The following is from Joan Sales’s novel, Uncertain Glory. Spain, 1937. Posted to the Aragonese front, Lieutenant Lluís Ruscalleda eschews the drunken antics of his comrades and goes in search of intrigue. Joan Sales, a combatant in the Spanish Civil War, distilled his experiences into a timeless story of thwarted love, lost youth, and crushed illusions. A thrilling epic that has drawn comparison with the work of Dostoyevsky and Stendhal.
When I got up, life seemed worth living again. Only because I have a little corner of this earth all to myself…They’ve billeted me in a farmhouse attic with a suntrap that looks out on land the glittering River Parral divides down the middle. The attic’s under a tiled roof, and when I’m lying in bed I can see twisted reddish beams – of pine or juniper – and the reed rooﬁng; you can see the tiles through the reed rooﬁng. The ﬂoor isn’t tiled, its timber gives when you walk over it. The walls bear traces of the many oﬃcers who’ve lodged here before me in the course of this year of war. I read “The village lasses are very pretty” written in pencil on the bedhead. A profound thought; I still haven’t had time to check if it is as true as it is profound. All of the other scrawls dwell on the female element in the village, but few possess that lapidary quality. Some are illustrated by drawings so schematic that they look like maps of army manoeuvres.
In the end, it hardly matters. Every morning the June sun shines through the suntrap at the back of my bedroom and transﬁgures everything, bringing with it smells from the garden, of mown hay, fresh dung, and others I can’t pin down. My attic space has a smell of its own; in better times it was a home to rabbits. Their stench lingers, but I don’t dislike it; on the contrary, it keeps me company.
I went to Parral del Río. They said I’d ﬁnd Juli Soleràs there.
It’s a small village devastated by the war where nobody lives anymore. The trenches and concrete machine-gun nests his company is manning are just outside. But he wasn’t there and a lieutenant received me – the acting company captain. He’s well into his forties, walks in ungainly hunting boots worthy of Tartarin de Tarascon, and never puts his S-shaped pipe down. His beady black eyes scrutinise you shiftily from beneath what you might call Mongolian lids, boring through to the marrow of your bones, while their owner, the “hail fellow well met” kind, puffs away without a care in the world.
“Are you a friend of his?”
“We’ve known each other for years. We went to secondary school together and then to university.”
“I’m all for culture, that’s for sure.” He pronounces his S’s with a strange lisp. He must have false teeth. “I like men with a profession. That’s why I was happy to be appointed porter in the Science Faculty. I’d always been attracted to the sciences. You know, I’d just hit thirty-ﬁve, and that’s no age to be staying on in the Foreign Legion. It’s all very well for youngsters who want to get away from their mother’s tit. As for me, I still bear the marks – those African lasses always leave you a little present to remember them by…but I shouldn’t go on about myself, one should be more modest. Let’s just agree that Africa is a ﬁlthy hole: no hygiene and no culture! Believe me, much better to get that porter’s chair.”
I’m inventing none of this: he spoke of his “professorship” with great aplomb and didn’t bat an eyelid. The word sounded wonderfully soft through his false teeth, as if uttered through the beak of some waterfowl – if one such were able to articulate the word. Apparently, once he’d taken up his porter’s chair he thought it would be opportune to “pay a pastoral visit” – his words – to all the villages and hamlets in the Vall d’Aran and seek out his ﬁrst love – the reason why he hung up his habit, because, naturally, this exemplary life had begun in a seminary. Some seven years back, he’d taken his ﬁrst strides thus along the road to culture and holy matrimony.
But I’d come to Parral del Río to ﬁnd out about Soleràs, not to hear about the life and feats of Lieutenant Captain Picó.
“Soleràs? That’s a long story. I wouldn’t say he’s been demoted, but he’s such a strange character I can’t trust him with any oﬃcer duties. I put him in charge of the company’s accounts.”
“Come with me to our pool and I’ll tell you all about this mysterious business. The others will tell you eventually anyway. Everyone in the brigade is familiar with the story of The Horns of Roland.”
As we chatted, we walked down to the River Parral which ﬂows between three or four rows of ancient poplars. Lieutenant Captain Picó, being a stickler for hygiene and culture, has had a small reservoir built using sacks of clay. The water’s dammed up and makes for quite a big swimming pool, at least two metres deep. “It is a hygiene installation,” he explained. Twenty or so soldiers were sunbathing nearby, stark naked. When we showed up they stood to attention four rows deep – an astonishing, not to say grotesque, scene. Picó solemnly called the roll; one soldier was missing and he wanted to know why: “Gone to the brigade health unit, to get a wash down” – this machine-gun company wasn’t assigned to a battalion and had to use the brigade’s doctor. “At ease!” This order from their leader caused a couple of dozen Adams without a ﬁg leaf between them to dive into the pool.
“If one didn’t scare the living daylights out of them, most wouldn’t wash in their whole ﬁlthy lives. I can read them like a book. And you can take your clothes off, no need to be coy.” He was doing just that. “We don’t worry about loincloths here. On the contrary, forget your shameful parts, we’d be shamefaced if we had none. I want to put an end to lice and pornographic novels – ‘the two plagues of war’, as Napoleon once put it.”
We stretched out on the grass and sunbathed. He recounted what had transpired with Soleràs: “He was a highly cultured young man and that’s why I was so keen for him to be in my company, but he was a dirty little sod. I don’t remember him washing once in all the time he was here and there’s no point issuing threats because you never know how people will react. He was in charge of a nest a long way from the others, but he’s disorganized, he didn’t attach the small warning bells to the wire. One misty night the enemy cut it through with pruning shears and launched a surprise attack in the early hours. Soleràs’ soldiers panicked and ﬂed, leaving him deserted. He may be short-sighted, but he shoots like an ace. He sat behind one of the machine guns and simply mowed down fascists. It was wonderful.”
“He had an aide, and two men servicing the gun. The ones who’d scattered ﬁltered back, everything returned to normal, and I started my dispatch by recommending his promotion to lieutenant. Now listen to this: there was a second attack, his soldiers defended well, and this time it was Soleràs who left them high and dry!”
“What do you mean?”
“They searched high and low and ﬁnally tracked him down hours later to a hideout in a cave where he was reading a pornographic book that he quickly stuffed in his pocket.”
“So how do you know it was pornographic?”
“By the saucy cover…the book is packed with dirty drawings. Besides there’s not a soldier in this brigade who isn’t familiar with The Horns of Roland. Some of them know it by heart! You get the idea…We should have executed him, but who’d have had the heart? First promote him, then execute him! I ask you! He’s such a cultured young fellow…” It’s an eight-kilometre walk downhill from Parral del Río to Castel de Olivo, a beautiful riverside stroll. I was ecstatic in that silence and solitude. A quarter of an hour from the threshing ﬂoors on the outskirts of the village I sat under a huge walnut tree, perhaps the biggest I’d ever seen, and began eating its tasty walnuts. They were so fresh they stained my ﬁngers yellow and suffused them with a bitter tang which reminded me of a medicinal substance – but what pleasure to feel nature’s bitter medicine on one’s ﬁngers and in one’s mouth.
Darkness was falling. An oriole sang, hidden in the walnut tree’s thick foliage. I caught glimpses of the bird, a lightning ﬂash of yellow. A toad poked its head out of the water and warily rehearsed the single note in its ﬂute; a feathery canopy of reeds swayed in the sea breeze and Venus on the horizon was like the glass tear that baroque Sorrowing Virgins wear studded in their cheeks. But if you were hoping to ﬁnd a baroque Paradise Lost in Castel de Olivo, you’d be disappointed. The landscapes of Lower Arag0n look sentimental enough, but they aren’t at all baroque; it’s my ﬁrst visit here and they strike me as very original. Against received opinion, I say they are completely different to those in Castile, where I’ve spent the best part of the last eleven months! At ﬁrst I felt bewildered here, until I realized these landscapes belong not to space but to time; they aren’t landscapes, they’re simply moments in time. You must look at them as if you were looking at a moment – like staring a ﬂeeting moment in the face.
When you’ve discovered their secrets, you wouldn’t change them for any other in this world.
Soleràs is a very eccentric fellow. The story of the cave and The Horns of Roland didn’t surprise me at all. It was even a disappointment. I was expecting a much bigger shock.
When we were in our last year at secondary school, he already seemed quite adult. I suspect he also didn’t get on with his family; his lack of connection with them was one of the reasons why we fast became friends. What was his family, in the ﬁrst place? A mystery! It amounted, possibly, to an old aunt; he always avoided the subject. As far as I remember, he never mentioned any other relative, man or woman. The old aunt was a spinster and saw visions: Saint Philomena appeared and spoke to her – in Spanish, naturally. I don’t know exactly where he lived, I reckon he was ashamed to say. Why? His aunt must have been rich, because she paid for him to go on a luxury holiday to celebrate the end of his secondary schooling: Germany, Russia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. He chose those countries – not England, France, and Italy! He wanted countries where nobody ever went: he was the same with books – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kirkegart – I don’t know if he’s spelt that way – authors I doubt anyone apart from him has ever had the patience to digest.
Anyway, why was he embarrassed about his aunt if he had a soft spot for way-out characters? He was the one who initiated me into the mysteries of spiritualism, theosophy, Freud, existentialism, surrealism, and anarchism; some of these things seemed new at the time. When we ﬁnished at secondary school, in 1928, Julio Soleràs was our fount of knowledge. He always told me that Marxism wasn’t worth the candle, that it was simply commonplace: “Scant imagination,” he would add, “never trust anyone who has no imagination: he will always bore you to tears.” On the other hand, he was fascinated by sexual perversion. He knew individuals who were prey to various manias, and each time he discovered a new mania he experienced the euphoria of a collector who’d come across an unknown species.
Besides, as his visionary aunt never refused him money, he could smoke and drink hard, which crowned him with glory in our eyes when we were sixteen. To give himself airs he even wanted to have us believe he went to houses of ill repute and injected shots of morphine, but that was obviously ridiculous.
He introduced me to Trini’s family: her school-teaching parents, a brother studying chemistry, all anarchists. They lived in a dark and dismal ﬂat on carrer de l’Hospital. The small reception room was papered a very depressing shade of ox blood. It had four Viennese rocking chairs and a small black table with a white marble top, and when more than four people came you had to sit on a sofa that doubled as Trini’s bed because the ﬂat was so tiny. The framed prints on the wall were really striking, particularly an allegory of the Federal Republic, with a photo of Pi i Margall in a Phrygian cap between two busty matrons, “Helvetia” and “America” respectively. They came from the heyday of Trini’s grandfather, a lifelong federalist. I’d never been inside such a place before and I found these objects very novel and amusing. I think they amused Juli for the same reason.
TUESDAY, 22 JUNE
Talking about prints, I’m obsessed by one my landlady has on her dining-room wall. It’s an etching and I think it must be from the beginning of the last century, and represents a Sorrowing Virgin – in fact a baroque Sorrowing Virgin with a large tear on each cheek and seven daggers stuck into her heart.
“People like looking at that print,” my landlady remarked when serving me lunch. Although well into her forties, she is fair, plump and pink and was in service in Barcelona for many years; she speaks Catalan better than most of us. “’ave you never seen a Virgin Mary with these seven daggers? She’s the Virgin of Olivel and ’ighly venerated in the district. People put their faith in ’er to ’elp solve their marriage problems and family squabbles…”
She sighed as she looked at her askance.
“All us women around ’ere ’ave daggers stuck in our ’earts. This is no life. Poor Virgin of Olivel! They didn’t let ’er be. ’oo knows where she is now! I’d like to be out of ’ere too.”
“Don’t you like it here?”
“What can I say? There’s no place like Barcelona. I really miss the time when I was a maid, us youngsters getting together on a Sunday afternoon, the lively sing-songs we ’ad…don’t you remember the ones about Cat Fountain and Marieta Bright-eyes?”
She started off, I joined in the chorus and we both launched excitedly into
Walking about Cat Fountain and a girl, a girl…
By the time we ﬁnished this silly song her eyes were all misty. “But you’re a landowner here,” I interjected.
“Yes, of four little mudﬂats. Give me Barcelona any day. It’s ﬁlthy and miserable ’ereabouts. You’ll soon see. And I’m not the only one; all of us women who’ve been in service in Barcelona feel the same. The four of us. We even speak Catalan to each other. Would you believe that? Makes us feel we are reliving our youth.”
“I reckon you must be exaggerating.”
“You just wait until you’ve seen women ’aving to stand up to eat in these villages because only men are allowed to sit at the table, and a woman can’t drink wine in the presence of a man, not even ’er ’usband…”
“Is that really true?”
“You bet it is. Ask your colleagues ’oo’ve been ’ere for months. When they ﬁrst came they made themselves look ridiculous waiting for the women to sit before they started their lunch! If you invite a woman to sit it implies she’s a…”
“Thanks for the tip-off. Every place has its can of worms.”
“That’s right, but the worst thing is the dirt. A woman who takes a bath gets a black mark, because in areas like this only whores wash. There was one, years ago, my age or perhaps a bit older, and she’d also been in service in Barcelona. She’d come up for the local ﬁestas to spend a few days with ’er parents. It was August, very ’ot, and she was covered in soot from the train when she arrived. She thought the clothes tub in the kitchen would be just the ticket. Didn’t know what she’d done! ’er mother walks in, catches ’er curled up in the tub, grabs a stick and bang-bang smashes the tub to smithereens. ’er father was ’aving an afternoon nap – ’e goes by the nickname Turdy – so you can imagine what ’e’s famed for. ’e ’ears the racket and leaves ’is bed. Know what ’e does? ’e curses ’is daughter and chucks ’er out of ’is ’ouse.”
“Crikey! The villagers must have thought he’d gone crazy.”
“The villagers? Guess ’ow they reacted: ‘Hey, that Turdy’s a real man, ’e don’t truck no nonsense…”
“And what became of this exemplary father?” “’e volunteered…for the other side.”
“What about the girl?”
“’er story would take too long, and what would be the point? She went back to Barcelona straight off, to the ’ouse where she was in service; later
…people spread lots of gossip, but she’s never been seen back in Castel de Olivo. She lives in another village: in Olivel de la Virgen, in fact,” and she pointed to the print of the Virgin. I felt she was keeping quiet about important facts relating to Turdy’s daughter, but at the end of the day was I really so interested in this tale of primitive custom?
The woman is probably partly right in what she says. I’ve witnessed a shocking spectacle: local girls sweating bare-breasted while reaping a ﬁeld of barley under a blistering sun. I thought it must be down to the war, the lack of men, but far from it: there’s been no levy yet, and very few youngsters are at the front, only men like Turdy who volunteered for the enemy side. It’s worth noting that they don’t call us republicans here but Catalans
– “los catalanes”; so their feelings aren’t shaped either way by what they think of Barcelona – if they have any coherent thoughts about Barcelona at all – but by whatever feelings Catalonia inspires. All this shocks the men who’ve just arrived, but it’s true enough. As I was saying, the women reap because they always have; my landlady also told me that they thresh, harvest and collect manure. And these young lasses would be good-looking if toiling for hours under a boiling sun didn’t shrivel them before time, let alone the ﬁlth…They are old by the time they reach twenty. Lots are fair and blue-eyed; around here there’s an abundance of what they call the Nordic race.
Soleràs has also vanished from sight, like Turdy’s daughter. And to think that I got myself assigned to this brigade to see him and be near a friend! I suspect he’s avoiding me; if not, how come I can never ﬁnd him?
From Uncertain Glory. Used with permission of New York Review of Books. Copyright © 1971 by Joan Sales. Translation copyright © 2014 by Peter Bush. The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Institut Ramon Llull.