In The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel of shadowy plots and anarchist intrigue, the characters wade through a watery murk that befits their scheming and double-dealing. One enters the London streets like “a descent into a slimy aquarium;” those who step outside are “enveloped” in “a murky, gloomy dampness.” An oozing, liquid swill—much like the one that coats Conrad's streets—suffuses Max Aub's novel Field of Honour. At one point, its protagonist Rafael Serrador complains, “I shall die of drowning in air.”
The French-born Spaniard Max Aub wrote Field of Honour in 1939 as the first novel in a cycle called The Magic Labyrinth. Like Conrad's, the novel exposes a city's vast underbelly and the sometimes sinister fringe personalities who can be seen, as Conrad put it, “flitting round the dark corners.” Serrador arrives in 1929 Barcelona on the eve of civil war to find the city awash in the sputtering politics and machinations of socialists, anarchists, and fascists poised for battle. The city teems with prostitutes, drunks, enthusiasts of every political stripe, demagogues and self-professed revolutionaries, workers, intellectuals, and fearsome strongmen. They spar in cafés and fight in the streets. In the late hours, they seek refuge in the seedy café cantantes, with their “tiny stages, their dancing girls, singers and sex, yellow-half-light, warmth, and background music, sweaty armpits and tobacco.” Field of Honour is a novel of relentless descriptions and namings; its scenes are dense with words.
When we encounter Serrador gasping for air, he has just committed his first consequential act in Barcelona's revolutionary scene—a murder—and has literally dived into the sea to drown his victim. On his return home after the act, he is submerged in a hallucinatory sleep reminiscent of Conrad's watery London, “sinking” into it “as into a swamp, his dreams filling with “water . . . jellyfish . . . octopuses, and eels.” Serrador senses that if he speaks, his mouth will “fill with slime . . . lichens . . . and . . . seaweed,” and so he hazily vows “never [to] go swimming in the sea again.” This is about as surreal as the novel gets. By design it is a resolutely realist affair, the first of six chronicles (as Aub called them) detailing the events of the Spanish Civil War.
Max Aub had an unlikely background for a chronicler of Spanish history, having been born to a French mother and German father in Paris in 1903. At the outbreak of the First World War, his father was stranded in Spain, prompting Max and his mother to join him in Valencia, where the young Aub quickly mastered the language in which he would eventually write. He joined the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party at the age of twenty-five and remained a devoted leftist his entire life. Field of Honour is in the service of his political convictions—never didactic or dogmatic about ideology, but devised to capture what Aub considered “reality's impact on me and mine on reality.”
Much of the exposition in Field of Honour comes through dialogue and even then mostly through harangue. Aub lets each of his characters talk—or rather, rant. Often Serrador barely understands the tirades that engulf him. “All that verbosity wounded him,” Aub writes after Serrador sustains another rhetorical thrashing. Even the warring politicos in this novel seem to agree that Spain is a country of talkers and of dreamers. As one character remarks, “All [that I'm saying] may be skeletal and elemental, but Spain is a land of skeletons.” In his useful introduction, Ronald Fraser points out that Aub was, “by literary inclination,” a dramatist. And the novel, with its nearly constant dialogue and occasionally paper-thin characters, reads as though its author had combined a film or stage script, full of clipped descriptions, with a more traditional roman-á-clef.
This amalgam sets the sprawling tirades of the characters against the terse descriptions of the narrator, lending the book a distinct tautness. Aub's translator, the critic and biographer Gerald Martin, expertly captures the contrast between dialogue and narration. Occasionally, Aub lets the street argot of his characters bleed into the narrator's descriptions, and here Martin nimbly mirrors him by preserving the quirks and cadences of the spoken word.
At its core, the novel reveals a writer obsessed with the relationship between revolutionary words and revolutionary action. The historical circumstances of the novel make this an obvious preoccupation. Field of Honour chronicles the years before the fighting officially began between Republican forces and Falangists in Spain, and so it keeps historical time, as it were, in the conversations, arguments and counterarguments, empty promises and quixotic sentiments of revolutionaries angling for battle. When the fighting breaks out, though, in July 1936, the violence promptly outstrips the verbal warfare that in the months and years before had overrun the city's cafés and cabarets. Some forty pages after Serrador's wounding with words, for instance, two policemen are assaulted by a group of Falangist rebels whose “blows hurt more than the insults.” By the novel's end, all its loquacity seems to subside into action rather than to fuel it—enough so that one is almost relieved when the speechifying abates and recedes to reveal a plot.
Aub, however, clearly regards his characters' musings and projections as at least as consequential as episodic action; they represent a distillation of historical circumstance. Between a fascist's insult and a liberal lawyer's dogged philosophizing he interjects this piece of narration, crucial since the novel details the lead-up to the fascist coup in 1936: “February 1936, and Barcelona blazed with discussions: the elections had just given victory and power to the Popular Front.” The electoral triumph of this leftist coalition would mobilize the monarchist and fascist forces working to eventually overthrow it and install Franco in its stead. Aub treats the moment in a single sentence, using lines like these to set the historical frame. To read Field of Honour is to see, projected onto this backdrop, individuals who are convinced of their own importance. Each one is sure that his actions will singly affect political outcomes, and each also has a premonition in the days preceding the Barcelona street battles that words might enlarge the action to follow.
Aub is intent on dramatizing the heady and the verbal even while the bullets fly with full realist force. In this, he reflects the aesthetic interests of the so-called generation of '27, a group of writers and artists whose ranks included the likes of Lorca, Dalí, and Buñuel. Although their sensibilities were famously diverse, they shared a fascination with psychology and interiority and the role language played in mediating an individual's inner and outer lives.
In the 1920s, the philosopher and critic José Ortega y Gasset advanced the idea that the novel was its own self-contained universe. The notion, with its modernist allure, soon became a reigning preoccupation among Spanish novelists and even a kind of literary sport, as writers poked fun at the hermetic world of the closed book as a world closed-off and irrelevant to the daily tribulations of its readers. In Field of Honour, the inevitable remove of books from the world of action haunts Aub's protagonist; Serrador desperately seeks philosophical validation for his amorphous political commitments, yet he is baffled by the ersatz realities of the printed page. Next to Serrador in bed, where he writes and thinks in vain, is Descartes's Discourse on Method—a book he cannot read past the first page without “falling back upon himself.” In Serrador's frustrated readings is, of course, a thinly-veiled realist critique of the novel, a position which Aub, devout realist that he was, espoused for much of his career, often to the chagrin of his friend Buñuel.
Aub's allegiance to a realist aesthetic hardly diminishes his respect for the emotional and sentimental in politics. This, after all, is the essence of the real. He once said, of a 1938 film he made with André Malraux about the imminent fall of the Republic, that it “expressed the end of a world we had, with a certain hope, dreamt of, though if it would become certain who could say.” This can also be said of Field of Honour. The novel, which came a year later, expressed the end of a world that by then belonged to the realm of irrecoverable fantasy. When the novel was finally published, Aub had already endured two years in prisons across France, Algeria, and Morocco and was living in exile in Mexico, where he remained with his family until his death in 1972.
Amidst all its historical specificity, the psychological astuteness of the novel, clearly borne of personal experience, is what ultimately elevates the book into the realm of the literary. Aub's realism extends beyond politics to the ideological—how beliefs animate a worldview, sometimes in open defiance of the facts. The most fervent among the anarchists, socialists, and fascists in this novel participate in the elections and mobilizing, military victories and tactical and strategic setbacks. But even as they recognize certain exigencies, face up to certain facts, there is a sense in which they do not take heed. Their passions rage all the same; their fervor is inviolable. That they cling to their beliefs is a drama all its own, one in which political realities are merely one kind of reality, projections and imaginings another entirely.
Jonathan Blitzer is a writer living in New York.