Posts Tagged ‘the others’

The Others

May 12, 2021

It’s no accident that historical fiction in translation seems disproportionally set during the two world wars, momentous events in European history in which the UK can be unequivocally said to have played a part, with publishers therefore certain of an audience. Perhaps, however, this risk-averse approach is beginning to change: last year Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll, set during the Thirty Years War, was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, and this year we find Eric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor, most of which takes place in 16th century Germany, on the shortlist. Raul Garrigasait’s The Others (translated by Tiago Miller) is the latest novel to allow us a glimpse into an obscure (to an English-speaking audience) corner of European history. The year is 1837 and Spain is in the middle of the First Carlist War between supporters of competing claims to the Spanish throne, a civil war which also encompasses political differences as the Carlists see themselves standing for tradition and Catholicism against liberalism.

Into this Garrigasait places a young Prussian, Wielemann, via a story which sees a translator (also named Raul) discover Wielemann’s story in a library in Germany while researching a different book altogether:

“For the benefit of enthusiasts of historical novels, I will add that, indeed, the pages were yellowed and dusty, but I assure you there were no burnt edges and none was written in any exotic or secret language.”

Wielemann is in Spain to fight for ‘Order’ in an attempt to live up to the expectations of his father:

“Wielemann was expected to have done something significant in life and … this expedition of Spanish legitimists… was a golden opportunity to make a name for himself in Prussia.”

His romantic ideals soon evaporate on arrival in Solsona. Carlos finds him too tall for his liking, and the Spanish generally find him a figure of fun, “like a stuffed gorilla in a natural history museum,” frequently referring to him as Russian. When the army moves on from the city he is left behind with a ‘secret mission’ – so secret he does not know himself what it is:

“I wanted to restore order. I mean, alongside those who also want to restore it. But I can’t make sense of anything. They won’t give me any commands.”

He does, however, find one friend in the form of a doctor, Foraster, a friendship that begins with a love of music. Though Foraster has been tending to the wounded, he is not a Carlist, describing the movement as follows:

“The Carlists are part of the prehistory you all carry within you and you won’t escape it so easily.”

The Carlists, in their longing for a past that never existed, sound very like the populists of today, though Garrigasait has said that his main aim was to recreate the atmosphere of Catalonia in the lead up to the referendum in 2017 (when the novel was published). Foraster provides a more rational voice for Wielemann to measure his beliefs against:

“Where chaos reigns, I do my utmost to master nature, to harness its laws and curtail disaster.”

The Others is a novel of the chaos of war, but not the chaos of battle (though Wielemann does experience fighting before the end). Instead it’s a confusion of stasis as Wielemann struggles to understand what anyone is fighting for. His state of mind is perhaps best exemplified by a walk he and Foraster take on which he stumbles more than once. At one point they see a crowd of crows – a classic symbol of battle – but when the crows disappear there is nothing there – “as if the birds had been pursuing a ghost.” – much like Wielemann in his search for a cause. At one point, as he slides down a hill, he decides:

“…upon surrender as the best form of protest, he stopped struggling and was soon slumped at the bottom of the slope like a sack of potatoes.”

This seems to sum up Wielemann’s experience of the war – “an absurd joke next to his father’s impassioned rhetoric.” Garrigasait explores Wielemann’s confusion with a humour which never feels nasty – we may laugh at him at times, but we remain sympathetic. The interludes with the translator and his publisher felt more like interruptions than additions, but they add to the sense that this is not simply a picaresque adventure. Garrigasait is not afraid to have his characters debate and discuss as he examines what makes us fight, and, by the end, the reader may be surprised how much emotion they have invested in Wielemann’s tale.