Book Review: Uncertain Glory: What Drives Men to War?

November 19, 2017
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Joan Sales, Uncertain Glory. Foreword by Juan Goytisolo. Translated by Peter Bush. New York: New York Review Books. 2014. 457 pages.

Joan Sales’ Uncertain Glory is one of the most distinguished novels on the Spanish Civil War. No other work on that legendary struggle compares with it in psychological profundity. Reminiscent of 19th-century Russian literature in its large-canvas format, this novel grew considerably between its publication in 1956 and the fourth expanded edition of 1971. Although a French translation of an earlier version was published in 1962, and David Rosenthal’s unrevised English version appeared in a non-commercial edition shortly after his death in 1992, the book had to wait for Peter Bush’s translation to be available to English-language readers. Considerable obstacles lay in the path of this novel. First, the Franco censorship.  The regime could ill tolerate a Republican account of the Civil War, let alone a Catalan one. It did not help either that its author was a former Republican army officer or that, after exile in France, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, he had become a cultural activist through his publishing venture, El Club dels Novel·listes. After Franco’s death, it was, ironically, the leftist critical establishment that dismissed Sales’ book for its Catholicism. It has taken decades and the decline of the PSUC’s influence among the Catalan intelligentsia for the human dimension and indisputable value of this novel to be recognized.

Uncertain Glory does not peddle orthodox religion. The Archbishop of Paris refused to grant it doctrinal approval when asked by the French publisher. Sales’ faith, an expression of man’s metaphysical search in the face of the absurd, has nothing to do with National Catholicism and much to do with the existentialist disquiet of French writers like Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil and Albert Camus. While he denounces religious persecution in rearguard Barcelona, a fateful episode that leftist historians have downplayed or tried to justify, it does not give a clean bill of health to the Bishops’ support of the coup d’état or liken it to a crusade. Rather than in dogmatic certainties, Sales pries into the uncertainty announced in the title, an allusion to the verse “The uncertain glory of an April day” from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. The April day referred to is April 14, 1931, the date on which Francesc Macià proclaimed the birth of the Catalan Republic in a Federation of Iberian republics hours before Madrid proclaimed a unified Spanish republic. But for a few days, the uncertain glory could also allude to the official end of the war, March 28, the day Madrid fell to Franco’s army. Or then again, it could be a metaphor for the false security of youth. In any case, the reference to the precariousness of earthly glory casts a pall of skepticism over the hubris of military victory.

The bulk of the novel takes place on the Aragón front and in Barcelona. It is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character. The first narrator, Lluís, is serving in a militarized battalion after having been posted, like Sales had, in an anarchist militia unit. His college friend Juli Soleràs is a disenchanted intellectual who has pierced through the absurdity of the war and understood its senseless, iterative character. Soleràs sees the meaning of existence expressed through a priori categories of the macabre and the obscene, but like the absurd man of existentialism, he refuses any notion of transcendence. He fights the war senselessly, without hatred, according to his notion that people should kill each other “like good brothers.” His perception of the absurdity allows him to switch sides without remorse, convinced of the indignity of victory. “At the end of the day, who is Soleràs?” asks Lluís. “A hypothesis perhaps? An enigma?”

Sexuality and aggression are of course the primary drives in Freud’s psychoanalysis. The pairing of Eros and Thanatos is depicted in the episode of the maid who seduces Lluís into forging a marriage certificate in articulo mortis, which allows her to claim the title and property of her employer, an aristocrat who was killed by the anarchists. While searching for the certificate in a monastery, Lluís finds the mummies of monks, which anarchists had taken out of their niches and placed at the foot of the altar in a mock wedding scene. Someone had inserted a candle into one of the mummies to mimic the male organ. “What do we know of our instincts?” asks Lluís. He will soon learn something about them on discovering that he has been manipulated for the sake of a woman’s ambition. Later, when he suspects that she may have induced her employer’s execution, the image of a praying mantis eating the head of the sexually engaged male comes to his mind.

In the meantime, Trini, Lluís’s girlfriend and narrator of part II, has been attending clandestine masses in Barcelona attics, a modern variant of the Roman catacombs. In the midst of disaster, she discovers her religious faith. Although the single parent of a child by Lluís, from whom she has become estranged, she declines Soleràs’s offer of marriage: “I feel your suggestion is absurd because of the very things I admire in you. You are too intelligent and love is a jungle. A couple of wild animals howling on the edge of a precipice.”

The third part is narrated by Cruells, a soldier with a vocation for the priesthood. He voices Sales’ grim view of life as a path to the crucifixion and of war as the striving of blind masses of lonely men to achieve their particular crucifixions. “The summons of crucifixion… isn’t that what war is all about?” What drives men to seek death in such hecatombs? “Not the cause—nobody knows what that is—but glory, which is something everyone feels. But what glory, O my God, what kind of glory, if nobody will ever know the names of so many soldiers who have fallen in so many battles?”

Uncertain Glory refuses a heroic vision of the war and avoids the Manichean representation of the conflict in most Civil War literature from the 1940s and 50s. It shows war as chaotic and undignified. It can only be redeemed by confronting life’s deepest misery, its sheer transience, and finding release from it in the sense of eternity that must be purchased with tragedy.

Bush’s translation skillfully conveys Sales’ simple, elegant Catalan. It succeeds in rendering a classic into a language whose natural rhythm and phrasing differ substantially from those of the original version.

Joan Ramon Resina is Professor of Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University. His most recent book is Josep Pla: Seeing the World in the Form of Articles (Toronto).

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