Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil WarThe Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Civil War was an appalling calamity in which every class and every party lost.

The longer I live, work, and travel in Spain, the harder it is to believe that, less than a century ago, the entire country was torn apart by a bloody war. What set of circumstances could prompt a nation of ordinary, law-abiding people to explode into conflict and kill each other by the hundreds of thousands? This, of course, is just a specific version of a more general question: Why do people wage wars? I may sound naïve, but I do find this perplexing—since, as Brenan points out, in the destruction wrought by war, especially modern war, there are only losers.

Brenan’s work was one of the first serious analyses of the Civil War to be published (in 1943, just four years after the war’s conclusion), and has remained in print ever since. Nevertheless I was somewhat hesitant to read it. I found Brenan’s famous memoirs, South from Granada, to be underwhelming, so I assumed that this book would be as well. Happily I was mistaken. The Spanish Labyrinth is a comprehensive and penetrating work, easily one of the best books about the Civil War—or indeed about Spain—that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This does not mean it is accessible. Brenan chose his title well. The events leading up to the Spanish Civil War are intrinsically complex. So many different parties were involved in the accelerating dance of political turmoil that even the most skilled popular writer would have trouble seamlessly weaving it all together. And Brenan, though a strong writer, was too close to the events described to even approach a popular account. As a result the book itself can feel labyrinthine—with valuable comments and data tucked away into footnotes, with several miniature appendices per chapter and a longer one at the end of the book, and a seemingly endless cast of characters, organizations, and movements. Certainly this book, like any excellent book, will repay careful rereading.

Brenan’s take on the Civil War can be helpfully contrasted with that of George Orwell. Orwell, who was in Spain a matter of months and who never learned Spanish very well, saw the Spanish Civil War in terms of the wider struggle between the Right and the Left. For him, it was a straightforward class conflict between the poor workers and the rich fascists, a struggle that was playing out all over the globe. Brenan, on the other hand, who spoke fluent Spanish and who lived in Spain for a decades, saw the war as a particularly Spanish affair; and his analysis focuses almost exclusively on internal factors. (Both authors, incidentally, did share a distaste for Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.)

Before the Civil War, political instability plagued Spain for generations. This was, in part, a consequence of economic backwardness; and this backwardness, in turn, had its roots deep in Spanish history—Spain’s commitment to New World gold at the expense of industrialization, and to merino wool at the expense of agriculture. (By the way, Spanish shepherds still hold onto their special privileges, which they demonstrate every year in the Fiesta de Transhumancia, during which sheep are herded straight through the center of Madrid.)

The Church came to identify itself fully with the rich and powerful, alienating itself from the people. As a result, anti-clericalism has played nearly as big a role in Spanish history as the church itself. The army, meanwhile, through a series of pronuciamientos and coups d’etat, came to see itself as the guardian of traditional Spanish values, able and willing to topple any regimes they deemed unsatisfactory—and, as history amply shows, it is always bad news to have a politically active military.

During all this time, Spain was plagued by a long-standing agrarian crisis. In one of Brenan’s most brilliant chapters, he details how different farming traditions sprung up in different regions of the country, partly in response to varying soil and climatic conditions. Unfortunately, many regions of Spain are—either from lack of rain or inferior soil—rather poor for agriculture; and distinct social arrangements (such as small-holding minifundios or large latifundios) are appropriate for these different climatic conditions.

In the hot and dry south, for example, farms are usually quite large; and the work required is seasonal, not year-round. Since a small number of wealthy families controlled these large estates, the vast majority were left to subsist on badly-paid seasonal work, thus leading to inequality and violent political tension. (As I discovered from Gilmore’s The People of the Plain, these agrarian problems persisted until the end of Franco’s reign.)

In addition to the inefficiency and inequality of Spanish agriculture, there was the ever-present problem of Spanish regionalism. Brenan follows Richard Ford and Ortega y Gasset in seeing regionalism as one of the defining features of Spanish political life. (Those watching the Catalan independence movement unfold today will be little disposed to disagree.) Spain is crisscrossed by several mountain ranges and sudden changes in elevation, thus leading to jarring climatic juxtaposition. I have experienced this myself: one moment I will be driving through a windswept mountain range, and the next I will be on the verdant coast. This is one culprit for the famous Spanish regionalism.

Another is Spain’s history. When Fernando and Isabel were married, thus uniting all of Spain for the first time, their separate kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, had distinct political traditions. As the historian J.H. Elliott describes in his excellent book, Imperial Spain, the Castile of Isabel, with its history of centralized rule and its emphasis on military power, was bound to conflict with Catalonia’s history of liberalism and commercial capitalism. The industrial revolution further fueled these regional tensions, as Bilbao and Barcelona became heavily industrialized while the interior and the south remained mainly agricultural.

These divisions in Spain—climatic, historical, and political—translated into splits in leftist movements in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. The fundamental split was between the socialists and the anarcho-syndicalists. The socialists tended to be more reformist, while the anarcho-syndicalists were straightforwardly revolutionary. Each party had its associated union, respectively the U.G.T. and the C.N.T., which most often refused to work with one another as they attempted to bring down the capitalist system using general strikes. Brenan’s histories of these movements—their origins, development, and leaders—constitutes the central portion of this book, and is absolutely first-rate.

On the conservative side, in addition to the wealthy landowners and the Church—not to mention the army—there were the Monarchists and the Carlists. The presence of Monarchists, in a country which still had a king living in exile, requires no explanation. The Carlists, on the other hand, were a distinctly Spanish product. The death of Fernando VII, in 1833, set off a series of civil wars (the war in 1936 was hardly the first in Spain) between two contending lines to the throne. Those who supported the pretender Don Carlos became known as Carlists. Theoretically, Monarchists and Carlists were arch-nemeses; but since, by the 1930s, the last living Carlist claimant was old and without an heir, the distinction had worn thin.

Trapped between these arch-conservative and revolutionary-leftist forces were a comparatively small group of liberals, who attempted to create a Republic in 1931. But they were doomed from the start. First, as Brenan notes, liberalism has historically had little appeal in Spain. What is more, the economic downturn—caused by the great depression—severely limited whatever resources the government had to work with. Meanwhile, forces from every side were determined to undermine or dismantle the nascent state. Go too far to appease one side, and they risked severe retaliation from the other. Threading its way between this Scylla and that Charybdis, the ship of state crashed and sank.

From this rather pathetic summary, I hope you can at least get a taste of how complex a story Brenan had to tell. Climatic and cultural regions, revolutionary movements, workers’ unions, political parties, the army, the Church, economical classes—all of these were involved in the conflagration. There do not even appear to be any outstanding individuals towards whom you can orient your gaze. Franco himself was notoriously uncharismatic. The final result is confusion—labyrinthine confusion—and given all this, Brenan did a terrific job in his analysis.

The book is flawed, of course. Like Richard Ford, and like so many foreign writers, Brenan is pre-disposed to find some essential core to the “Spanish personality,” which can be used as a catch-all historical explanation. More often these are crass stereotypes (Spaniards are lazy, excitable, etc.), or otherwise Romantic wishful thinking—for instance Brenan’s insistence on the Spanish abhorrence of the modern world. Another flaw is Brenan’s focus on the Left. Though his histories of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are masterful, his analysis of the Right leaves a lot to be desired. One certainly does not get any clear picture of Franco’s program from these pages. Finally, by focusing so exclusively on Spain, Brenan ignores the wider international scope of the conflict. The rise of the communists from an obscure party to the most influential organization on the Republic side, for example, cannot be explained without turning one’s eye towards the Soviet Union.

But it won’t do to dwell on these shortcomings. Given that this book was written, not by a professional historian but an amateur, and that it was written so soon after the conflict came to an end, it is a near miraculous achievement. I may not be any closer to understanding war in general; but I do think I’ve come a long way towards understanding this one.

View all my reviews

Quotes & Commentary #44: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #44: Montaigne

Who does not see that I have taken a road along which I shall go, without stopping and without effort, as long as there is ink and paper in the world?

—Michel de Montaigne

One thing above all attracts me to Montaigne: we both have an addiction to writing.

It is a rather ugly addiction. I personally find those who love the sound of their own voice nearly intolerable—and unfortunately I fall into this category, too—but to be addicted to writing is far, far worse: Not only to I love airing my opinions in conversation, but I think my views are so valuable that they should be shared with the world and preserved for future generations.

Why do I write so much? Why do I so enjoy running my fingers over a keyboard and seeing letters materialize on the screen? What mad impulse keeps me going at it, day after day, without goal and without end? And why do I think it’s a day wasted if I don’t have time to do my scribbling?

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell famously answered these questions for himself. His first reason was “sheer egoism,” and this certainly applies to me, although I would define it a little differently. Orwell characterizes the egoism of writers as the desire “to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death,” and in general to live one’s own life rather than to live in the service of others.

I would call this motivation “vanity” rather than “egoism,” which is undeniably one of my motivations to write—especially the desire to seem clever, one of my uglier qualities. But this vanity is rather superficial; there is a deeper egoism at work.

Ever since I can remember, I have had the awareness, at times keen and painful, that the world of my senses, the world that I share with everyone else, is separate and distinct from the world in my head—my feelings, imagination, thoughts, my dreams and fantasies. The two world were intimately related, and communicated constantly, but there was still an insuperable barrier cutting off one from the other.

The problem with this was that my internal world was often far more interesting and beautiful to me than the world outside. Everyone around me seemed totally absorbed in things that were, to me, boring and insipid; and I was expected to show interest in these things too, which was frustrating. If only I could express the world in my head, I thought, and bring my internal world into the external world, then people would realize that the things they busy themselves with are silly and would occupy their time with the same things that fascinated me.

But how to externalize my internal world? This is a constant problem. Some of my sweetest childhood memories are of playing all by myself, with sticks, rocks, or action figures, in my room or my backyard, in a landscape of my own imagination. While alone, I could endow my senses with the power of my inner thoughts, and externalize my inner world for myself.

Yet to communicate my inner world to others, I needed to express it somehow. This led to my first artistic habit: drawing. I used to draw with the same avidity as I write now, filling up pages and pages with my sketches. I advanced from drawings of whales and dinosaurs, to medieval arms and armor, to modern weaponry. Eventually this gave way to another passion: video games.

Now, obviously, video games are not a means of self-expression; but I found them addicting nonetheless, and played them with a seriousness and dedication that alarms me in retrospect—so many hours gone!—because they were an escape. When you play a video game you enter another world, in many ways a more exciting and interesting world, a world of someone’s imagination. And you are allowed to contribute to this dream world—in part, at least—and adopt a new identity, in a world that abides by different rules.

Clearly, escapism and self-expression, even if they spring from the same motive, are incompatible; in the first you abandon your identity, and in the second you share it. For this reason, I couldn’t be satisfied for long with gaming. In high school I began learn guitar, to sing, and eventually to write my own songs. This satisfied me for a while; and to a certain extent it still does.

But music, for me, is primarily a conduit of emotion; and as I am not a primarily emotional person, I’ve always felt, even after writing my own songs, that the part of myself I wanted to express, the internal world I still wanted to externalize, was still getting mostly left behind. It was this that led me to my present addiction: writing.

I should pause here and note that I’m aware how egotistical and cliché this narrative seems. My internal world is almost entirely a reflection of the world around me—far, far less interesting than the world itself—and my brain, I’m sorry to say, is mostly full of inanities. I am in every way a product—a specifically male, middle-class, suburban product—of my time and place; and even my narrative about trying to express myself is itself a product of my environment. My feeling of being original is unoriginal. My life story is a stereotype.

I know all of this very well, and yet I cannot shake this persistent feeling that I have something I need to share with the world. More than share, I want to shape the world, to mold it, to make it more in accordance with myself. And my writing is how I do that. This is egoism in its purist form: the desire to remake the world in my image.

A blank page is a parallel world, and I am its God. I control what happens and when, how it looks, what are its values, how it ends, and everything else. This feeling of absolute control and complete self-expression is what is so intoxicating about writing, at least for me. Once you get a taste of it, you can’t stop. Montaigne couldn’t, at least: he kept on editing, polishing, revising, and expanding his essays until his death. And I suspect I’ll do the same, in my pitiful way, pottering about with nouns and verbs, eventually running out of new things to write about and so endlessly rehashing old ones, until I finally succumb to the tooth of time.

After mentioning the egoism of writers, Orwell goes on to mention three other motivations: aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. But I think he leaves two things out: self-discovery and thinking.

Our thoughts are fugitive and vague, like shadows flickering on the wall, forever in motion, impossible to get hold of. And even when we do seem to come upon a complete, whole, well-formed thought, as often as not it pops like a soap bubble as soon as we stretch out our fingers to touch it. Whenever I try to think something over silently, without recording my thoughts, I almost inevitably find myself grasping at clouds. Instead of reaching a conclusion, I get swept off track, blown into strange waters, unable to remember even where I started.

Writing is how I take the fleeting vapors of my thoughts and solidify them into definite form. Unless I write down what I’m thinking, I can’t even be sure what I think. This is why I write these quotes and commentary; so far it has been a journey of self-investigation, probing myself to find out my opinions.

When I commit to write, it keeps me on a certain track. Unless you are like Montaigne and write wherever your thoughts take you, writing inevitably means sticking to a handful of subjects and proceeding in an orderly way from one to the other. Since I am recording my progress, and since I am committed to reaching the conclusion, this counteracts my tendency to get distracted or to go off topic, as I do when I think silently.

This essay is a case in point. Although these are things I have often talked and thought about, I had never fully articulated to myself the reasons why I write, or strung all my obsessions into a narrative with a unified motivation, as I did above, until I decided to write about them. No wonder I’m addicted.

Review: Homage to Catalonia

Review: <i>Homage to Catalonia</i>

Homage to CataloniaHomage to Catalonia by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself.

Autobiographies and memoirs are, I think, the best books to read on vacation. Not only are they light, easy, and entertaining, but they’re usually not hard to put down. This is important because, if you’re like me, you may end up spending your whole vacation with your head buried in a book. Most valuable, however, is simply seeing how an excellent writer transforms their experiences into stories. The vague emotions of daily life, the interesting characters we encounter, the sights and sounds and smells of new places—good autobiographies direct our attention to these little details.

In this spirit I picked up Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia to read during my trip to Seville. It was an excellent choice. It’s been a while since I’ve read Orwell, and I’d nearly forgotten what a fine writer he is. In fact, perhaps the most conspicuous quality of this book is the caliber of the prose. It is written with such grace, clarity, and ease, that I couldn’t help being constantly impressed and, I admit, extremely envious at times. The writing is direct but never blunt; the tone is personal and natural, but not chummy. The book may have been a bit too readable, actually, since I had a hard time prying myself away to go explore Seville (and a book has to be very good indeed to compete with Seville).

There seems to be a bit of confusion about this book. Specifically, some people seem to come to it expecting to learn about the Spanish Civil War. This is a mistake; Orwell only experienced a sliver of the war, and his understanding of the political situation was limited to the infighting between various leftist groups. The events and conflicts that led up to the war, and the progress of the war itself, are for the most part unexplained. This book is, rather, a deeply personal record of his time in the Spanish militia. We learn more about Orwell’s military routine than about any battles between fascist and government forces. More light is shed on Orwell’s own political opinions than the political situation in Spain.

If you come to the book with this in mind, it will not disappoint. His time in Spain made a deep impression on Orwell; he writes of it in a wistful and nostalgic tone, as if everything that happened occurred in a dreamy, timeless, mist-filled landscape, disconnected from the rest of his life. Characters come and go, soldiers are introduced, arrested, or killed in action; but we do not get acquainted with anyone save Orwell himself. The mood is introspective and pensive, as if it all took place in another life. Even when he is describing his friends’ imprisonment, or his experience getting shot in the neck and hospitalized, he manages to sound dispassionate and serene.

Two chapters, however, do not fit into this characterization. These are Orwell’s analyses of the political situation in Barcelona during this time. In some books, they are published as appendices—which I think is a good choice, actually, since they interrupt the flow of the book quite a bit. Despite the abrupt change in tone and subject-matter, however, they make for valuable reading. The machinations and petty political squabbles that went on during this time are astounding. One would think that having a common enemy in Franco would be enough to unite the various factions on the Left, at least for the duration of the war. Instead, the anti-revolutionary communist party ended up declaring the pro-revolutionary communist party (of which Orwell was a member, entirely by chance) to be a fascist conspiracy, resulting in hundreds of people—people who had spent months fighting at the front—being thrown in secret prisons. Orwell himself narrowly escaped.

Nevertheless, I think that Orwell’s analyses of the general situation in Spain should be taken with copious salt. He understands nearly everything through a quasi-Marxist lens of class-warfare, which I think fails to do justice to the complex political and cultural history of the conflict. Added to this, one gets the impression that Orwell’s command of Spanish was fairly rudimentary, which I think greatly limited his ability to understand the war. To his credit, though, Orwell does warn us about his limitations:

In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

But these are minor complaints of a book which I found to be supremely well-written and absolutely fascinating. His accounts of life at the front were possibly the best descriptions of war that I’ve ever read, with the exception of those in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is not because Orwell saw very much fighting; quite the opposite. Rather, he conveys a sense of the crushing boredom and the sense of futility that many soldiers must feel during a long, draw-out war. Also superb was his portrayal of political oppression, the climate of fear and backstabbing that arose during the party conflicts in Barcelona.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is that, despite all of the hardships Orwell endured, and despite the obvious injustices inflicted on both himself and his friends, he does not come across as bitter or resentful. I leave you with his words:

When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.

 

View all my reviews