Forging of a Rebel, The

by Arturo Barea (1946)

6/10

A valuable book for what it has to say about 20th century Spain and their Civil War, but very long. And not quick-long, like a typically bloated Stephen King novel, but LONG-long. Plodding-long. Very plodding. Did I mention it’s long and takes a while to read?

Arturo Barea was a Spaniard born to a low-class washerwoman around the turn of the 20th century, yet raised by a well-off uncle in a bourgeois Madrid environment, setting him up for a unique role as an outsider to both castes: too snobby for his lower class siblings and cousins but forever the “son of a washerwoman” in his elite Catholic schools and office jobs.

Though he doesn’t explicitly state it, these circumstances undoubtedly shaped Barea’s worldview and his socialist leanings; they made him hyper-sensitive to injustice and allowed him an outsider’s perspective on both the lower and upper classes, one he would exploit in this tome with an impressive gift for both observation and translation into prose. His view is truly that of a half-caste or outsider and perhaps epitomizes the awkward exclusion that many hybrid humans feel even today, whether mixed race, mixed religion, mixed sexuality/gender. . . most people raised outside of the mainstream — ANY “mainstream” — benefit from an ability to view that stream more clearly than those that swim in it.

The book itself is separated into three volumes that correspond respectively with Barea’s childhood/emergence into the workforce, his service in the Spanish Army during the Rif (Spanish-Moroccan) War of 1921-26, and then his activities as an anti-fascist press censor during the Spanish Civil War.

The first book, “The Forge,” was a slog — the 1st half of it had flashes of beauty but was largely a painstaking depiction of the minutiae of his childhood setting. Emphasis on “pain.” The 2nd half was much better — it actually chronicled formative events of his youth and documented the beginnings of his preoccupation with justice and equality (and socialism).

The 2nd book, “The Track,” continued the better pacing of the 2nd half of the 1st book and did well to depict the corruption and hypocrisy plaguing the Spanish military and government, in addition to Barea’s growing disillusionment with the status quo. This was the quickest read out of the three books (and also the shortest, a coincidence I’m sure).

The 3rd book, “The Clash,” I sort of viewed as the main event. I came to this book after all from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, or perhaps it was from For Whom the Bell Tolls — in any case I’ve read and loved two books about the Spanish Civil War and was eager to read a depiction from an actual Spaniard. And buried amidst all of the many thousands of words he wrote about it there is certainly a fascinating portrayal.

The problems were the extraneous tangents and descriptions, and the scattershot manner in which he narrated events. There was an unfortunate lack of context for the inter-party squabbling that was occurring, or regarding certain important political and military figures. You could certainly glean the gist of the problem: the Anarchists, Communists and Socialists of the left couldn’t cease their juvenile bickering and mistrust long enough to unite against the Fascist block, dooming their effort to failure.

But Barea assumes too much background knowledge of the events. I imagine this is because he was writing for an audience that was less than a decade removed from the War (and just coming out of WWII), and consequently would have known explicitly or intuitively what he was talking about. Still, the lack of forethought in explaining things for a more ignorant future audience renders the book not necessarily dated, but certainly not timeless.

Also, a common complaint of mine for books over 500 pages: too long. His flowery descriptions of his youth in the first nearly-200 pages were pretty, sure, and mildly informative even, but they could have been greatly condensed. Likewise, the last half of the last book is weighed down by pages of his teeth-gnashing over his nerves from the bombing. It’s poignant the first few times but quickly gets old and only serves to lower my esteem of Barea in the end, reinforcing the stereotype of a fragile, cowardly intellectual during wartime. Likewise, the last 40-odd pages of their time in Paris could have been excised completely. Basically, the book would have been much better had it been edited to under 600 pages.

Ultimately I’m glad I read this — it now feels wrong that my entire knowledge of the Spanish Civil War used to come from a Brit, a North-American and “Pan’s Labyrinth” (fantastic film, BTW). Barea also does a great job of exposing the hypocrisy and corruption of the Spanish elite, and then the tragic infighting and bureaucracy that undid the anti-fascist effort.

But overall I can’t fully recommend this to anyone who is not already highly interested in the Spanish Civil War (as I was), or in Spain from a century ago, or in socialism at its most elemental. If you’re only mildly interested in any of those things I unfortunately must advise you to instead try Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a shorter, better-structured account of the same period. If you love it as much as I did you very well may want to move onto Barea’s version.

 

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