Sane voices in a world gone mad

The other day I attended a small event that I found strangely moving. About 40 people were gathered in a seminar room at the London School of Economics to hear William Chislett, the FT’s former man in Mexico who now lives in Madrid, talk about two fine but not terribly well-known Spanish writers, Arturo Barea and Manuel Chaves Nogales. Both had their lives shattered by the Spanish civil war and died as exiles in England; neither has had his due as a writer, partly because each of them refused to take an extreme ideological position.

The first casualty of war is truth, it has been said; you could just as well give that dubious honour to moderation. We tend to see conflicts in binary terms; Catholics versus Protestants, for example, in the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, or the extreme right versus the extreme left in Spain from 1936-1939 – or the liberal west against militant jihadism in the war on terror. Both Barea and Chaves Nogales supported the Republic against the military uprising of General Franco in 1936 but neither fitted into the romantic stereotypes beloved of film-makers, of heroic young working-class martyrs or idealistic poets and intellectuals joining the International Brigades.

Chaves Nogales, one of the most brilliant journalists and correspondents Spain has produced, described himself as “a liberal petit bourgeois”. Barea, son of a washerwoman but partly brought up by his aunt, a middle-class religious bigot, didn’t fit comfortably into any class and had been a successful businessman before becoming the (deliberately lax) foreign press censor of the embattled Republic. His friend Gerald Brenan described him as looking more like a mechanic than an intellectual.

Before and beyond any ideological commitment, both had the writer’s commitment to tell the truth about the world and about themselves. Barea’s three-volume autobiography, The Forging of a Rebel (1941-46), came out of an intense personal crisis of identity. His writing method was the opposite of ideological. “I wanted to wipe the slate of my mind clear of all reasoning … to go back to my beginnings, to things which I had smelled, seen, touched and felt.” The opening volume, The Forge, begins with an unforgettable image of breeches drying by the Manzanares river, looking like “fat men without a head”.

Barea does not shy away from any area of physical experience, death, extreme poverty, sex: he wanted to set down life as he saw it, “raw and bare”, riddled with violence and suffering but also redeemed by kindness and love. The second volume, detailing his experience serving in the Spanish army during the Rif war in Morocco, is even more unsparing in its depiction of the brutality of colonial conflict; it is also historically important in its charting of the rise of Spanish military fascism, which would find its bloody apotheosis in the civil war.

The journalist Manuel Chaves Nogales reported from both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and was repelled by both. “Red assassins, white assassins: assassins the lot of them!” was his verdict on the former. In Germany he seems to have been gifted with second sight and went around taking photographs of places that a decade later would become death camps.

Both writers took stands against indiscriminate violence. When considering whether the extreme violence of the fascist right justified an equal and opposite reaction from the left, Barea, according to William Chislett, “answered with a principled ‘no’ ”. He considered the Church of Spain “an evil which had to be eradicated” but was horrified by the burning of churches.

The pair could be considered members of what the historian Paul Preston, moderating the LSE event, has called “the third Spain”, the millions belonging neither to the extreme left nor the extreme right, caught up in a conflict they neither caused nor desired.

Barea arrived as a refugee in England in 1941, feeling “spiritually smashed”: without a job, a home, a homeland. But things turned out well for him; he loved the country, was given a place to live by Lord Faringdon, the Fabian peer and friend of the Spanish Republic, and found work at the Latin American service of the BBC. He eventually delivered more than 800 15-minute broadcasts, which made him famous from Mexico City to Montevideo.

Chaves Nogales was less fortunate, dying of stomach cancer aged 46 in London in 1944, far from his wife and daughters, who had gone back to Spain to live in hiding. He is buried in an unmarked grave in East Sheen cemetery.
Now might be the time to put up a stone to him, reflected his grandson, present at the LSE talk, together with Barea’s niece. Both Barea and Chaves Nogales kept their sanity and their moral bearings in a world gone mad in the furious pursuit of ideas. Both fought on the side of life against what Chaves Nogales called the “brutality and stupidity fed equally by the fever of communism and the blandness of fascism”.