Field of Honour

Perhaps we should get Max Aub’s astonishing biography out of the way first: born to a German father and a French Jewish mother who immigrated to Spain at the beginning of World War One, he took Spanish citizenship at the age of eighteen. As a socialist he supported the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War to the point he was regarded as an enemy of the state by Franco, who denounced him as a German Jew to the Vichy government in France in 1940. He was imprisoned in France and then Algeria, but managed to escape to Mexico where he remained for the rest of his life. He wrote prolifically – novels, plays, screenplays – but is largely untranslated into English. Field of Honour, translated by Gerald Martin, is only the second of his novels to appear – sixty-six years after its original publication.

Field of Honour is only the first part of a six volume series (The Magic Labyrinth) which tells the story of the Spanish Civil War – which means, of course, that the conflict is only just beginning by its end. It was published by Verso in 2009, and there’s no sign of the second volume being available any time soon. (This raises the question of whether it can be fairly judged as a stand-alone novel, though it seems that the main character, Rafael Serrador, is not followed throughout the sequence). Aub’s purpose in Field of Honour is to set the scene leading up to the outbreak of the civil war – a time of competing ideologies. However, he cleverly seeks to establish Serrador’s character before immersing him into the political maelstrom that is 1930s Barcelona.

In fact, the novel begins in picaresque fashion with a strong focus on sexual adventure. Apprenticed to a jeweller, “life is flat and Rafael is only troubled or surprised when, from time to time, his willy stands on end.” He loses his innocence at the hands (or rather the thighs) of the widow Marieta:

“’Haven’t you done it before?’
And as he just slightly shook his head, the brazen hussy started to twist and turn like some wild bobbin, to the great shock of the beginner who didn’t know which saint to commend himself to.”

Unfortunately he is beaten up by the widow’s jealous boyfriend, and then expelled by the jeweller as a trouble maker. At the age of sixteen he heads to Barcelona, finding work in a hardware store. Again he is the victim of circumstances as a newspaper he’s given ridiculing his boss is found in his pocket and he loses his job. It is this casual treatment of labour which feeds the anger which leads him into politics, though this means little more than being is a willing listener to the incessant debating between the various factions in the city.

These arguments take up much of Part Two, certainly a test for anyone not interested in the minutia of political debate at the time, though Aub livens it up with punchy dialogue and entertaining descriptions of those involved:

“Gonzalez Cantos was a dirty looking character who had spent a lot of time abroad, spoke good French and was very close to Durrutti… He always wore short-sleeved shirts and scruffy trousers that kept falling down, whereupon he’d hoist them up with a violent tug from left to right, then scratch himself around the crotch and sniff in noisily, wiping his hand across his prominent nostrils.”

This section probably explains why it has taken so long for Field of Honour to be translated, though Aub’s determination to paint a true picture of events impressed me. In particular, Serrador is far from a hero. Instead he is a confused young man – at one point making lists under the heading ‘What am I?’ – who joins the (right-wing) Falangists, and only ends up defending the Republic at the last moment. In one particularly dark scene, he kills a suspected informer entirely of his own volition.

The novel really comes to life in Part Three, when the military coup takes place. Aub dramatizes it through a series of short conversations (much like Shakespeare). It’s an extensive cast of characters (luckily the novel is equipped with a list at the end) but it gives a realistic impression of the constantly changing situation as we move from the view at the top to ground level and back again. The final conflict, securing Barcelona, takes place at the docks, where bales of paper are used to defend the Republican fighters from the machine guns of the remaining Falangist forces.

The novel ends with Barcelona in the hands of the Republic but the fate of the rest of Spain largely unknown. Aub began the novel in Serrador’s childhood, describing the tradition of the fire bull in which a bull with burning horns (they are coated in tar and set alight) is released into the streets. Serrador remembers this as the novel ends:

“A world over-flowing, beside itself, without direction. Leaning against a drainpipe, Rafael Serrador thinks about water, wild water, savagely charging, swift, insistent, irresistible: like a fire bull, a rainbow of fire, above the triumphant city.”

The novel has ended but the war has only begun. How wonderful it would be the see the rest of Aub’s The Magic Labyrinth translated.

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4 Responses to “Field of Honour”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    That certainly is some biography, and it sounds like the author was well placed to write the novel. I wonder if the rest will follow – maybe sales of the first volume weren’t high enough, which would be a great shame.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s probably because of how detailed it is that it hasn’t been translated. Publishers will go for WWI or WWII, and possibly Russian Revolution, but very little else when it comes to 20th century history I suspect.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    What an interesting find. How did you come across it, Grant? The picaresque style of the opening reminds me a little of Hans Herbert Grimm’s WW1 novel, Schlump, which I discovered through your review a couple of years ago. There’s something very engaging about this approach, especially when it’s used to explore a dark subject such as the prelude to war.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it certainly shares some of that tone with Schlump. I’m not sure where I heard of it. Verso mainly publish non-fiction but they do have some good fiction on their list so it’s worth keeping an eye out.

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