Fairly early in Antonio Altarriba's The Art of Flying, the protagonist, the author’s father, deserts his post in the Nationalist Spanish army and crawls across the battle lines, where he is apprehended by a band of soldiers fighting for the Republic. Dropping to his knees and declaring his allegiance to the CNT-FAI, the militant wing of Spanish anarchists, he is embraced by his captors, a militia group known as the France brigade. One evening, he is seated with his comrades around a table drinking brandy when one of them leaves and returns with a box wrapped in cloth containing the espadrilles of the famed anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, who had been killed twenty days before.
I mention this episode because the word “espadrille”—alpargatas in Spanish—is one of the few for which I needed a dictionary in the course of translating the book. Nor did I know what “espadrille” meant in English. A simple canvas shoe with a hemp or jute sole, the espadrille was typically worn by rural farm workers for whom rubber-soled shoes were an inaccessible luxury. During the Spanish Civil War, Republican soldiers were sent to the front in espadrilles, and for the members of the France brigade in Altarriba’s comic, Durruti’s espadrilles serve as a symbol for the principles of self-renunciation and egalitarianism that were the lifeblood of the anarchist movement.
The espadrille survives now mainly in the traditional fairs of Catalonia and Aragon—the region of the protagonist’s birth—and as footwear for beach bums. It thus serves as a symbol for the myriad of cultures subsumed, with a greater or lesser degree of unwillingness, under the rubric Spain. The end of the Civil War would bring about an unprecedented repression of Spain’s minority cultures to the end of creating a uniform national identity with one flag, one fatherland, and one language, to use the fascists’ motto. Languages as distinct as Galician, Catalan, and Euskera—the last of these a pre-Roman language of which Aquitanian is the only recognized relative—were classified as mongrel dialects of Spanish. The teaching of them was prohibited, and those who used them in public were subject to harassment and ridicule. Though Spain’s autonomous regions have fought since the transition to democracy for greater cultural and linguistic recognition, the effects of Franco’s nationalizing policy can be seen in the way that minority languages and dialects increasingly favor Castilian loanwords over older autochthonous equivalents.
The Art of Flying is a work of recuperation—of national memory, of private experience, but also of the linguistic and cultural diversity of a country yoked, for decades, under the homogenizing policies of a fascist dictatorship which even today does not lack for admirers. From the moment the protagonist leaves his farming village of Peñaflor for the city of Zaragoza, he is ridiculed as a hayseed: by the businessmen who employ him, the passersby who mock him, and the fascist soldiers on furlough who beat him up in the street. Altarriba captures skillfully the subtle differences in linguistic register that divide the protagonist from his tormentors without relying on the kinds of hoaky tagwords characteristic of, say, Carl Sandburg. Rendering not only these nuances, but also the particular cadence of the Newspeak that muffled independent thought on both the left and the right in the wake of the Second World War, has been one of the most important aspects of this translation for me.
Translation is literally a carrying-over, largely for the benefit of others. But translating is also a special kind of listening. Though I speak Spanish at home and am comfortable in the language, it is still not quite mine. Certain phrases in The Art of Flying only really struck me when I came to translate them. So often, we read too fast, but to translate is to temporize, and it was perhaps only on putting them into English that I gave adequate attention to the author’s eloquence. Though I would not wish to detract from the importance of fiction, I felt particularly bound to do justice to Altarriba’s work, knowing that the events dealt with therein took place; especially as, when I find myself in Spain, my travels are invariably punctuated by the sight of a church wall where Republicans were shot en masse or of plaques commemorating the birthplace of some fascist hero. Often, one hears translation described as an art; if that is the case, the art lies in helping the reader to hear what one hears oneself in the nether-zone between target-language and source. If I have been able to approximate that in the pages reproduced here, then I will be satisfied with them.