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Conflict, love, and anarchy

by
20 February 2015

Alexander Lucie-Smith on a novel about the Spanish Civil War

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Uncertain Glory
Joan Sales
Peter Bush, translator
MacLehose £20
(978-0-85705-150-9)
Church Times Bookshop £18

 

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 censors.


Fr Lucie-Smith is the author of
Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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