Away From Propaganda At Last
• Death in the Morning. By Helen Nicholson. (Lovat Dickson, 5s.) The Epic of the Alcazar. By Major Geoffrey McNeill-Moss (Rich and Cowan, 9s.) Reviewed by MICHAEL DE LA BEDOYERE From the growing avalanche of books and pamphlets on Spain we have not so far selected a "Catholic Herald Book of the Week " — and for good reasons. A good book here and there may have been missed, hut on the whole the literature on the Spanish war, emanating from both sides, has been bad. In the rush to print facts or what the authors believe to be facts—to put it charitably in some cases— writers appear to have forgotten that even for propaganda purposes a book that is not literature, even in a quite low sense of the term, will have practically no effect.
The canons of literature, as opposed to documents or book-making, arc not just the rules of a game: they are the principles to be observed if what the writer has in mind is to be conveyed to the reader. A hook should provide a contact between two human beings, each of whom has his own mental furniture and his own emotional make-up. To achieve a real contact between the two a certain artistic and technical skill is needed on the part of the person who wishes to achieve it.
I think I can honestly say that the first book I have read on Spain which has made me see the war and understand its meaning, which has made me feel that 1 might really have been there and experienced it myself is Death in the Morning.
I am not surprised that the author is a trained novelist; I am still less surprised that the book has the most modest of purposes: to describe the experiences of a little group of relatives and friends in Granada during the first two or three months of the conflict. I read it immediately after reading an account of life in Madrid during the Red Terror. I happen to believe that the latter document states the truth, but the fact is that the human mind cannot take in lists of horrors and the piling up of facts. It believes them or disbelieves, but in either case remains more or less cold. The experience is not conveyed; there is no point of contact between such facts and one's own experiences, even when imaginatively heightened. Oddly enough. it is easier to see a terror in history, Nero's persecutions or the French Revolution, than a contemporary terror.
Miss Nicholson, though she incidentally tells the stories of Red behaviour as she heard them from the people amongst whom she was living, is far more interested in conveying a complete human picture on a much smaller canvas.
Let me show you how she deals with an atrocity: "Then she told me of a man in Seville —a foreigner—whose head had been cut off by the mob. And they played foot ball with it. she went on. When the people were asked why they had done it, they said it was because they hadn't liked his face.'
"' How very Spanish! ' I remarked. " ' But how cruel! ' she exclaimed.
"` Yes, of course, but they are like that. A Spaniard's actions towards you always hinge, in the last instance, on whether he likes or doesn't like your face.'" The explanation is perhaps even more ghastly than the story, yet it does explain and make credible. The incident is framed, given its form.
The picture is conveyed of a number of ordinary women, living in constant fear of death by raid or bombardment, utterly uncertain of the future with the possibility of nameless horrors, yet remaining human, constantly adapting themselves, thinking of the little things of life, suddenly overwhelmed by some dreadful horror (such as the killing of a friend about to give birth to twins or the execution of an old servant for spying). Out of this human story, described with rare beauty and delicacy of perception, . there emerges the general meaning of these incidents of war, the emergence of a new spirit in Spain, " the miracle of a re-birth of the Spanish soul, and I felt that the Fascists might be right in their prediction of a Spain that should at last be united, free, and great."
The truth of this is not weakened—as a lesser writer might have thought—by reports of incidents that showed that the Fascists did not always behave as little gentlemen.
Death in the Morning, in my view, will do more to convert the sceptic to the essential rightness of the Nationalists than a damn propaganda books. It is a human book, and a very beautiful one.
Major McNeill-Moss's Epic of the Alcazar is a different class of book altogether. The story it has to tell will he for all time one of the great stories of the world, and our own generation will probably never take it in as will our descendants. The greater part of this work was written in Toledo itself, and the author has gone to endless trouble to discover the truth even about small details. The talc is told from day to day. the narrative being occasionally broken for the purposes of resetting the tale in the frame-work of the war and of the Spanish character.
Thus on one page we have the following excellent analysis of the Spaniard: "The Spaniard is literal. . . He has no second meanings. no mental reservations. His standards seem narrow and unadaptable. To him our own standarus seem in sotne matters so loose as to be hardly standards at all. He may fail to live up to his ethics but they will not bend and suit themselves to his actions. In one way, at least, this singleness of heart has proved ruinous to him. Faced with conflicting interests we look for compromise. He cannot conceive it. What was right remains right. Talk cannot change moral values. . .
"The history of Spain is the history of a people who had singleness of heart, often purity of heart, and who have suf fered endlessly because of it. So in Spain politics have ever been dominated by religion; that is her history. In England, religion has ever been dominated by politics; that is hers."
And there is a wonderful chapter on the spiritual force that dominated the defenders. He reports the following description of feelings during the siege given to him by a survivor: "We are few, they are many. But numbers are not all. We believe. we have faith. They do not believe, they would destroy faith. They think: that is in the brain. We pray; that is in the heart. I myself. sometimes I cry. But I am not afraid. If I die, I die. But that is only myself. What 1 believe cannot die.
" As I take aim I pray; as 1 throw a bomb I pray.
"We are filthy. We are not washed. Our clothes stench. We have insects. All that is around us is reeking and disgusting. We live half in filth. But we live half away beyond it. We do not swear. We do not blaspheme. We do not allow ourselves carnal thoughts. Those who have wives within the Alcazar do not take them.
"The Reds think. Thinking is nothing. Presently they will give way. We believe. That endures for ever."
Not until the modern English mind begins to get a glimmering of that mentality will it begin to understand the Spanish war. Until then, it seems to me, it should refrain from judging. Let it concentrate, if it will, on the mysticism of the Reds (Major McNeill-Ross is a very fair witness who, in allowing the Reds to be worthy fighters up to a point, greatly enhances the value and meaning of the Nationalist cause), but let it keep silent about the Nationalists.
On the whole, I think, the moral to be drawn from these two really great books on Spain is the need for humility in the face of a spiritual conflict which we shall only begin to understand when we have shared a little of it. As Catholics, we can have some understanding of the Nationalists. Let us for the moment try to deepen it and to convey something of its spiritual meaning to our friends.