!No Pasaran! Writings from the Spanish Civil War

Ed. Peter Ayrton

Serpent’s Tail, £10.99

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Review by Nick Major

IT IS an uncomfortable truth that war has often brought out the best in writers. Just look at the First World War poets like Sassoon and Owen. Unlike the latter, Sassoon lived on into peacetime, but he never wrote anything better than his trench poetry. George Orwell’s best book is arguably Homage to Catalonia. The experience fighting for Trotskyist POUM in Barcelona undoubtedly helped fine tune his understanding of authoritarianism.

Naturally, a couple of Orwell’s reflections on his experiences in 1937 are included in this far-reaching and superb anthology of writings on the Spanish Civil War. There is also writing here from other well-knowns, like Andre Malraux and Victor Serge. But one of the virtues of this book is the contributions from Spanish writers (previous anthologies have failed in this regard) and those sympathetic to Franco. There is an excellent short story by Medardo Fraile, who subsequently moved to Scotland in 1964 and taught at Strathclyde University. The anthology approaches the battlefield from different positions: the war in the countryside is covered by John Dos Passos, for example, and there is an extract – Of Lice and Books – from My Spanish War by Mika Etchebehere, who was a lifelong anarchist and the only woman to command a column in the war.

In wartime soldiers and civilians often laugh through the darkest hours (what do you do when you have run out of tears?). Langston Hughes’s short despatch Laughter in Madrid documents the character and resolve of the population as their city is carpet bombed by Franco and his Italian and German allies. Hughes’s friend passes a house one morning after "a shell had passed through the roof, torn away part of the wall, carried with it the top of the family piano, and buried itself in the garden. Nevertheless, there at the piano sat the young daughter of the house, very clean and starched, her hair brushed and braided, her face shining. Diligently she was beating out a little waltz from a music book in front of her."

It has always been astonishing to think of how many young men and women risked imprisonment to fight fascism on foreign shores (the British Government used the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 to dissuade its citizens from enlisting with the International Brigades). Of course, many of these soldier-writers returned disillusioned with the various left-wing causes they had previously supported. But, then, who comes back from war with their illusions intact?

Still, the question lingers: why risk life? Laurie Lee, in an extract from Moments of War, writes that not fighting could have been the more dangerous, in the long term. But also, one cannot forget the 1930s were a time of youthful idealism. For men like him, it was "the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which might never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass-slaughter closed in."