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Rafael Chirbes: La larga marcha [The Long March]

This book had considerable critical success in Spain when first published, as well as in Germany, in German translation (I do not need to tell you that there is no English translation). While it is certainly a fascinating book, it seems to me that it would appeal much more to Spanish readers than those of other nationalities, dealing as it does with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the effect this war had on the ordinary people (as opposed to the better-off), regardless of whether they were on the winning or losing side. It is not really a novel, except that all the episodes have a unifying theme, namely that of the difficulties the ordinary people faced after the war.

Each episode tells the story of an individual (and his family) and how they are coping (or not coping) after the war. Each individual/family has two to three episodes each, scattered throughout the book, though some characters appear in more than one episode. The first part focuses particularly on parents and what they see the then situation in Spain will mean for their children. Take, for example, Pedro del Moral. He had been on the winning side, i.e. a Francoist. He had served well, got his medals and discharge papers and expected to get something out of the war. He had seen other Francoist ex-military men go off to good jobs in offices but nothing had happened to him, no-one had offered him a job as a reward for his service. He is disappointed more than bitter. He and his wife, Asunción, had a son, Angel, who has been difficult, often getting into trouble, though now he is taking up boxing, his aggression is being better channelled. When Asunción became pregnant again, they had decided to name the child, if he were a boy, José Luis. They had decided that a double first name was fashionable, with many people naming their sons José Antonio, after José Antonio Primo de Rivera, a Fascist martyr. Sadly, Asunción died giving birth to José Luis, though the boy survived and Pedro has been bringing him up on his own. Pedro works as a shoe cleaner, making the rounds of the hotels and restaurants, getting what work he can. Clearly, he is not well off.

Nor is Vicente Tabarca well off. He had been a successful surgeon before the war but had served in the Republican cause. Though he worked only as a doctor, he was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to thirty years imprisonment and he was released after five, as there were too many people in jail. With the help of a cousin who had fought for the Francoists, he, after great difficulty, manages to obtain the right to practise as a doctor. But no patients come, whether because they cannot afford to or because he is tainted by his past. So he sits and reads and reads. He reads the classics, mainly the classics of Spanish literature but he is not averse to reading foreign works translated into Spanish. He and his wife have two daughters and he is worried about their future, feeling that women of their generation have no worthwhile future in the Spain that he sees. Raúl Vidal works hard as an electrician. His brother had been very active on the Republican side during the war and had been sent to prison. Raúl and his wife had, at great cost to themselves, helped his brother in prison, often going without to get food to him. When he came out, he barely thanked them. He has now move to the right and married the daughter of a successful Francoist. There has been no communication between the brothers for two years and, like Pedro, Raúl is more disappointed than bitter. Raúl is, of course, concerned about his newly born son.

Things change in the second part, where the focus is on the children. Gloria Giner’s mother is also called Gloria. We saw her in the first part having a difficult civil war, losing a brother and a lover. But now her daughter is the first child at her school to be taken to school by car and she is clearly having a better time of it. She is friends with Helena Tabarca, whose father was worried about her in the first part. But others do less well. José Luis del Moral is sent off to a boarding school where he is not happy. He is a solitary boy, immersed in his reading but with no friends. But, overall, Chirbes is now starting to show that the children have moved on from their parents, discovering British and, in particular, US pop music, books and films. There is also opposition to Franco or, more particularly, Francoism. A secret and highly illegal copy of the Communist Manifesto is circulated. They organise, criticise, listen to Elvis Presley and the Beatles and, of course, have sex. In short, the outlook for post-Francoism is definitely more positive than it had been for their parents’ generation.

Within the limits of his aims – to tell the story of the immediate post-civil war generation and the children of that generation – Chirbes does a first-class job. There are a lot of characters and a lot of stories intertwined but it is not too difficult to keep track of them all. Though some of the sad tales at the beginning are very well told and show the bitterness and suffering of that period, this not really a novel as there are many, many stories to be told so it is perhaps less gripping than if he had focused on a limited number of individuals. Nevertheless, within his constraints, it is a most interesting work, given that it shows both sides, albeit with an obvious bias towards those who opposed (and continued to oppose) Franco and Francoism. Sadly, those who only read English will be unable to judge for themselves.

Publishing history

First published in 1996 by Anagrama
No English translation
Published in Dutch as De lange mars by Menken Kasander & Wigman in 2001
Published in French as La longue marche by Rivages in 2001
Published in German as Der lange Marsch by Kunstmann in 1998
Published in Italian as Una lunga marcia by Frassinelli in 2001
Published in Norwegian as Den Lange marsjen by Gyldendal in 2000