Joan Sales – The Aragonese Front, 1937

Translated by Peter Bush

Castel de Olivo, 19 June

Iam in excellent health, but as full of grumbles as a sickly child.

I can’t tell you how much I have suffered serving in a division I loathed. I negotiate a different posting, arrive with high hopes… and everything collapses on me again.

I thought I would find Juli Soleràs. They’d told me he was in the field hospital, I don’t know whether wounded or ill; but it turns out he’s been discharged. And I’ve not seen a single familiar face among the thousands in the incoherent phantasmagoria the war has paraded before my eyes from the moment it broke out.

[private]The lieutenant colonel commanding the First Brigade interrogated me fiercely about why I’d been delayed so. Not surprising really, given the time that lapsed between the issue of my new posting to the day I joined them; he seemed satisfied by my straightforward explanation: a very sore throat. However, his touchy welcome needled me. Had I been anticipating a welcome with open arms? We know nothing about other people, and indeed couldn’t care less; on the other hand, we want them to know all there is to know about us. Our longing to be understood can only be compared to our reluctance to understand anyone else.

Because – and I don’t want to hide this from you – the people I now see around me leave me completely cold. If only I found them unpleasant!

Frankly, to be honest the lieutenant colonel had reason enough to be suspicious. A lieutenant who seeks a transfer from his unit that’s on active service to another that’s being reorganised and will remain weeks, if not months, far from the front line, could provoke malicious comments. People serving in these regular units cannot imagine how hellish are brigades that are simply collections of escapees from prisons or lunatic asylums led by raving visionaries. You need to live it for eleven months, as I have.

I think of the mules covered in festering sores, telltale marks left by the rubbing against their harnesses; of the gypsy mules, whose huge resignation emulates that of the sky when it confronts twilight. Day after day they drag their wandering tribe along endless trails, without any hope of justice. Who will do justice by a gypsy mule? Posterity?

Life wears us down, as the harness wears down the hide of a mule. To my horror I sometimes feel that these sores life inflicts on us will endure as long as life itself. Or longer. These eleven months in hell…

It looks as if I shall be posted to the Fourth Battalion they’ve yet to start organising. In the meantime I shall continue to be bored out of my mind in this backwater. I have so much to tell you! I find writing these letters soothing, even though my letters will never reach you. Don’t deny it, our family disgusts you as much as it does me, and that you entered the Order of Sant Joan de Déu for the very same reason I joined the ranks of the anarchists. Our uncle wasn’t wrong about that.

20 June

When I got up, life seemed worth living again. And only because I have a little spot all to myself. They’ve billeted me in the attic in a farmhouse that has a suntrap looking out on land the glittering Río 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’s not tiled and gives when you walk along it. The walls bear the traces of the many other officers who’ve lodged here before me in the course of this year of war. I can read The village lasses are very pretty written in pencil on the bed-head. A profound thought; I still haven’t had time to check if it is as true as it is profound. A lot of the other graffiti dwells on the female element in the village; but few possess such a lapidary quality. Some are accompanied by drawings that are so schematic they look like maps of army manoeuvres.

In the end, it hardly matters. Every morning the June sun shines through the suntrap in the back of my bedroom and transfigures everything; it brings with it smells from the garden, of mown hay, fresh dung and others that are more difficult to pin down. My attic space has a smell of its own; in better times it was a home to rabbits. I don’t dislike their smell that lingers on. On the contrary, it keeps me company.

21 June

I went to Parral del Río; they said I would find Juli Soleràs there.

It’s a small village devastated by the war; nobody lives there. Just outside are trenches and concrete machine-gun nests his company is manning. But he wasn’t there and I was received by a lieutenant who is the acting company captain. Well into his forties, ungainly in hunting boots worthy of Tartarin de Tarascon, he never puts his S-shaped pipe down and scrutinises you shiftily with black beady eyes, from what you might call Mongolian lids, penetrating to the marrow of your bones, while their owner, the hale-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 of learning. 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. That’s all very well for youngsters who want to get away from their mother’s apron strings. As far as I’m concerned, I can tell you I still miss it, there are young ladies in Africa who are unforgettable… but I shouldn’t keep talking 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 have the porter’s chair.”

I’m inventing none of this: he spoke about his “professorship” with great aplomb, not batting an eyelid. Through those false teeth, the word sounded wonderfully soft as if uttered by the beak of some water fowl, supposing it were able to articulate the word. Apparently once he had 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 habits, because, naturally, this exemplary life had started out a seminary. Our man took his first strides along the road of culture and holy matrimony; that was some seven years ago. But I’d come to Parral del Río to find out about Soleràs, not to hear all 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 has such a strange character he can’t be entrusted with any officer duties. I put him in charge of the company’s accounts.”

“The accounts?”

“Come with me to our bathing spot and I’ll tell you all about this mysterious business. The others will tell you eventually anyway; everyone in the brigade knows the story of The Horns of Roland.”

As we chatted, we walked down to the Río Parral that flows between three or four rows of ancient poplars. Lieutenant Captain Picó, as we have seen, is all for hygiene and culture and has had a small reservoir built using sacks of clay. The water’s dammed up and it makes for quite a big swimming pool, at least two arms’ length deep. As he put it, it is “a hygienic installation”. A couple of dozen soldiers were sunbathing there, stark naked; when we showed up they stood to attention four rows deep. It was 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” (the machine-gun company wasn’t assigned to a battalion and had to use the brigade doctor). “At ease!” At this shout from the lieutenant captain the couple of dozen Adams without a fig leaf between them plunged into the pool.

“If you 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 about the shameful parts, we’d been more shamed-faced if we didn’t have them. I’m trying to put an end to lice and pornographic novels; ‘the two plagues of war’, as Napoleon called them.”

We stretched out on the grass and sunbathed. He then recounted what had happened to 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 fox. I don’t remember him bathing once in all the time he was here. There’s no point making threats; you never know how people are going to react. He was in command of a nest that was a long way from the others; he’s a disorganised fellow and never attached the small bells to the wire. One misty night the enemy cut through them with pruning shears and launched a surprise attack in the early morning. Soleràs’s soldiers panicked and fled, leaving him all alone. He may be shortsighted, but he shoots like a tiger. He sat behind one of the machineguns and began to mow down fascists. It was wonderful.”

“By himself?”

“He had one aide and two men servicing the gun. Those who’d scattered filtered back, everything returned to normal and I’d started writing my report recommending he be promoted to lieutenant. Now listen to this: a second attack started, his soldiers defended well, and this time it was Soleràs who left them high and dry!”

“What do you mean?”

“After searching everywhere, they tracked him down hours later to a hideout in a cave where he was reading a pornographic book that he quickly stuck in his pocket.”

“So how do you know it was pornographic?”

“By the saint. The saint on the cover. It’s a book that’s full of saints. Besides there’s not a soldier in this brigade who isn’t familiar with this book. The Horns of Roland. Some of them know it by heart! You get the idea… We ought to have executed him, but who’d have the guts to? First promote him, then execute him! Such a cultured young man…”

It’s an eight kilometre walk downhill from Parral del Río to Castel de Olivo; a beautiful stroll by the riverside. I felt so happy in that silence, in that solitude. I was 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’ve ever seen and started eating the tasty nuts. They were so fresh they stained my fingers yellow and impregnated them with that bitter smell, that brought to mind a medicinal substance, and that’s what prompted the pleasure, feeling nature’s medicinal bitterness on your fingers and in your mouth.

Darkness was falling. An oriole sang, hidden in the walnut- tree’s thick foliage; I sometimes caught a glimpse of the bird, a lightning flash of yellow. A toad poked its head out of the water and warily rehearsed the single note on its flute; the feathery canopy of reeds swayed in the sea breeze and Venus, on the horizon, was like the glass tears Sorrowing Virgins from the baroque period wear embedded in their cheeks. But anyone hoping to find the Paradise Lost of the baroque in Castel de Olivo would be disappointed. The landscapes of Lower Aragón are sorrowful enough, but they aren’t at all baroque; as I’ve never been here before, they strike me as very original. Against received opinion, 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 realised these landscapes belong not to space, but to time; they aren’t landscapes, but moments in time. You must look at them as if you were looking at a moment, like someone staring a fleeting moment in the face.

Once you’ve discovered their secret, you wouldn’t change them for any in the world.[/private]


Joan Sales

From Incerta Glòria (1956) by Joan Sales, to be published by The MacLehose Press as Uncertain Glory in 2012.

Joan Sales fought in the Spanish Civil War first as a member of the Anarchist militia led by Durruti and later in the militarised division formed by the Catalan state known as the 30th Division. He started writing the novel in 1948. A less censored version came out with Gallimard in 1962. Sales was an important publisher and translator of French and Russian classics into Catalan.



Leave a Comment