Spanish civil war

What military lessons can we learn from Ukraine?

The past comes in convenient lumps, each able to provide a lesson. When I was growing up, it was the Munich Agreement, giving Hitler the Sudetenland, and Suez, that embarrassment, that historians tried to glean some wisdom from. We later embraced the lessons from Vietnam, about guerrilla warfare, and after that the teachings of Iraq and Afghanistan, about counterinsurgency. All wars taught us something, apparently. Ukraine has appealed for international military support by presenting itself as a testing ground for future wars. The Ukrainian defence minister says that Ukraine is the perfect place for the arms industry to try out its new kit, and our own defence secretary has said as much

Journey to the Moon: The Things We’ve Seen, by Agustín Fernández Mallo, reviewed

‘Peace — slept for 14 hours. The roar of the sea slashing the rocks — is there any more soothing sound in the solar system?’ Although this observation was made by Chips Channon at Sandwich after the rigours of electioneering in 1935 it could be aptly cited in this novel by the radiation physicist Agustín Fernández Mallo. These past 15 years he has evolved a method in which, owing something to Borges and perhaps early Nicholson Baker, troubled narrators’ outlandish events draw seamlessly upon everything around them; on the page, advertising hoardings, the screen or mind, these fragments are shored against their ruins, catching our world in its present flux.

Haunted by the past: Last Days in Cleaver Square, by Patrick McGrath, reviewed

At the risk of encroaching on Spectator Competition territory, what is the least surprising thing for any given narrator in a particular author’s work to say? (For one of Irvine Welsh’s, a single word of four letters might be enough.) In the case of Patrick McGrath, I’d suggest, the answer comes on page 55 of his new novel: ‘I confess I feel that my sanity is under threat.’ McGrath famously grew up in the grounds of Broadmoor, where his father was the medical superintendent, and his consequent lifelong interest in psychiatry is reflected in pretty much all of his fiction. As a rule, if you’re a McGrath protagonist, you’re likely

A corpse in waiting

Who is a hero? Javier Cercas, in his 2001 novel Soldiers of Salamis, asked the question, searching for an anonymous hero, a soldier in the Spanish civil war. The book won major prizes and transformed Cercas from a respected Spanish novelist into an international literary figure. Eighteen years on, he returns to the war with his new novel, Lord of All the Dead. This time his theme is the nature of heroism itself, interwoven with a more personal quest: a reluctant picking over the bones of his great-uncle Manuel Mena, a hero of the Franco era who became an embarrassment to his family as the wheel of history turned. It’s

The Spanish understand the pig and the sea

Spain: an easy country to enjoy; very hard, even for Spaniards, to understand. I remember a dinner party, sitting next to a girl who seemed to want to talk about what had been on television the previous night. She was pretty enough, but I feared that I was in for a long evening and a complete unmeeting of minds. Spanish, she was also dark-complexioned, so in desperation I asked for further and better particulars. She was from Andalusia, which helped to explain the duskiness, and she was the cousin of a duke, who bred fighting bulls. Oh good: something to discuss, a long way from trash TV. In 1936, the

The art of deception | 9 November 2017

Enric Marco has had a remarkable life. A prominent Catalan union activist, a brave resistance fighter in the Spanish Civil War, a charismatic Nazi concentration camp survivor, and more. In January 2005 he addressed the Spanish parliament to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He is, everyone agrees, an extraordinary man. Heroic, almost. The thing is, his extraordinary, heroic biography is at least partly a lie. But which parts? In The Impostor, the novelist Javier Cercas seeks to disentangle Marco’s lies from those small provable truths supporting them. Cercas is reluctant at first (troubled by Primo Levi’s ‘to understand is almost to justify’); but Marco himself is

A blunt instrument of war

It takes a bold author to open his book about ‘Guernica’ with a quotation from the Spanish artist Antonio Saura lamenting ‘the number of bad books that have been written and will be written’ about it. Fortunately, James Attlee’s study of Picasso’s superstar work of art is not a bad book and he builds on a solid cultural and historic understanding of the painting to collate 80 years of evolving reaction to it. Attlee begins in May 1937, when, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish Republic commissioned Picasso to create a painting for its pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris. They hoped the famous artist

Fighting talk, but little action

On 11 May 1937, at the Gare St-Lazare in Paris, Ernest Hemingway said goodbye to a friend who was leaving Europe. Like Hemingway, John Dos Passos had been in Spain to support the Republic in its civil war against the fascist Franco. But he became disillusioned when the Soviets (also fighting against Franco) murdered someone he knew. As the train was about to leave, Hemingway asked Dos Passos not to report the event. Dos Passos refused: what was the point of fighting a war for civil liberties if you destroyed those liberties in the process? ‘Civil liberties, shit,’ replied Hemingway. ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’ The

Vile deeds and voyeurism

The title comes from Hamlet but the spirit that hovers over the pages of Javier Marías’s new novel is — as ever — that of Proust. The visiting and revisiting of the past; the dwelling on the minutiae of memory; the attention to social hierarchy, the demands of lust and the force of cruelty — not to mention the labyrinthine sentences weighted with subordinate clauses… Marcel would breathe easily here. Trying to encapsulate a novel by Marías in a few lines is as frustrating as attempting to ‘explain’ Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ in one sentence. Both are minutely detailed — but what are we seeing? What are we being told? On

Are the British too polite to be any good at surrealism?

The Paris World’s Fair of 1937 was more than a testing ground for artistic innovation; it was a battleground for political ideologies. The Imperial eagle spread its wings over the German Pavilion; the Soviet hammer swung above the Russian Pavilion; and the Spanish Pavilion unveiled Picasso’s shocking monument to the civilian dead of the bombed city of Guernica, raising the clenched fist of the Spanish Republic in the capital of non-interventionist France. Not everyone was convinced by ‘Guernica’ as art. Anthony Blunt in The Spectator commended Picasso’s political gesture but dismissed the painting as ‘the expression of a private brainstorm’. Piqued on the artist’s behalf, the British surrealist Roland Penrose,

Stalin’s Spanish bezzie

During the Spanish civil war the single greatest atrocity perpetrated by the Republicans was known as ‘Paracuellos’. This was the village where an estimated 2,500 prisoners loyal to Franco were executed by leftish militiamen between November and December 1936. Even though the facts of this massacre are now widely known, one question still remains: who ordered the killings? In his latest book The Last Stalinist,Paul Preston claims that it was Santiago Carrillo who played a crucial role in signing the death warrants. (Carrillo, who died in 2012, always denied any involvement in the incident). It is worth mentioning this mass murder because history tends to catch up with power-hungry leaders

The gentle intoxications of Laurie Lee

He was always lucky, and he knew it: lucky in the secure rural intimacy of the upbringing described in Cider with Rosie; in the love of some passionate, clever women, whose guidance and support get rather less than their due in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning; and in having survived the Spanish civil war — the subject of A Moment of War — despite seeing action (though on his part this involved more seeing than action) in the terrible last battle of Teruel, and being imprisoned three times as a suspected spy. Behind and beyond all that, he was lucky in his gifts: charm, which included a knack

The Spanish Civil War hotel that Capa, Hemingway and Gelhorn called home

In February 1924 the Hotel Florida, a ten- storey marble-clad building with 200 rooms, a glass-roofed atrium and red plush furnishings, went up on Madrid’s Gran Via. Along with the Ritz in Paris, certainly the most celebrated hotel in the literary world, the Florida became, during the two-year battle for the capital waged between Franco’s nationalists and the republican forces, the meeting place for an eccentric, glamorous and self-important assortment of war tourists, zealots, opportunists, romantics, dreamers, buccaneers and writers who had come to observe the fighting, file dispatches of variable truthfulness and proclaim loyalty to the republic. In its own way, the Florida has become as emblematic of the

There was good art under Franco

Everyone knows about the Spanish civil war, first battlefield in the struggle that broke out in 1936 and ended nine years later in the ruins of Berlin. It has been immortalised in the work of Hemingway, Orwell and Koestler and commemorated in the heroic deeds of the International Brigades. This is how it is remembered by Camilo José Cela, the conservative novelist and Nobel Prize winner: To the conscripts of 1937, all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had

The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, by Henry Buckley – review

With Spain’s economic crisis in the forefront of global news, it would be fascinating to see what a reporter of Henry Buckley’s stature would have made of its current predicament. He was the Daily Telegraph’s man in Madrid from 1929, who for a decade furiously filed dispatches from all corners of the country as its young democracy sparked, and eventually burst into civil war — finding time to swap stories with Hemingway over whiskies in between. His eyewitness account of this conflict was never to see the light of day in book form after the London warehouse storing the copies awaiting distribution was bombed in 1940. But a handful did

An Englishman in Madrid, by Eduardo Mendoza – review

To Spaniards, the English must appear a highly contradictory people. The stereotype of the restrained, well-dressed gentleman (Spain’s largest department store is El Corte Inglés, ‘the English cut’) must contend with the binge-drinking phalanxes of tourists occupying Spain’s beaches every summer. Though generally thought to be fairly law-abiding, the English are still, mostly affectionately, referred to as pirates in Spain — a term dating back to Drake’s raids against Philip II. This dissonant, slippery persona is central to Eduardo Mendoza’s novel (winner of the prestigious Planeta prize), set on the eve of the Spanish civil war. Anthony Whiteland, a moderately successful authority on Spanish art, arrives in Madrid to value