When the war broke out, I was fourteen
years and two months old. To begin with
it had practically no effect
on me. My head was stuffed with something else,
which even now I see as being more
significant, discovering Les Fleurs
du Mal, and that meant poetry, of course.
There is another element, however,
the one that really matters, which I can’t
find words for. Revolt? No, even if that’s what
I called it then. Stretched out flat inside
a hazel grove, at the heart of a rose
whose leaves resembled, limp and very green,
caterpillar skins that had been peeled
off, bedded there in the crutch of the world,
happy revolt grew thicker and thicker
inside me, while the country echoed with
the shots of revolt and counter-revolt,
I cannot tell whether happy or not,
but more rebellious than I was. Life on
the moral plane? That comes quite close, but has
an air of ambiguity for me.
The best word for it might be egoism,
and it is worth remembering that when
we reach the age of fourteen we are forced
to change first person habits, since the plural
already fits us rather tightly, and
the singular stylite, a nauseous
ascent to the top of oneself, appears
a good plan for the future. Then the years
come and, happily, also depart,
our hand increasingly grows tired as it
fondles the stubborn forehead of the lamb
within, and we find ourselves adopting
this plural, which I cannot securely
define as modest, and which renounces
the singular, abandoning it, while
thanking and rewarding it. Enough.
Once the holidays were finished, yes,
I saw someone had battered my world’s face
into a new shape. Blood and fire. They did
not strike me as horrific, but they were
the blood and fire of every age. They burned
the priests’ school that I studied in, and Guiu,
the sergeant we all hated, who took us
for gym in preparation for the army,
(I go back to the first person plural
because life always travels backwards) had
been shot and killed. They told us that it was
a major undertaking, as he wore
a coat of chain mail when he went disguised
as an old peasant woman, and hid three
grenades beneath the eggs he carried in
his basket. They shot him on the corner
of the Placeta d’Hèrcules, beside
the institute, where we used to come out
to spend the break between two lessons. I
cannot remember that we found the place
altered in the slightest, or that we
looked for a bullet in a plane-tree trunk
or any other evidence. As for
the blood, what need is there to say the wind
carried it off, maybe that very day?
Maybe the dust was a bit heavier
as a result, that’s all. I cannot tell
for certain if I do remember how
the college walls were blackened, or if I
merely think I do. We never entered.
We were sloughing off our skins, and had
no interest in the tatters of the old one.
Our nostrils were filled with the fear which was
the perfume of that autumn, and yet it
struck us as good. It was an adult fear.
We were emerging from our childish fear
and, luckily for us, our world became
almost totally easy. The more fear
they experienced, the freer we
felt. It was the same old story, and
we vaguely sensed that, in our case, the wheel
was turning ever faster. We were happy.
Happy all together, always, very.
They made us join a trade union, and it
gave us various and stimulating
pleasures. In a requisitioned flat,
for us an enemy flat that we had
occupied (I mean our enemy,
not the official one) behind the smoke
from poker tables, we removed both books
and furniture, and bartered guns and bullets,
exchanged Roman salutes (there was no special
reason for this, we preferred our own side,
but the opposing one was more renowned
for wickedness), tried to lure the girls
into the corners and, because it didn’t
work, disgruntled, used the balcony
for our entries and exits. We discovered
whores and robbery. We would have seen
things being robbed in any case: as for
the brothels, we’d have gained admittance there
soon enough. The war saved us a few
months, however. We sat out the first
air raid sheltering in one of them
they called “la Sol”, all of us terrified
of being found. Significantly shrunk,
our fathers still held power. Isidre was
the first of us to catch the clap. His father
could hardly have chosen a worse moment
to buy the bicycle he had been asking
for insistently. We had to take
turn about borrowing it from him,
providing him with an excuse for not
using it himself. My memories
of that period are filled with bicycles,
the thing we robbed most often. We set up
a full scale workshop to paint them afresh
and reassemble them, the frame from one,
another’s wheels, tyres from another still.
I don’t know why, one afternoon when all
of us had slipped away from home, leaving
the day’s main meal half finished, for a trip
to the castle at Tamarit, I shut
the door and was without a bicycle.
What I wanted to do was rent one, but
I found the shop they knew me at was closed.
It made me furious. I refused to give
up. I kicked the door and beat upon it
with my fists. It opened to me. There
was no-one there. I seized the bike and left
a note for them. The trip was nerve-racking.
An unremitting wind bent us double.
On the way back we had it in our faces.
Standing upright in the pedals, as
if I were climbing a steep slope, transfixed
and trembling, I struggled on, without
making progress. Gradually we lost
sight of one another. Agustí
and I spent ages resting in the shelter
of the ditch beside the fields that they
were levelling to make an airport out of.
We finished the return journey by night
and walking half the time. At the first houses
we found an open bakery and threw
ourselves upon it. We were kids, much more
truly kids than our age might suggest:
falling onto the chill tiles of the floor
we ate several loaves that had just come
out of the oven, burying our faces
completely in them, crazy with the pleasure
of being merely fatigue, hunger and weight.
Anything could happen, and the sudden
racket – footsteps, shouts – did not surprise me,
nor did the oily gun barrels that pointed
directly at me where I lay, nor someone
pulling me up, shoving me in a van,
nor that my father was waiting for me
in a place I did not know, engaged
in argument with lots of people, where
the fathers of my friends were waiting, too.
Little by little mine appeared to gain
the upper hand, and took me home. The next
day I understood the business
had been collectivised. The members of
the junta were incensed, and spent the whole
evening chasing after us to get
a bicycle back which its former owner
would doubtless have been more than happy to
rent out on those conditions. They were not.
Briefly, our fathers struck us as important.
That wasn’t all we robbed. For a long time
we were obsessed with underpants. A crowd
of us would walk into a shop, inspect the wares,
sort through them and buy nothing, while we crammed
our jerseys and shirts full of underpants.
I don’t know what we did with them. Nor can
I understand what stopped them catching us.
The likeliest explanation is that at
the time they constantly suffered a sort
of seasickness, were shocked and perhaps
twisted, too, so that their sense of order
had been affected. They were indifferent
to being robbed, or else it turned them on.
All we knew was that the shopkeepers
gave into us with eyes that watered, like
a woman who is vanquished by her rapist.
I remember one day our choice fell
on Subietes’ shop again, a place
we often visited and never left
empty-handed. The owner himself served
us, laid the boxes out upon the counter,
opened them, and when he took them back
out of our reach, counted up all the items
aloud. We returned them without insisting
and he counted them over again. When we
emerged, swollen with pride, I showed the pair
of underpants I’d taken at the start,
before he counted them the first time. And
that was not all: Albert had taken more.
They all slept, with a crackling in their ears.
Subietes, too, died violently. If now
I think of him, I see black and white clothes,
worn by someone who looked really old.
Maybe he wasn’t. As goes for the black,
I don’t think it was mourning: the man couldn’t
keep away from mass, and in those days
all churchgoers wore black, as did a few
older men who cared about their clothes,
along with a Republican or two,
the kind who never wavered all their lives.
Old Subietes went to jail because
he was a Catholic. His luck had run out.
After they had taken him off, one day
huge panic broke out. The Italians were
at Salou. They’d already disembarked.
Our local junta requisitioned three
or four coaches, put in the prisoners
they held and drove them to a ditch
at the roadside. It happened very quickly
and took up no more time than that imagined
peril. One of the drivers requisitioned
with their coaches, who had to spectate,
was Ton. Out of the corner of his eyes,
he watched, appalled, as one after another
the passengers alighting brushed against
his seat in passing by. He knew them all,
or nearly all. Mr Subietes saw
the horror in Ton’s face, and was affected
by it. On the point of getting out,
he halted for a moment, placed his hand
upon Ton’s shoulder, and told him: “You see
the pass that things have reached, Tonet.” Scant comfort.
I also knew the man responsible
for that day’s massacre, the junta’s leader.
Oliva is the man I want to talk
about now. He had been, before the war,
doorkeeper at the cinema we went
to every Sunday, the Sala Reus, where
we’d taint our hands with love. I haven’t seen
him since then. The one image that I have
of him is wearing leather, carrying
a Luger with a butt of pale wood, longer
than his thigh, making it seem more like
a banner than a weapon. War provokes
a hankering for symbols. Both of them
loved rituals, Oliva and his wife.
They commandeered a wealthy family’s mansion
and settled there. Immediately she
decided that important people had
to decorate their house with cactus plants.
She’d come to see in them a sign of what’s
superfluous in rich people’s lives, the merest
shadow of a soul, beneath the huge
sun of ownership. She was the one
who owned things now, and laughed, the women all
laughed, and bought life turned a commodity,
material at last, trimmed of its hopes.
The moment only lasted two or three
months, in which the women of the people
went around laughing, feeling no surprise
at how things were. They’d always laughed that way.
Hope came back to them, and buying was
a thing you did in secret, practised by
the rich more than the poor. We reached the turning
point, and the road back was gradually
hemmed in by boundaries we recognised.
I often saw Oliva and the other
members of the junta sitting at
a café table, waiting for each other,
or rushing down a street to sit and wait.
One evening we had a symphony concert.
My father took me to it, and I was
so impatient I shook from head to toe.
Music parfois nous prend comme une mer.
The sea that overwhelmed me that night was
of an epoch about to be lost, one
you could see disappearing, taking back
the things that it had promised. The idea
of yielding myself to another current,
more personal, at any rate without
companions other than my father, filled
me with excitement. Beethoven, Ravel
were the composers that I heard, and if
they overwhelmed me, I cannot tell now
what destination they impelled me towards.
Once the concert was over, they played anthems:
Riego, the Internationale, the Reapers,
the Anarchist song that the FAI had taken
as their own tune. Oliva disapproved,
and poked his head out from the stage’s edge,
shouting. So as not to hear, we clapped
more loudly still. Oliva watched the faces
laughing at him, and he went on shouting,
noiselessly, like a flame. All of us laughed,
applauded, spilled over into a stream.
The way friends do (and afterwards my father
and I really were friends) we put off going
home, and sat together over coffee.
We spoke of politics: it seems to me
that then it seemed to me there was no need
for a revolt of any kind (it is
not politics I have in mind), that young
and old could form one single, happy group.
At night time, in a café, it’s OK
to have a father. Oliva came in.
Now I would realise he’d taken three
or four glasses too many. We were sitting
next to the door, and he saw us at once.
Clutching his gun’s huge butt, so that it helped him
keep his balance, looking at my father,
“You”, he said, “you were the one who did it.”
(In those days it was a ubiquitous
pursuit to hunt for guilty parties, though
the charge was never clear. No matter what
it was confronted them, they looked around
for someone who was guiltier than the others.)
My father managed, with a scattered phrase
or two, to shift the man’s attention, and
Oliva let the butt go. Later on,
when my father explained it, their exchange
became much longer. I could not make out
his reasons for dispersing its concise
virtue. Now I fully understand
his purpose: he was trying to disperse
a mist his voice had not betrayed at all,
but which had glimmered in his eyes. A mist
that fascinated me, although I did
not give it its true name on the occasions
when it flickered in mine. I came close to it
three days later, in the corridor
at “Ca la Sol”, when unexpectedly
I met Oliva face to face. When we
young men toured round the brothels, it did not
occur to us this was our rightful kingdom,
and they, carrying their pistols, furtive guests.
Then a time arrived of multiple
journeys. Somebody was shuffling us
as if we were a pack of cards, composed
of places and of people. Six or seven
years later, without warning, Oliva
entered our lives again. My mother met him.
One evening in Bordeaux, she was at home
alone, opened the door, and found him there.
He climbed our stair because he had heard people
from his own village lived on it. He wanted
help of some kind, was working in a German
factory, the told her, at Royan,
or so I think. The building and the camp
annexed to it had been destroyed by bombs.
Oliva happened to be absent, but
he lost all he possessed, belongings, money,
everything except a life that made
no sense to him, one that he was no longer
answerable for: the Germans would
take charge of his new fate. Maybe my mother
was the last woman he spoke to who knew
a thing about him. She gave him a few items
of clothing, which perhaps he never got
to wear. Another British air raid caught him
two days later.
Seeing I did not
immigrate to Saint Germain from Oran,
fear hardly strikes me as a major theme
for literature or for philosophy.
Many men have felt fear, that is sure,
and it is right they should be spoken of.
It should be said that Oliva felt fear,
and inspired fear in many people, not
a lot in me or in my father, more
in Ton, in other people fear as great
as that he felt himself, or even greater.