Life and works of a Spanish rebel

Issue: 123

Luke Stobart

Michael Eaude, Triumph at Midnight of the Century: A Critical Biography of Arturo Barea (Sussex Academic Press, 2009), £45

“A lump of grey mass, the size of a child’s fist, was flattened out against the glass pane and kept on twitching… A scrap of human brain… I wanted to cry out… If I was to stay on fighting against my nerves and my mind…I had to do something more… So I continued to write, and I began to speak on the radio.”

The trilogy The Forging of a Rebel is one of the most powerful and shocking works on the background to the Spanish Civil War, yet as historian Paul Preston writes,1 its author, Arturo Barea (1897-1957), has remained a little known figure. Barcelona-based writer and socialist Michael Eaude redresses this anomaly, producing an essential guide to Barea’s literary work and life.

Eaude’s book follows the self-taught novelist from his childhood in Madrid’s slums to his dreadful experiences as conscript in Spain’s colonial war in Morocco in the 1920s and then participation in the struggle to defend the Spanish capital against General Franco. During the latter Barea worked as head press censor and started broadcasting—an activity he would continue later in exile in Britain. However, events would take their toll and he suffered a breakdown. According to Barea he then started writing “to discover how and why I became what I am” and why he was “like so many millions” (a reference to the wider breakdown of Spanish society).

Although Barea’s autobiographical novels themselves provide much information about their author, Eaude’s book fills in the gaps. Furthermore, Eaude’s acute literary eye, Marxist politics and careful study of the links between Barea’s works and life, cast useful light on the dialectical relationship between art and society.

Reproduced in the biography is the process Barea went through to write his trilogy: “I wanted to wipe the slate of my mind clean of all reasoning” and “go back to my beginnings, to things which I had smelled, seen, touched and felt”. Thus, in The Forge he described his childhood using a child’s voice and filtered political and other events through a child’s perspective.

Barea spent his early childhood living with both his poor single mother and his middle class aunt. The latter was a pious “bigot” who sent him to study at a rigid and hierarchical Catholic school. At the age of 13 he left home and by 18 had worked in a shop, an office and even as an international salesman. He also joined the UGT, the Socialist Party union, and started identifying himself as a “proletarian.” An early attempt to become a writer was abandoned after he attended literary functions and witnessed the class elitism of the literary establishment.

Barea’s transformation into a “rebel” would properly take place after being conscripted at the age of 20 into the Spanish army and its colonial war. In The Track, the second part of his trilogy, Barea explains how he was politicised by this experience—which echoed the wider polarisation caused by the war that would eventually lead to the fall of the monarchy. As Eaude explains, The Track describes in shocking Scorsese_like detail how war corrupted, maddened and brutalised officers and common soldiers alike, who performed indiscriminate killings against locals (including women and children) as “vengeance”. In addition, Barea’s writing often contrasted this reality with the humanity and culture of its Moroccan victims.

Barea was given the job of supervising the building of a long “track” (or ruta in Spanish, which also means “route”) across the desert. A blind local strayed alongside the road searching for the previous path. When Barea suggested he used the straight new track, he laughed, “I’ll always walk on the path… This road is full of blood, all of it… And it will fill with blood again and yet again.” The route, which headed nowhere and which Barea said originated from profiteering capitalist enterprises in Spain, thus becomes a symbol for the occupation. The road would also lead backwards, as Spain’s colonial adventure created the monstrous military generals Barea served under (Franco and Millán Astray) who would eventually cross the straits of Gibraltar (accompanied by conscripted Moroccan soldiers) to fight the Republic.

While disposing of bodies after a major defeat for the Spanish army in Annual in 1921 Barea contracted typhus, was hospitalised and discharged (returning to the army only temporarily). Before the Spanish war began, Barea bought a house for himself and his wife and four children in a small rural village, Novés. There he organised a Popular Front meeting with left wing and Republican speakers, which ruling class forces attempted to shut down. Through his portrait of this one small village, Eaude argues, Barea neatly and graphically illustrated the dynamics of the advancing class war.

When Franco and his supporters attempted to take Madrid, Barea was at the centre of the working class’s dramatic response: inspired by the “force of spontaneous mass solidarity”, he participated in the successful armed assault of the Montaña barracks (where he had previously been stationed as a soldier). He also helped train a new workers’ militia.

By dissecting Barea’s The Clash, which covers the civil war period, Eaude demonstrates how the writer conjures up the dizzying violent and revolutionary upheaval taking place, offering a rapidly changing narrative of events in which its working class subjects were constantly “buffeted” by unexpected events. Eaude maintains that Barea’s politics shifted left in this period but remained left reformist (he briefly joined the Socialist PSOE) and were increasingly influenced by the (Stalinist) Communist Party of Spain (PCE).

Barea was made foreign press censor and in this job met Ilsa Kulcsar, an Austrian socialist, who would become his lifelong partner. Partly due to her influence, he attempted to limit censorship of foreign reports to those that distorted the events of the war to the detriment of the Republic (a common occurrence). This approach eventually led to tensions with a superior who was a (secret) PCE member and wished to prohibit any news that contradicted “the party line”. These difficulties would see Barea sacked, and the situation added to the stress caused by his continual witnessing of violence to spark his breakdown. He then wrote his first book—a Soviet-influenced propaganda piece called Valor y Miedo—and, his nerves in tatters, escaped for exile in south east England.

Based in the relative peace of his new places of residence—the villages of Puckeridge, Fladbury and Faringdon (!)—he worked as a broadcaster for the BBC Latin American Service, producing a total of 800 broadcasts. He also wrote his trilogy, many short stories, political analyses, a novel and some impressive literary criticisms (such as Lorca, the Poet and his People.) In all of these he tried to be a voice for the Spanish working masses and continue the fight against fascism. He aimed to be an unflinching eye (or “camera eye”) recording the dramatic events he had experienced. Eaude skilfully analyses all of the works of this period and concludes that Barea largely succeeded in his objectives.2

Eaude emphasises that Barea’s autobiographical works partly gain strength from his role as an insider to events, in contrast to other celebrated books on the civil war by outside observers such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway. Barea, in his own critical writings, described the latter as “always a spectator.” Nevertheless Triumph at Midnight of the Century offers a compelling case that Barea’s skill as a chronicler derives from also being an “outsider”—either as a working class kid in a middle class school, or an elite employee in a workers’ union, and in Barea’s many intermediate roles in society (army sergeant, co-operative manager, writer), the Madrid writer was able to see society with “double vision”.

This allowed him to penetrate the essence of both Spain’s institutions and the ordinary people who would revolt against them. Except in his very last book, his portrayals of his adversaries avoided crude caricature and he refused to prettify the working class. His accounts are partisan yet (possibly because of this) objective, and even critics in Franco’s Spain praised his sincerity and truthfulness.

Barea did not prettify his sentimental relationships either, which for much of his life were empty and exploitative. This situation changed, however, when he fell in love with the broadly cultured Ilsa in the midst of revolutionary upheaval, beginning a long “relationship of equals”. Eaude concludes that this represented a “revolution in his private life” that was inseparable from the events surrounding him. Eaude also compares Barea’s literary examination of this side to his life with the work of gay poet and playwright Lorca. The latter, Barea wrote, clarified the “sediments” of sexual tradition as “perhaps a step towards clearing them away”.

Triumph is a readable yet thought_provoking book, full of impressive literary and historical understanding, and its arguments are almost always commanding. In true Barean style it celebrates the Spanish author’s achievements but does not flinch from highlighting the negative sides to his life and work. These include Barea’s refusal, while working as censor, to block the publication of smear stories about the revolutionary POUM, which he probably knew to be false (like the POUM, Ilsa herself was also accused of counter-revolutionary “Trotskyism” by the Stalinists), and the crude nationalist stereotypes in some of his writings.

However, in my opinion there are some minor weaknesses in Eaude’s biography. First, there needs to be more clarification as to which aspects of Barea’s “autobiographical novels” were fictional (apart from the names used, which is acknowledged). It is stated that Barea made no “substantial” invention but the vast majority of the account of Barea’s early life is gleaned from these books, and the reader is left with nagging doubts as to the novelist’s exact history.

Second, while the book gives lots of information about Barea’s political ideas, these are not fully clarified, and it is even suggested, somewhat confusingly, that these varied from “revolutionary” to “-counter_revolutionary PCE” positions. It seems probable from the account offered by Eaude that Barea had a fluid and contradictory stance (as did a great many other Socialist supporters and UGT members) and one that cannot be reduced to the influence of the Stalinists. I would venture that greater examination of the evolution of the PSOE and its union federation would help illuminate his trajectory. Certainly many of his ideas dovetailed significantly with Second International conceptions: for example when he describes the Moroccan war as a “rotten adventure” promoted by sectional interests (army generals, the king and profiteering industries), as opposed to being related to the inter-imperialist “scramble for Africa” between rival ruling classes. Of course, under the class polarisation of the civil war, the PSOE drew closer to and became dominated by the rising Communist Party, due to their shared opposition to the revolution, and this rapprochement must have influenced Barea.

Finally, it seems a shame that the biography does not explicitly highlight Barea’s interesting treatment of the Islamic world in his trilogy. Barea repeatedly denounces the idea that the war against the Rif tribes was fought, as was officially proclaimed, “for civilisation”. He contrasted the decrepit and corrupt Spanish army with the locals he met along the way—one of whom he felt knew a lot more about Spanish history than most Spaniards. Tellingly, while he was convalescing in mainland Cordoba, he contrasted the beauty of its mosque with the “destruction” embedded in it in the form of a Catholic chapel.3

But the above reservations are of secondary importance compared to the many achievements of Eaude’s book. And Triumph remains an impressive and successful attempt at explaining a writer who has too often been ignored and misunderstood. Barea’s “focus was on the millions who live history without a voice” for whom and about whom he wrote. Tragically he became cut off from that audience by events beyond his control. It is hoped that Eaude’s critical biography and the cheaper recent paperback version of Barea’s trilogy (published by Granta) will bring Barea to a new audience. No doubt they will help forge new rebels… and writers!


1: In the preface to this, the English version of Eaude’s biography of Barea. The original Spanish version, published by Editora Regional de Extremadura in 2001, was entitled Arturo Barea: Triunfo en la Medianoche del Siglo.

2: The exceptions to this were when Barea’s own trajectory parted from that of the working class, such as in the latter half of The Clash, when his work as censor isolated him from events. Here, Eaude argues, his book stops showing the plight of the “millions” and loses its tension.

3: See the 4th and 9th chapters of The Track in The Forging of a Rebel (Granta, 2001).