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Max Aub: Campo abierto [Open Field]

Though the third book in Aub’s Magic Labyrinth series on the Spanish Civil War to be published, it is the second in the series. Like the subsequent books in the series, it has not been published in English. This book is primarily set in Valencia (where Aub grew up) and Madrid. He has changed the style somewhat, so, while he does use slang and Catalan words and phrases, he avoids some of the abstruse and made-up words he used in the first book. The book consists of a series of interrelated stories, each one tending to focus on one individual or group of individuals, who may appear in a smaller role in subsequent or previous sections.

Aub was opposed to the rebels, i.e. to the Francoists (these books had to be published in Mexico after the Civil War). However, while there is a certain amount of bias towards the republican side, he certainly is not afraid to criticise them, both jointly and individually. One of the many reasons why the republicans lost the civil war, was that they were splintered. Communists, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists and Catalan and other regional nationalists often not only did not talk to one another and liaise with other, but they actively opposed one another, even taking the fight to their fellow republicans instead of fighting the real enemy. Several people are shot in the first part of the book but most of them do not die at the front but back home. Some are killed by the opposite side, dragged from their homes, given a summary trial and executed. However, in some cases, these involve one leftist group killing a member of another group.

The people we meet are ordinary people, not the generals or political leaders. Till the war started, they generally got on well together. Some of them were committed politically, to one side or the other, but this was not too much of an issue but now if you are on the wrong side, it could and often did mean that you faced death. All too often, people turned against fellow family members. One story involves a young man, Vicente Dalmases, who seems to be close to a young woman, Asunción, so much so that everyone thinks that they are boyfriend and girlfriend. They are not. Both are involved in a revolutionary theatre group. He would like to kiss her but is too scared to do so, so they carry on fighting for the cause. One day, he sees a pass book for the Falange (i.e. right-wing) party and it seems to belong to Asunción’s father, as it has his photo in it. Vicente is horrified and wonders why Asunción has never mentioned this. When he finally challenges her, having agonised over the matter for some time, and wondering whether he should put party before friendship, she denies it. Her step-mother denies it and a search of the house reveals no other incriminating evidence.

Jorge Mustieles is a radical socialist and a lawyer. However, his father is not and is arrested. Jorge spends a day both trying to get his father released and also wondering about where his loyalties lie. Though his father is released, though no thanks to Jorge, things go very wrong as a result. Another Vicente, Vicente Farnals, used to be both a very good footballer and a committed socialist. Since he has been running a successful carpentry business, he has more or less given up both. When an old footballing friend asks him to get him through to Alicante, he helps without thinking about it. However, it turns out that the old friend is a falangist, so Vicente gets a visit from another old friend, a socialist. Vicente cannot persuade the socialist that friendship is more important than politics.

Death can come if you are on the wrong side but also if you are in the wrong place. Gabriel, who opens the book, desperately needs a doctor for his wife who is having difficulty giving birth. He breaks the curfew to go out and find a doctor, after having failed more than once, and ends up shot. An even grimmer story concerns a man who is captured and finds his two cousins, with whom he is very close, on the capturing side. They accept that he has to be executed but obtain one concession. He can visit his wife and baby son (whom he has yet to see) one last time. The two cousins vouch that he will return and say that their lives will be forfeited if he does not. Unfortunately, while returning there is a flood. Fearing he will be late, he tries to cross the river and drowns. His body is not found for two weeks, by which time it is too late.

While we have seen that people do agonise over where their loyalties lie, others wonder whether summary executions are justified. They ask whether the condemned should not have a fair trial. The answer is a categorical no. When someone decides someone else is guilty they are shot. We also see the other side – the right-wing side – and Claudio Luna is one of these. He is in the car taking a man called El Maño (Maño is Spanish slang for someone from Aragon) to be executed. To his horror, El Maño recognises him and knows him and his family. He had no qualms about executing a complete stranger but someone he knows? He is so horrified that he volunteers for the front. His story becomes complicated, as he has to spend the night next to a corpse. He crosses the lines, pretending to be a republican and ends up in Madrid, where he knows people who knew him when he was younger, before he joined the Falange, and vouch for his political credentials.

The story continues in Madrid and we follow in considerable detail the approach of the Francoist army towards Madrid. Indeed, Aub gives us detailed updates, which become more and more frequent, as to exactly where the Francoist army is and, inevitably, the people get more and more concerned. Meanwhile, the theatre group of which Asunción is still a member wants to perform at the front, which means Madrid, so they go off to Madrid. Vicente has gone to the front and Asunción is very worried about him. Indeed, both seem more concerned with the other while they are separated. While in Madrid, Asunción, who has not heard from Vicente in a while and fears that he might be injured or dead, learns that he is alive. However, by this time, rumours are flying thick and fast. Franco has been assassinated. The French army is going to come and help them. The Allies will never let Franco win. All are, of course, untrue.

Not everyone is committed to one side or the other. Don Servando Aguilar y Béistegui is a wandering philosopher and, for him, all men are equal and the same. Roberto Braña is a writer, a great writer, according to him. He states categorically that he is not the slightest bit interested in politics and wants them all to leave him in peace. As a writer, he is not fighting for others but fighting against other writers, his competition, to be better than them, to sell more books than them.

The book ends as Madrid is falling. We see the government leaving and people fleeing, while the defenders, poorly armed with few rifles and little ammunition, up against the tanks of Franco and his troops and all the while hoping for the miracle that we know will never happen. Aub tells an excellent story of the individuals caught up, some willingly, some far less so, in the Spanish Civil War. Writing this novel thirteen years after the end of the Civil War, he knows full well how it is to end and can perhaps be somewhat dispassionate about the failings of the republicans opposed to Franco and his armies.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by Tezontle, Mexico City
No English translation
First published in French as Campo abierto by Les Fondeurs de Briques in 2009
Translated by Claude de Frayssinet
First published in German as Die bitteren Träume by Piper in 1962
Translated by Helmut Frielinghaus p