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Max Aub: Campo francés [French Camp]

This is the fourth in Max Aub’s six volume Civil War series, El laberinto mágico (The Magic Labyrinth), though it was the fifth to be published. A quick note on the title. All six of the novels in this series are called, in Spanish, Campo [Something]. Campo can mean both field and camp. Clearly, in the first three it refers to fields but in this one it clearly, as you will see, refers to camp, though doubtless Aub is playing on the two senses.

Aub actually wrote this book in September 1942 when he was travelling from Casablanca to Veracruz but, as you will see below, it was not published for another twenty-three years. Unlike the others in the series, it was written in a theatrical style, i.e. with the names given, as in a drama script, followed by their dialogue, with only relatively few stage directions, i.e. interjections. This was, Aub says, under the influence of the Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós.

The book starts off in Spain at the very end of the Civil War. There is panic as the defeated Republicans are trying to flee Spain and escape to France. Where are you going?, one character is asked. Where there are no Fascists, he replies. Aub paints a picture of total chaos. At the same time, he gives newspaper headlines of events. These include the surrender of the Republicans and the recognition of the Franco government by Britain and France but also other events in Europe, specifically the rise of Hitler. As the Spanish Civil War is ending, the Nazis are taking over Czechoslovakia.

Our main focus in this novel, however, is Julio Hoffman and the rest of the action of the novel takes place in France. Julio is, of course, Spanish. We never learn his real name but the Hoffman is clearly adopted. He has not been involved in the Civil War but has stayed in France. There he married Maria and has run a small business selling and repairing radios. Maria had first known Juan, Julio’s brother, but Juan had gone to Spain to fight in the Civil War and she stayed behind and married Julio. Julio seems to have claimed Hungarian nationality but seems to have lost it, as he did not register with the Hungarian authorities for five years. As a result he apparently has no nationality. Julio maintains that he has no interest in politics.

Early in the book, he is taken in by the police. It seems that they are rounding up Communists, presumably because of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (which led to the French Communist Party being banned). He is sure that he has been mistaken for his brother and eventually he is released.

However, events conspire against him. The Germans invade Poland and France enters the War. Julio is again arrested. He and Maria are sure that it is once again a mistake and he will soon be released again. This time, however, things are different. There are many others arrested with Julio, as a bus makes a tour, picking up various suspects. These include Spaniards, other likely Communists, Eastern Europeans and Jews (who, not surprisingly, thought they had more to fear from the Germans than the French). There is a White Russian, who had escaped from a Soviet prison camp and a Polish count. There is a very strange man called Chamberlain, whose nationality is not given, but may be Aub’s way at having a go at Neville Chamberlain.

Maria is trying to get Julio released, by explaining the situation to the police. They do not want to know and it soon becomes apparent, that they have quotas of arrests to make. Julio keeps explaining the situation but to no avail. We learn that many of the others have been arrested because someone turned them in, not necessarily because of their political views. One man, for example, won the lottery. A neighbour wanted him to give him half the winnings. When he refused, the neighbour reported him to the police as a Communist.

Even though Juan turns up and offers to turn himself in, it does not seem to hep get Julio released. Eventually, the prisoners are moved to the Roland Garros stadium (currently used for the French Tennis Open Championship and other key tennis events). They wait and wait for their case to be heard or to be released but, despite the war, nothing happens. Much of this part of the novel is about the camaraderie between the men. Money certainty can help make life easier for them but they do generally share.

Hitler advances. The Germans take Denmark and Norway. Many of the Spanish have managed to get permission to go to Mexico. Julio somehow gets himself involved in the group and they are effectively released. However, he soon realises that he will not be able to resume his old life so he decides to go to the police to explain his case and the arrival of Juan and get formally exonerated. He is immediately re-arrested and sent back to the camp.

But then the Germans invade France. The prisoners are rounded up and shipped down South. They do not know where. There is a rumour that they will be sent to Africa to work there. Julio knowns he can never survive that.

This is a quite different novel from the previous three. It is written as a drama. It is set almost entirely in France. Its main character did not fight in the Civil War nor is he particularly sympathetic to the Republican side. There is not a great deal of action, with much of it being the interchange between the different prisoners and between the prisoners and guards. Above all, it is a telling indictment not of the Fascists but of France and the French authorities. Most of the prisoners seem to have been innocently caught up in the sweep and seem to be guilty of no more than holding left-wing views. Quite a few do not even seem to be guilty of that. France, which should have been a haven to many of these people – Spaniards fleeing Franco, East Europeans and Jews fleeing Hitler – seems to be almost as bad the countries they have fled from. While not as interesting as the previous three, it is still an fascinating tale of a sideshow to the Spanish Civil War and World War II which most of us will not be aware of.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Ruedo ibérico
No English translation
Published in French as Campo francés by Les Fondeurs de briques in 2010
Published in German as Am Ende der Flucht by Eichborn in 2002