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Max Aub: Campo cerrado (Field of Honour)

Max Aub is best-known for his series of six novels set during the Spanish Civil War, known as the Magic Labyrinth, of which this is the first and the only one to have been translated into English. Our hero is Rafael López Serrador, a boy living in Castellón near Valencia. The first part of the novel describes his early life there. It is a rural community and Aub gives us a detailed description of life and events in the area. We follow the agricultural practice, the routine of life there (Rafael finds it very boring) and the role of the various people and even animals. We meet many of the people and their quirks but also we follow the local gossip. This will set the trend for the series, with its lavish descriptions of people, places and events and its use of what we would call gossip. We learn about Rafael’s sex life, both masturbation and his first sexual encounter with a woman (for which he is punished). We learn that the people generally abhor the ill-treatment of bulls but welcome the bull-fighting when it happens once a year. However, at age sixteen, Rafael decides to go to Barcelona. He has a contact where he can find employment and plans to make his life there.

Inevitably we follow his journey to Barcelona and his amazement when he arrives there. He sees the Sagrada Familia and eagerly looks forward to visiting it, though does not manage to do so for sometime. He is amazed at the number of trees in Barcelona but, in particular, he feels that it is too small to hold all the people he sees. He goes to the address he has given, where he is offered a job as an apprentice which, in fact, is as a messenger for a jeweller and hardware company.

His boss, Don Enrique Barberá Comas, is a Carlist, i.e. a committed royalist. Despite this is he is also a committed Catalan nationalist. He reads only Catalan newspapers and will not sell to anyone outside Catalonia or who does not speak Catalan. He has a great contempt for his fellow Catalans but that is nothing when compared with his contempt for Spaniards from other parts of Spain. Rafael does well in his job. His first day he has to take the tram to the other side of Barcelona and is overwhelmed as he passes through the centre of the town, with Rafael/Aub giving us a hymn to the city.

Eventually, he will change jobs. At this time he has become more involved in left-wing politics and we meet another aspect of Aub’s writing which we will find throughout his work. This is his use of dialogue, as the protagonists discuss various issues in considerable detail. In this case, there is much discussion of political events but also on the role of the unions, anarchism vs communism, the current political situation and death. What are they fighting for? Rafael asks. For a better world? But what does a better world look like? Rafael struggles with this question.

As the novel proceeds, we are following what is happening in Spain, as it moves towards civil war. In particular, we see the rise of the Falange. Rafael is attracted by the Falange and he becomes close to a Falange leader, Luis Salomar. Salomar produces a magazine which seems to be, at least, initially, literary but it soon becomes clear that his aims are political. Salomar’s views are clearly what we would call Fascist but Rafael is too naive to fully appreciate what they mean. When he loses his job, it is Salomar who gets him a job painting Fascist slogans on the walls of Barcelona during the early hours of the morning. It does not all go well, as he is shot at and gets a flesh wound in his arm but survives. Rafael listens to Salomar and is somewhat uncomfortable with his slogan A mí no me interesan los hombres, sino las ideas. [Men do not interest me. Ideas do.]

The uprising in Morocco which led to the Spanish Civil War took place on 17 July 1936. It soon spread across the country. In Barcelona, the workers took to the streets to defeat the Fascists and nationalists and Aub describes in considerable details the events of that day, from both sides. Rafael is called on to help the Falange but has now realised that, despite the community they seem to offer, they do not care about the working man and that their fight is not his. He admits to himself that he has been stupid and allowed himself to be led and that his alliance should be with the anarchists rather than the Falange.

The book ends with this first key event of the Civil War in Barcelona, which we know results in a victory for the Republic and the left against the nationalists and Fascists. At the end of the book, Aub gives us a detailed list of all the main characters – and there are a quite a few – and their ultimate fate. Particularly if you are interested in the Spanish Civil War, as I am, but even if you are not, this is certainly a fine book. Spanish critics have commented on Aub’s language. He uses a very broad and colourful language, often using recondite words or even words that do not exist. While it is generally clear from the context what they mean, it must have given the translator a certain amount of difficulties. In addition, he uses a lot of slang, vulgarities and even some phrases in Catalan. His detailed descriptions, often using long lists, such as the train stations to Barcelona or the different plants in the gardens in Castellón, are colourful and lively but occasionally do seem excessive. Equally, his long dialogues on, for example, political issues can be interesting but can also be excessive. These are certainly quibbles but do not detract from the first of a series of fine novels on the Spanish Civil War.

Publishing history

First published 1943 by Tezontle, Mexico City
First English translation by Verso in 2009
Translated by Gerald Martin