Vergara, the woman whose image the young soldier would carry with him branded into his memory for the rest of his days. She was what he called his motherland.
Corrons is the mastermind behind the kidnappings and ransoming of hostages and we see a few examples of this. However, as we gradually learn, Corrons is married to Serena Vergara and they have a daughter, Luz and live in a flat in Madrid. Sintora is very much warned off Serena both by Serena herself but also by the other soldiers. Corrons is a very violent man, as they all tell him, and, if he finds out about Sintora’s interest, there will be serious trouble. Despite this and the fact that Serena is old enough to be his mother, he is not deterred.
We get glimpses of the war, not just because of what Sintora saw as he fled Malaga but also hints about what is happening elsewhere such as the Battle of the Ebro. But we know and they know that the war will catch up with them. Paco Textil is with them in the big house but not part of the troop. One day he persuades them to let him accompany them in his car. We know what is going to happen because it has been mentioned early on. An enemy plane drops a bomb and Paco and his car are blown to smithereens. Textil’s death marked the end of an era. A lot of men’s hopes went up in smoke along with that soldier. The war has arrived and so do more planes as Franco moves on Madrid.
The time has now come for the troop to give up entertainment and fight the enemy so they head for the Ebro. We know historically that this was a major disaster for the Republican side. Some of the troop, however, rush off to join the winning side. Captain Villegas’ unit discovered the meaning of war for the first time. The horrors of trench warfare, with mortars, shells, planes and artillery constantly pounding them. Soler spares us none of the details of the shelling, bombing, artillery and the bitter cold. Most of them (though not all) more or less survive but as Captain Villegas points out I don’t really know, Soler, but I think they’ve killed me too. I think I’m a dead man, dead like the men who were with me.
The battle and the war are lost so, for their different reasons they make their way back to Madrid but it all goes wrong as Franco is approaching and Corrons has learned of his wife’s affair with Sintora and all hell breaks loose.
I have read a few non-fiction books on the Spanish Civil War but I am obviously not competent to judge how accurate a picture of the war it offers but will bow to Professor’s superior knowledge. I have also read quite a few works of fiction set in the Spanish Civil War and this is certainly one of the most striking. Soler manages to convey the horrors of the war, both as it approaches our troop and as they finally are fully involved in the horrors while mixing in a decidedly unwise love affair, even though any love affair during wartime is likely to have its risks.
There is no doubt that Soler is on the Republican side but he points out the unpleasant deeds committed by both sides. The Francoists may be the bad guys but there is no doubt that at least some of the Republicans are no saints, such as Corrons with his hostage-taking and ransoms, and the lynching we see. But war is rarely pretty and Soler has written a first-class novel that clearly shows this.
First published in 1999 by Espasa Calpe
First English translation in 2023 by Clapton Press
Translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles & Simon Deefholts