Peter Bush, translator
JOAN SALES (1912-83) is not a household name in Britain, given
our minimal exposure to Catalan literature. The subject of this
novel, on which he spent decades, is the Spanish Civil War. The
action is set on the Aragonese front and in Barcelona, two places
that we may think we know well, owing to George Orwell. Sales gives
us a different point of view.
Trini, of anarchist stock, takes up with Lluis, by whom she has
a child. Soleràs, Lluis's best friend, wants to marry her, but
slips away into the unknown. Later, Cruells, a seminarian in the
Republican army, falls hopelessly in love with her, while Lluis
abandons her for an older woman.
These love complications are mirrored in the tension between
anarchism and Roman Catholicism. Trini is baptised and attends
secret masses in Barcelona. Cruells prays in desecrated churches.
All of them are connected with a Jesuit, Dr Gallifa, who may or may
not have been murdered by the anarchists.
The plot, however, comes alive only sporadically. The sections
set in Barcelona, which are narrated by Trini, are the most
interesting, and reveal the black comedy of anarchism. Episodes at
the front (where there is very little fighting) sometimes catch
fire; but the novel suffers from slack plotting, and over-long
monologues from Soleràs. There are some wonderfully heart-wrenching
episodes - the flight of the Republican army in 1938; the desperate
search for a serum to save a child's life - but many characters
remain obscure, especially Soleràs.
One thing is certain: anarchism was brutal and stupid, and
deserved to be defeated. Orwell, notoriously, ignored Catalonian
Catholicism; here it is given full expression, but it is of the
Graham Greene type, somewhat playful, a little heretical - which
explains why the book never won the approval of Franco's
Fr Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral
Theology (Ashgate, 2007).