Max Aub on the Republican Exodus: January without a Name
In defeat they carry off victory
26 January 1939
Men have always been ones for walking, that’s why they have legs, though I’ve only just discovered air is what moves them along. They only have one small ear either side of their head, which is enough for them to run at the slightest sound; they can never stay still, or see beyond the ends of their noses, and are crazy about one thing: speed; not satisfied with wheels, they want wings. They prefer to ignore that once born, they grow roots, even if they don’t want them, that subterfuges, dodges, ruses or wiles are futile: it’s the sap, not the flesh that counts.
I was born standing. […]
Max Aub (1903-1972) was born in Paris to a German-Jewish family that moved to Spain when he was 11. During the Spanish Civil War, he worked for the Republican government. After Franco’s victory he was arrested in France and spent three years in concentration camps, after which he fled to Mexico. He spent his 30 years in exile writing a massive epic about the Civil War: a collection of novels and stories he called “The Magical Labyrinth,” from which the story here is taken. “January without a Name” is narrated by a tree—yes, a tree—on the road between Figueras and the French border. Witnessing the Republicans’ desperate exodus in early 1939, he is baffled by the humans’ folly—but shares in their suffering nonetheless. The scenes described by our botanical narrator in late January are the same ones that Robert Capa framed with his Leica two weeks earlier.
The excerpt published here is from a first-time translation by Peter Bush that will appear in a new Spanish Civil War anthology, No Pasarán, edited by Pete Ayrton and published by Serpent’s Tail. Unlike previous anthologies, No Pasarán’s 38 texts include a large contingent of Spanish writers alongside authors from the US, the UK, Italy, France, Russia, Cuba, Argentina, and Mexico.
Last night a boy died by my foot; he died a sapling and his mother carried him on the road to France, thinking he’ll come back to life. I don’t believe in miracles. Nor do I understand why children die: dying is about drying up. Men know that only too well, and admit as much. One can also rot to death, from the worms gnawing one’s guts. Men die ravaged on the outside, faces devoured by blood and bandages, by pus, mange, lice and pain. From what I heard last night, hunger kills too. What’s hunger? The land provides all our needs. “Yes, whatever you want,” said one. “But the day before yesterday, I don’t remember if it was Tuesday or Wednesday, whatever, they called my home. It was two a.m. The sirens had wailed; a clear night, searchlights, the whole malarkey. You know, it was to deliver a child. Off I went, scared of the ack-ack guns, and unable to light the torch with a brand-new battery Vicente had brought me from Perpignan. The child was still-born: his mother’s lack of nourishment. A neighbor helped me. ‘Now come and have a look at mine,’ she says, when we’ve cleaned up. I curse all the way, the alarm’s over and the electricity comes back. Naturally, the famous childbirth took place by the light of candles they’d had to requisition from the whole staircase and a nearby bomb-shelter; can you imagine? The lobby was a room to pay respects; each neighbor came for their candle and to ask after the woman who’d given birth. It was like a movie, kid. I heard nobody say: ‘Good, it’s better that way.’ No, they all said: ‘A pity, there’ll always be a next time.’ The mother was desperate. And then I go upstairs with her neighbor and look at her child, a one-year old. ‘This boy’s dying.’ We give him a warm bath and an injection of camphor oil: ‘I knew as much,’ the mother rasps, ‘he didn’t eat.’ And that was that. Not a single cry of protest; not one complaint. What a people! My God, what a people!”
Men haven’t a clue what it’s like to have birds on your fingers; men and animals are like rocks, the wind doesn’t move them, they take refuge from hurricanes and cyclones, they’ve not the roots to withstand them, they’re pure stalk, they only grow outwards, if they grow inwards, it’s invisible, and I believe what I see: and that’s how I tell it. Men give you an idea of what makes a passing phenomenon: they’re like storms or better, as they like to say, they are tormented. […] The human condition is a sorry affair; if they want to make their mark, they must die in the attempt; blood is a shocking sort of sap, and men always seem to be spurting forth; they only know how to bear fruit in pain, and as for blossoming like flowers, they should be so lucky. […]
“Did you ever think we might lose?” […]
A world passes down this road with ears, and without a tongue, and has emerged out of nothing, swept along on a southern breeze that bottles it up in Figueras; the road to La Junquera is like a funnel. Suntraps have become garages. The city is brimming with cars and trucks, a stream of black blood bubbling from a hundred wounds night-time has inflicted. A half-dead world walking on two legs as if it had but one, a world that only knows how to walk yet knows that walking solves nothing, walking simply to prove to itself that it’s still alive. They flee their shadows not realizing that night alone can solve that problem, they walk and light bonfires when darkness falls; their shadows are reborn with fire. The world has aged in forty-eight hours. A very, very old man comes by, in mourning, like all old Spaniards. Mourning becomes winter. One woman says: “Look at him, so old and scared of death.” They walk. The first brightness of day blows up from the sea. The road is full of trucks, customs police, soldiers, cars, assault guards, old people, torn newspapers, old people, petrol tankers, three cannons abandoned to my right, children, soldiers, mules, old people, wounded, cars, wounded, women, children, wounded, old people. Opposite me, a woman crouches by a fence crying, showing her legs in cinnamon-colored stockings, and, around the top, thighs the color of almond blossom, weeping her heart out. Nobody stops, everyone with their tiny stretch of the road on their shoulder.
The city is brimming with cars and trucks, a stream of black blood bubbling from a hundred wounds night-time has inflicted.
“The government’s to blame.”
“The communists are to blame.”
“The CNT is to blame.”
“The republic is to blame.”
One child is alone, with an umbrella.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Where’s your father?”
He’s by himself, still as a small island, in the thick of it, creating eddies.
People come, go, walk, pass by, move, stretch, peer, slip, wear out, wither, age, die. By dint of all that walking, everything comes to an end. Women are more burdened than men; nobody helps anyone. The soldiers, guns adrift, seem determined, but don’t know why. […] There are thousands of carts; the horses manage, effortlessly, the weight isn’t much, the bulk is: the burden of the people fleeing is large, but not heavy. Mattresses take up space, cages are mostly air, rabbits and hens need space to move. Wooden beds act as sides for the carts; pots and pans travel in big vegetable baskets. They’re not covered wagons rolling across the plains, they’re rural carts with broad metal rimmed wheels and screeching axles that have never left the farm. The bags of goods underneath hang over the sides like big bladders; a cart transforms into a swaying bunch of fruit; a rope or lone animal pulls it along, snout down, mane and coat caked in filth, withers and flanks scratched, hocks bleeding, fetlocks and hoofs like clods of earth. When the road jams up, stopping brings no respite, is only cause for impatience; jerky movements bite into backsides, send everything flying. Then some animal lifts its head and looks, collar tinkling: the heavens in its eyes. There’s no space on the cart for anyone, lest an old woman has turned into a black, prostrate item; neither reins nor straps guide the beast, nor a bit pulled right or left, the crowds carry it along; each cart is a world with its satellites in tow on their way to the French frontier. Every burden is different; no cart is like another, but they are all the same. […]
There are thousands of carts; the horses manage, effortlessly, the weight isn’t much, the bulk is: the burden of the people fleeing is large, but not heavy.
I’ve never seen so many people together, so many old folk or so many dressed in black. A woman with a blanket keeps repeating: “My papers are all in order, my papers are all in order…” […]
And kids bawling, vehicles hooting and changing gear, others starting up. Now it starts to drizzle. Two people are walking along under the same blanket.
“Azaña is to blame.”
“Like fuck he is.”
An old man is pushing a covered cart, feels tired and stops; a child pushes it, he can’t manage more than five meters; his mother takes over, thirty meters further on granddad pushes it again. A soldier’s carrying a barren sheep over his shoulder.
A woman: “They’re probably not as bad as they make out.”
And walks on. Things gradually lose their color. Night falls fast, as if it’s been snuffed out. I can feel my branches. It rains, then starts raining again. Cars honk like crazy, switch on their headlights, off, then on again, to see through the drizzle and not crash; mark out a path, then collide. More wounded. Where are they going? They’re running away. Why? They’re running away. I pity them at times like this. Yes, men are so pitiful, they’re so stupid. A tree will always be a tree and a man, even though he’d like to, will never come up to our shins. The night sparks bonfires along the road to France, like fire-flies. It’s cold. The wind blows explosions our way, but the night keeps its secrets. […]
Sirens. Everyone hesitates for a second, then scatters frantically in every direction in small trickles cross-country or towards Figueras: the plight of refugees. Any cheer disappears. You hear any engines? Some old women have stretched out in ditches while, further up the road, people scamper towards open fields. Some use a dyke as a shield, soak their buttocks and more besides, some shelter against a wall, sit behind a tree, squat in a watercourse, think the plain will protect them, squeeze between ridges and riverbeds; many decide their lucky star will defend them and look up from the place they first scarpered to. The ack-ack battery spits sparks and shoots into the sky in futile competition with the clouds. I see the planes before anyone else. Five shining, three-engine efforts coming from the sea. A few cool characters discuss makes and models on a roof terrace. Most of the cars have emptied out; a bowl’s been dropped in the middle of the road, a cap’s lost at my feet, a meter along a corset. The planes, parallel to the sun, open fire. The sirens stop howling. Only the little ack-ack battery, chained to the spot, barks stubbornly. Not a single vehicle, dog or rooster; only the squadron approaching. Some rush off in search of a better fence. It must stun people to think their death may be up there, approaching silently, slipping through the air. They say planes go very fast, I think they always exaggerate; they’re still not overhead. Some idiot starts wailing. They’re right over me. Flying by now.
I see the planes before anyone else. Five shining, three-engine efforts coming from the sea.
“There she goes.”
A faint whistle fanning outwards. A shrill tone growing like a pyramid being built from its pinnacle. A ray of lightning turned thunderbolt. A horrible crimson morass. A tremendous blast from the entrails of the earth, gouging a man-made, so genuine crater, splitting and dismantling walls, that cracks, slices and shatters beams; sunders iron bars; fissures and flattens concrete; yellows, disgorges, disembowels, de-legs and dispatches living people over the edge who in a fraction of a second are reduced to bits and liquid. Burns, breaks, twists, crumbles and collapses cars, smashes their windows; squashes old wagons, pulverizes walls; crushes wheels, converts them into compasses; dissolves stone into dust; dismembers a mule; guts a greyhound; de-grapes vineyards; dislocates dead and wounded; destroys a young girl and de-brains a customs policeman crouching opposite me; de-limbs a couple of old men and the odd woman starting with their feet; ten meters to my left beheads an assault guard and hangs a piece of his liver from my branches; disembowels three children in the dyke down the lower slope; de-leafs and de-grasses fifty meters all round and, further off, demolishes a hovel’s walls, discovers tiles from Alcora; skins the air, turns it to dust for a hundred meters up, lops off men’s ears, leaves them like the man hanging opposite, naked, silk socks all neat and tidy, testicles driven into his stomach, no sign of hair, bowels and intestines in the air, still pulsing; lungs de-ribbing, face disappearing – where? – brains in place, for all to see, gunpowder black.
My main branch is damaged and twisted, and most branches have crashed to the ground. A black kerchief and a few colored ribbons hang from the one I’ve still got. The countryside breaks into a howl, under clouds of dust. Cocks crow. Shrieks furrow the acrid dust. I see people begin to stir, choking. Blood. Every bit of me hurts. The earth is full of dust, blood, shrapnel, branches, glass. Let them prune me now, I’m less than a third of what I was. Blood, and more blood. The dust hovers in the air as if the air was dust. People start shouting their names out. Heartache, sobbing, retching, bleeding, bleeding. Scarves flash again. Acrid smells, sour smells, pungent smells. Men stir amidst yellow dust, dust on their shoulders, heads old and grey. Two are pulling a kind of bloody bag, mush hangs where a head once was, no feet either, take it off round my side. Blood-soaked earth. Ambulances drive up, turf out huge willow baskets, yellow outside, grey inside from dried blood, where they throw the chunks of flesh they find, lots of feet. Bodies stack up in another van; as there aren’t enough ambulances, they pile the wounded on top of corpses.
Vans drive off ringing their bells. A company of sappers arrives and sweeps the debris and branches off the road, villagers collect firewood, people emerge from their hideouts, a mass of sobbing, loud and clear. […]Now the peeping-toms appear, a French journalist I know, because he comes every week, in an empty car he drives back loaded with bread and parcels. […]
The slow beat of marching troops slices through the silence. Where are they coming from? After the atonal, dragging noise of the crowds, what’s drumming the earth, where is this hidden rumble born? People crouching down lift their heads, those hiding peer out, those who reckon they’re intrepid come nearer; children run to the road-side. Troops are on the march, coming from the direction of France. What makes hope rise like steam? There they are, in full view: in rows of six, fair lads black as Castilian bread, olive-skinned lads toasted like Andalusians. Thirteen hundred men returning because they want to, a fragile respite against so much ignominy. Thirteen hundred men of the International Brigades returning, because their foreign blood is Spanish blood. One, two, one, two. As they walk, they leave their footprints, right fists scouring the air from right to left, from left to right. They smile, their strength is everyman’s; the grief is Spain’s.
A miserable, pitiful old lady sheltering by my trunk shouts too them: “Pasarán overhead, but no pasarán down below.”
Nobody believes a word of it; the hoarse shouting burns their throats. They weep.
They’re entering Figueras now; you can hear the clamor. People stay quiet, waiting for the end of the alarm, salt in their eyes, dawn on their faces.
The tide rises again. It’s night-time, the people onwards to the frontier.
“I’m going to the Center.”
Nobody asks, when will we be back? They’re all convinced it will be a few months: two, three, six at most. The world won’t allow something so shameful.
“Now for sure, France will have no choice but to intervene.”
“Now they’ve got the Germans at their frontier…”
A girl, maybe five years old, bellows; an older child, by her side – how old is she, nine or ten?
“Shush, the airplanes will hear you.”
And the littl’un shushes.
Translated by Peter Bush