By Richard Rhodes
Simon & Schuster.
302 pp. $30
‘I volunteered for the International Brigade to fight against Franco,” the anarchic British comedian Alexei Sayle once quipped. “Within the week I was in command of a regiment of surrealists on the Aragon front, our artillery mostly comprising giant clocks pulled by teams of trained lobsters.” The joke works precisely because the Spanish Civil War was uniquely surreal.
Richard Rhodes captures that quality perfectly in this sublime little book. In the battle for Madrid, he relates, one skirmish took place at the university. Republican soldiers were holed up in the philosophy building. “We built barricades with volumes of Indian metaphysics and early nineteenth century German philosophy,” the English volunteer John Sommerfield wrote. “They were quite bullet-proof.” Later in the war, a Republican unit encountered an unanticipated enemy while retreating through a tiny town. Their escape was blocked by hundreds of sheep — “a solid agglomeration of wool and meat as impassable as lava.” Elsewhere, English nurses, bathing fully clothed in a river, were told by locals to stop because it was frightening their mules. A vintner in Jarama reminded soldiers to “care for the grapes! They suffer when you hit them.” “So did the humans,” Rhodes writes, “but grapes didn’t take sides.”
“Hell and Good Company” is a not a history of the Spanish Civil War. That’s fortunate, because we really don’t need another one. The war’s popularity among historians, especially romantic ones, has produced a rich literature. This book is instead a collection of idiosyncratic impressions, all delivered in transcendent prose. The title comes from the reflections of Edward Barsky, an American surgeon who fought fascism with his scalpel. “War is psychologically like hell,” he wrote, “and also . . . full of good company.” This book abounds with both hell and good company.
The hell came mainly from Gen. Francisco Franco. His side hijacked the “nationalist” label and then mercilessly destroyed the nation and its people. “Our regime,” he shouted, “is based on bayonets and blood, not on hypocritical elections.” In September 1936, Franco’s Moroccan mercenaries drove Republican forces out of Toledo. Encountering a hospital packed with severely wounded soldiers, they lobbed grenades into the wards. “They blew up more than 200 screaming and panicked men,” the American journalist John T. Whitaker reported, “and [then] they boasted about it.”
The Germans and the Italians were happy to bankroll Franco’s little war, a useful laboratory for their new weaponry. The bombing of Madrid in November 1936 provided a portent of future war. “Three waves of bombing organized the conflagration,” Rhodes writes; “2,000-pound bombs in the first wave knocked the buildings down; 220-pound bombs next made rubble; then incendiaries started fires while 22-pound shrapnel bombs kept the firemen at bay.” Up in the air, bomber crews were isolated from the horror they caused — that, too, was modern war. Down on the ground, however, carnage was inescapable. “From heaps of huddled clothes on the cobblestones blood begins to flow,” an observer wrote. “These were once live women and children.”
The “good company” included volunteers from Europe, Canada and the United States who hated fascism. Their efforts were futile, but futility is often beautiful. “We were so romantic when we started out,” Frederika Martin, an American nurse, admitted. Marching among the warriors was an extraordinary cast of journalists, poets and novelists, including Martha Gellhorn, John Dos Passos, Stephen Spender and George Orwell. “Simply listing their names,” Rhodes writes, “speaks to the importance gifted men and women assigned to a small but pivotal war at a hinge of history, to their conviction and their forlorn hope that success in this small war might forestall a more terrible conflict than any the world had yet suffered.”
Ernest Hemingway, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso often get star billing in this extraordinarily artistic war, but Rhodes deserves praise for shining a light on the less conspicuous doctors, nurses, mechanics and engineers who also made good company. The author unashamedly falls in love with Patience Darton, a tall, beautiful, brave and rebellious English nurse who managed every day to find beauty amid putrefying wounds and floors sticky with blood. I fell in love, too.
The only problem with this book is its brevity. I wanted more of the divinely expressed beauty and sorrow — from Rhodes and his good company. The author explores only what interests him, the result being the most extraordinary book about the Spanish Civil War I’ve ever encountered. His subject is not the war itself but the tremors it produced, the feelings it evoked and the terrible horror it begat. He masterfully extracts huge meaning from small shards of conflict. For instance, reflecting on Miró’s “Still Life With an Old Shoe,” he writes: “Though Miró’s line was confident, the figures he drew emerged brutally distorted, as if they were swollen from the beatings Spain itself was taking.” Perfect sentences like that are delightfully commonplace.
Darton fell in love during the war. (Was Rhodes a tiny bit jealous?) “You’d be surprised at the . . . things we discovered for the first time,” she wrote of love’s avalanche. “Why poets write poetry and the birds sing, and the world was beautiful, and god made men and women and little oddments like that. It was like being at the beginning of the world.” But this was war and her lover a soldier. Franco had an extraordinary capacity to destroy beauty and sow evil. After learning of her lover’s death, Darton wrote: “He was a revelation of how to live and fight against the thing that is trying to ruin the world.” There were a lot like him, a lot of good company, in this terrible, beautiful war.