The Colour of Blood within the Bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War


Joan Sales
Uncertain Glory
Translated by Peter Bush
Maclehose Press/Hachette India.

Early on in Uncertain Glory, Lluis de Broca, one of the protagonists of Joan Sales’ great novel, stumbles into the cathedral in Olivel, recently sacked by Anarchists, and witnesses a strange scene made up of mummified priests, ripped out of their ancient resting place in the cathedral’s catacombs:

They were arranged to create a strange tableau. Two were stationed by the foot of the altar, like a couple being married: one was adorned with a veil and a bouquet of artificial flowers.

In its combination of the hyper-real and the bizarre, this scene could come straight out of the studios of Sales’ immediate predecessors, the Surrealists. What distinguishes this scene from a Salvador Dali painting, however, is that it comes not out of a studio but from the exploding centre of the civil war. More specifically, Sales’ tableau gestures towards one of the bleakest themes of his novel: that the Spanish civil war dealt more than defeat to the Republicans, it also turned their world inside out.

Like the mummified figures of long dead priests reconfigured as bride and bridegroom, Lluis and his comrades are led by the civil war into lives that are utterly alien to their Republican orientation. Stranded away from the frontline, in the rural heartland of Catalonia, Lluis himself is ready to abandon Trini – comrade, long-time companion and mother of his only son – for a sworn enemy of the Republicans, the mistress of a castle at Olivel. What attracts him to this peasant woman, who seeks his help to legalise her position as the widow of the dissolute and unanchored lord of the castle, is not just her innate grace but her commitment to an impoverished castle, to its vast uncluttered spaces and its mingled scent of cedar, juniper, and freshly washed linen.

Lluis, together with his confidant Juli Soleras and a young priest, Cruells, make up the three male protagonists of Sales’ novel. Soleras and Lluis have been fellow students at the university in Barcelona. Both are drawn to Anarchism and to Trini Milmany, a geology student whose Anarchist family provides something like a political refuge to the upper-class Lluis. The chaotic civil war disperses the group and, as Soleras keeps disappearing from and resurfacing in the most unexpected places, Sales has the other three – Lluis, Trini, and Cruells – tell their stories from their differing points of view and locations. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that Lluis’s diary entries, Trini’s letters to Soleras, and Cruells’ narrative can do little except register how completely the war changed the world as they knew it.

Trini, for example, makes several unexpected discoveries in Barcelona as she struggles to make ends meet in a city continuously under siege. Llibert, her brother, raised under the loving care of an otherworldly father, discovers his true calling as a consummate commissar. As Director of War Propaganda, he looks bright and smells of success, exhorting people to build more tanks even as relentless Fascist bombing reduces Barcelona to a “huge body in its death throes . . . about to start stinking like a rotting corpse.” On the other hand, the civil war transforms Lluis’s factory-owning uncle from a class enemy to a fugitive on the run. Despite his situation he not only opens his house for Lluis’s wife and son but also reveals, at every step, the depth of affection that he has always had for his nephew and his family.

Photograph of Barcelona, being bombed by the air force of Fascist Italy on March 17, 1938. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of Barcelona, being bombed by the air force of Fascist Italy on March 17, 1938. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The unexpected – and unbridgeable – chasm that the Spanish civil war opens between ideological affiliation and personal empathy points to a tragic paradox that lies at the heart of Uncertain Glory. As a native Catalonian who was deeply involved with the Republican cause from beginning to end, Sales had staked far more on a Republican victory than writers like George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway, who had their own countries to go back to. On the other hand, one of the major themes of Uncertain Glory is the persistence with which the Spanish civil war destroyed the ideological coherence of the Republican cause.

What destroys the “faith”, “belief”, and “happiness” that Sales and so many of his characters had invested in the Republican cause? At the most fundamental level, perhaps, it is the devastating material effects of the war once Trini, Lluis, and their comrades are drawn into it. While Uncertain Glory does draw attention to individual acts of heroism, these are not enough to compensate for the lack of preparedness and equipment. Thus the most unforgettable images in it are the sounds and sights of defeat: the defiant shout of a dying man that turns into a “sob like the last cry of a rooster being beheaded”, or men “shot to shreds and left hanging on the thorns of the wire to dry out in the sun.” As unsettling as the casualties that the Republicans suffer are the atrocities that they perpetrate. Freed by war of all restraints, the Republicans, and especially the Anarchist faction, celebrate killing and mutilation as the means of implementing their principles. Trini, indeed, is so deeply affected by the dead faces of priests who have been rounded up from the provinces and executed in Barcelona that she decides, out of sheer defiance, to attend Mass for the first time in her life. As she tells her companion-in-arms Juli Soleras, attending Sunday Mass has become as risky and clandestine as going to a Communist Party cell meeting before the war.

This conjunction of a Communist Party cell and a monk’s cell is telling; as the possibility of a resolution begins to recede, the battle lines for the Republicans are blurred to the point that it becomes impossible to tell who is fighting on which side. “Every day,” says one of the narrators in Uncertain Glory, “somebody or the other changes trench.”

The character in Uncertain Glory who changes trenches most is also the novel’s most interesting. Juli Soleras exemplifies, more clearly than anyone else in the novel, Joan Sales’ debt to Dostoevsky, the novelist he admired above all others. Soleras’ worldview and his manner of speaking connect him to the two dangerous nihilists Peter Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s Demons. Their unwillingness to believe in anything, including the libertarian causes they espouse, results in widespread destruction and suffering. Sales carries forward Dostoevsky’s nihilistic men, finding in the chaos of the Spanish Civil War the basis for that characteristically modern inability to believe in the eternal validity of abstract principles. Yet, in an utterly unexpected twist, Soleras’ habitual recourse to irony implies not only scepticism but also the ability to accommodate disagreement. This helps him to move between ideologies, camps, and estranged human beings. It is he who pilfers tins of condensed milk from Lluis’s regiment to pass on to Trini so that her (and Lluis’s) son gets nutrition in besieged Barcelona. And in a dramatic sequence towards the end of the novel Soleras crosses and re-crosses the battle lines several times to achieve the impossible: he not only brings Trini and Lluis together around their dying, diphtheria-stricken son but, in an act as generous as it is desperate and unthinkable, he tries to cut a passage for them through Fascist territory.

Sales’ characterization of Soleras shows how contradictory life can be. It also points to a contradiction embedded at the heart of Uncertain Glory: this most political of novels repeatedly finds value in that which is outside the political. Towards the end of the novel, Cruells, the good-hearted narrator of the novel’s third part, is overwhelmed by guilt as he prepares to cross over to the enemy, convinced that Soleras has already done this and that Lluis is dead. What he remembers from this walk, though, has to do not with politics but with Sagittarius and how it “sparkled in the heart of the steppe, in that dry transparent air, in that pitch black sky.” Elsewhere, the clear peal of church bells that reaches Cruells through the “crystalized silence” on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve is, he knows, from “enemy territory”, but this knowledge only makes meaningless the very notion of enemy territory. Over it all hangs the scent of “lovingly starched and ironed linen . . . put away with lavender in an ancient cedar or walnut chest”, that expresses an almost universal longing for those stable, feminized interiors that the political turmoil in Spain destroyed.


No Pasaran! (‘They Shall Not Pass’), the iconic anti-Fascist slogan of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, seen here on a banner in Madrid. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Uncertain Glory is probably the most deeply experienced and closely observed record that we will get of a civil war that politicised a worldwide intelligentsia in a way that few other events in the 20th century did. The effects of that politicisation are evident in every aspect of Joan Sales’ own life. As a lifelong member of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, he joined the Republican army from the day that the Spanish civil war began. After the Republican defeat, he fled to France and continued to write against the Fascist regime in Spain. Franco instantly banned the first version of Uncertain Glory when it appeared in 1956. Through the next two decades, Sales kept revising his novel, obviously not to placate Franco’s censors, but to bring his account as close as possible to what he understood as having really happened. Sales was absolutely committed to the truth that only literature can tell, but this, in turn, led him to write a heartbreaking novel whose literary greatness is based on its disavowal of revolutionary politics. But if the civil war shook the ideological bearings of Sales’ characters, it also intensified their lives as nothing before ever did. It enabled them to see and smell things more vividly, and find depths and nuances in personal relationships that they had not thought possible.

All wars involve senseless destruction. Some have yielded texts that, by moving us deeply, reveal the precise human fibre in the midst of that meaninglessness, the colour of the blood within the bloodshed. In the debris of the Spanish Civil War, Joan Sales’ great novel, written in Catalan, has long remained hidden. Fortunately it has now found in Peter Bush a brilliant translator capable of registering, in the relatively  alien medium of the English language , the intensity and anger, resignation and irony with which Catalonians negotiated Franco’s brutal assault. Bush’s translation of Sales’ book should bring to the English speaking world  a real sense of the complexity and despair that underlay the experience of writing about the Republican defeat. That is why if one had  to choose one work by which to remember Spain in the late 1930s, it would have to be this masterpiece.

Sambuddha Sen teaches English at Shiv Nadar University