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Max Aub: Campo del Moro [The Moor’s Camp]

Though the fourth book in Aub’s Magic Labyrinth series on the Spanish Civil War to be published, it is the fifth in the series. Like the subsequent books in the series, it has not been published in English. This novel opens on 5 March 1939. The Spanish Civil War is coming to an end and, as we know, Madrid is about to fall to Franco’s troops. This novel takes place during the final days, as Madrid falls.

This has been said to be the most bitter of Aub’s six novels, not least because it describes what he sees as the betrayal by Colonel Casado and the politician Julián Besteiro who organised a coup d’état against Prime Minister Juan Negrín who, together, with the Communists, was planning on continuing the war. Casado and Besteiro wanted to negotiate peace terms with Franco but, as we now know, Franco insisted on unconditional surrender.

Much of the book, as with his other novels, is portraits of various people, some fictitious and some historical. We start with Fidel Muñoz. Fidel Muñoz is a historical character. (He also appears in Aub’s novel La calle de Valverde.) He was a linotypist by profession and a committed socialist. In this novel, his house is close to the front line. It has been suggested several times that he evacuate but he refuses. His wife and his minor children (he had nine children, several of whom were now adults) have left for Valencia but he is staying put. Every time he sees a Fascist, he takes a pot shot at him (he seems to have a plentiful supply of ammunition).

Many other colourful characters appear. There is Don Manuel, a committed spiritualist. He is French by origin and still has a French accent. He adores French culture – reading extensively in French literature and drinking French wines, though he has never returned to France. It all started when his wife died. Her ghost appeared to him and introduced him to his guardian angel, who told him never to leave Spain. He has been awaiting the return of a new El Cid, who will save Spain. He has had various candidates, including Manuel Azaña, the former Prime Minister and President, and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange. He is arrested for spying and refuses to defend himself and only gets off, due to the intervention of Vicente Dalmases, the boyfriend of his daughter, Lola.

We follow many more of these characters, including Agustín Mijares, who carried out his first political assassination at the age of thirteen; Victoriano Terraza, who left is wife with a child and travelled around and is surprised that his son, now a commander, was not interested in seeing him; Diego Parra, who had assassinated a governor of Barcelona and was caught. The police, instead of taking the five prisoners they had to prison, shot them. They thought they were all dead and took the bodies to the hospital. However, Parra was merely pretending and once, in the hospital morgue, revealed that he was alive and expected to get protection by being in a hospital. The doctors protected him and he managed to flee to France.

Many of these characters are discussing the imminent fall of Madrid and arguing about what stance should be taken. Should they carry on fighting, as the Communists propose, or should they try and make a deal with Franco and surrender? At the same time, they reminisce about the many people they know who are missing, either dead or who have fled. They talk about the course of the war and how it could have been handled differently. And they also talk about their love lives which, not surprisingly, have got somewhat complicated.

The second part of the novel still follows these individuals but now focuses more on what Aub clearly sees as the Casado/Besteiro betrayal. Negrín, to his credit, when faced with what amounts to a coup d’etat, agrees to step down as he does not want anti-fascists fighting other anti-fascists. Sadly, that is what happens. While Franco and his forces sit outside Madrid, essentially besieging the city and waiting for it to surrender, as he knows it must, the remaining left-wing forces, fight among one another. Socialists, communists and anarchists spend their efforts on not only fighting one another but on rounding up what they see as the opposition and executing them. We have been following young Vicente Dalmases, a young Communist, with a complicated love life, who is arrested and almost executed. We have also been following Julián Templado, a doctor and socialist, who appeared in a couple of the earlier books, and he is also arrested and only avoids execution when his captors need a doctor.

We do not see the actual surrender to Franco, who will accept only unconditional surrender. Casado and Besteiro had promised to defend the people of Madrid and ensure the best terms from Franco but, as we now know, they did not and, contrary to their promises, they try to flee. Casado managed to flee to Venezuela while Besteiro was caught and died in a Madrid hospital the following year. It was a sad and murky end to a sad and murky war.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by J. Mortiz
No English translation
Published in French as Campo del Moro by Les Fondeurs de briques in 2011
Translated by Claude de Frayssinet
Published in German as Die Stunde des Verrats by Eichborn in 2001
Translated by ,Albrecht Buschmannand Stefanie Gerhold