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Max Aub: Campo de los almendros [Field of the Almond Trees]
This is the sixth and final of Aub’s Magic Labyrinth series and by far the longest. The Spanish Civil war is to all intents and purposes over. Essentially, the Republicans only really hold Valencia and Alicante, though Franco is still hovering on the outskirts of Madrid before finally taking it over. We follow some of the same characters that we have met in previous books. Indeed, we start with the two young communists: Vicente Dalmases and his wife Asunción. The two have been separated but have managed to communicate by phone. Both are now trying to get to Alicante, with a view to getting a boat to escape Spain. We follow Vicente’s difficult walk to Alicante. The people he meets are sometimes highly critical and blame the communists for causing the war. He is also worried about Asunción and whether she will escape or be arrested.
The order has been given to evacuate but some are hesitating. They feel that Franco won’t last long, that the French and British will finally come to the aide of the Republic or that they risk nothing in staying, all views, as we now know, that were completely erroneous. We continue to meet a variety of other characters. Asunción visits her aunt, who is not welcoming. Juanito claims to be mad. He went mad, he feels, when his wife did. She has been dead for over ten years but he has never really got over her or his assumed insanity.
As in the previous books, much of the novel is dialogue. Though the war is ending and they have lost, they still manage to find time to discuss art, music and Spanish history, including the history of the Jews in Spain and El Cid. They reflect on the past and what went wrong. There are still disputes among the various factions involved on the Republican side. We see this, for example, when we learn that the Republicans have quite a few Communists locked up, partially because they believe that they were going to overthrow the government. There is a concern that, if left, they will fall into the hands of Franco, who will not treat them kindly. Negotiations take place to release them though, it seems some are to be shot, the really disreputable ones. One man says El mundo es una mierda y no vale la pena hacer nada por él [The world is shit and is not worth bothering doing anything for it.] Another man contradicts him and says that he feels just the opposite.
But what is to happen to them? Some, it is suggested, should just go home, though few want to do so. One fifteen-year old, for example, is offered the option of staying in Spain with his grandmother or fleeing with his parents. He has no doubt that he will flee with his parents. Some try to escape to France but the border seems to be controlled by the Francoists and they get shot. Others are hoping to get out via Alicante. It seems that no evacuation plan has been put in place, not least because some still think the war is winnable, so some try to develop one, which involves the transport of people from Valencia to Alicante.
Meanwhile, Vicente is furiously looking for Asunción, whom we know to be in Alicante and eventually learns that she is there. However, even when he eventually gets there, he still has difficulty finding her. She, of course, has been looking for him. However, time is passing and Franco is moving in, taking Madrid and getting closer to Valencia. The Italians, meanwhile are surrounding Alicante. This means that those that try to escape by land are often caught and often shot.
The action moves to Alicante, where Aub superbly portrays the chaos, as different groups plan different things. The authorities are, essentially, the Paraguayan and Cuban consuls and the French consular agent, who make guarantees for the safety of the Republicans, though they must know that those guarantees cannot be kept. The main issue, however, is to locate the ships that will take the Republicans to another country. Some of them try going to Gandía but learn that an English ship left a few hours previously. One does turn up in Alicante but refuses to take criminals and murderers. Four hundred priority people – another issue that causes much discussion – are selected without being told why and what for. Meanwhile, there is an ever increasing number of Republicans seeking to flee, there are bombings, several people kill themselves and there are rumours everywhere. The French ship Tigre is meant to be coming, at least to take the four hundred, but it is frightened off by the Francoists.
The novel gets it name from the concentration camp that most of the people are finally sent to. We do not learn much about it but enough to know that it is not fun and they are ill-treated and go hungry. Some escape. Some becomes guerrillas after escaping. Some drift back home. War never ends well for the losers.
Aub’s six-novel Magic Labyrinth series may not be the best Spanish Civil War novel – there are many other candidates – but is certainly one of the longest. There is perhaps too much dialogue, as the characters discuss everything under the sun in great detail. Nevertheless, Aub gives us a first-class picture of the ordinary men and women, what they had to face, their views and what happened to them, albeit almost entirely from the Republican perspective and it is that that makes it a worthwhile read. We know that Aub himself went into exile at the end of the war, where he wrote numerous works, not just these six novels, and, unlike many of his comrades, he was able to eventually return to Spain. Sadly, this series has been translated into French and German, but only the first book has been translated into English. The Spanish (and French) versions are still much in print and still very much read today.
First published 1968 by J. Mortiz
No English translation
Published in French as Campo de los almendros by Les Fondeurs de briques in 2011
Published in German as Bittere Mandeln by Eichborn in 2003