Spain, 1936. As writer, Georges Bernanos, witnesses the events he would later describe in his book Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, José Arjona returns from Lérida with thoughts of revolution that will change his and, Montse, his fifteen-year-old sister’s lives.
The novel is narrated by Montse’s daughter. Now ninety, Montse has dementia…
Yet her memories of the summer of 1936, when the unimaginable took place, are still intact. It was a time, she says, when she discovered life – without doubt the only adventure of her existence.
She recalls that year, telling the tale through her daughter in the trans-Pyrenean language she’s spoken since she ended up in a village in the south-west of France seventy-five years earlier.
Her story begins with a visit to the house of Jaime Burgos Obregón who’s looking to employ a new maid.
He studied my mother from head to toe, and stated with an air of assurance that my mother has never forgotten: She seems quite humble. My grandmother thanked him as if he were congratulating her, But that comment, my mother says, throws me into turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years. It makes me understand the meaning of the words my brother José had just bought back from the Anarchist communes around Lérida. So when we are in the street again, I start to shriek, to griter: “She seems quite humble”! Do you realise what he meant?…What don Jaime means – I was really boiling, my darling, ma chérie, I was boiling with rage – is that I will make a good maid, sweet and thick, and obedient with it. It means I will accept doña Sol’s orders without flinching, that I will clean up her shit without protest. It means I seem to have all the qualities of an idiot, and I won’t balk at anything, I won’t cause any sort of moleste to anyone. It means don Jaime will pay me, how do you say it? clopinettes, peanuts, and I’ll have to say muchísimas gracias with my sweet, grateful, humble face.
I’ve quoted at length because I wanted to show what an absolute firecracker Montse is (though she’d undoubtedly hate that term too!). She’s a fantastic character who spends the first section of the book watching events around her and then, inspired by the young men in the village, going off to have her own big adventure.
The day after Montse’s job interview, war breaks out. In their village, José has returned having learned the words Revolución! Comunidad! Libertad! He dreams of crushing the Nationalists and an equal future for all. At a general assembly in the town hall, José and his childhood friend Juan call for the creation of a commune. Their desires are modified by Diego, adopted son of don Jaime, who’s refusing to accept his birthright and has joined the Communist Party. Initially, the villagers ignore Diego, but as the days pass and they have time to consider the consequences a further meeting is called. This time the villagers, including José and Montse’s father, support Diego.
When José tells Montse he’s leaving, she goes with him, heading for Barcelona and freedom. Or so she thinks.
Interspersed with Montse’s recommendations are comments from her daughter as to what Bernanos was doing at this time. Where he’d travelled to and what atrocities he’d uncovered, including the corruption within the church. It leads her to comment:
I’m starting to see the weight of tragedy carried by the word “national”, and how every time it has been bandied about in the past, regardless of the cause (Ligue de la nation française, Révolution nationale, National Union of the People, National Fascist Party, etc.) it has inevitably brought violence with it, in France and elsewhere. History is awash with appalling examples.
A quick look at the world today tells you that it’s not just history that contains all the examples.
I absolutely loved Cry, Mother Spain. It’s a superb coming-of-age tale for its protagonist and the young men in the village, with a backdrop of a civil war which will change everyone’s lives. Montse’s a fabulous character; I would happily have spent more time with her.
Credit must also go to Ben Faccini whose translation fizzes. There are wonderful moments where he maintains the sense of Montse’s trans-Pyrenean language by not translating every word or by repeating it in English after the original. It was an utter joy to read.
Thanks to MacLehose for the review copy.