Barcelona is home to arguably one of the most famous football clubs in the world and the greatest football player of this generation – Lionel Messi.
Barcelona is famous or infamous for another reason. Depending on whom you ask, for it is the home to a long brewing secessionist movement. In 2014 an estimated 1.5 million Catalans demonstrated in support of the
referendum to be held in September, flooding the main boulevards in their capital city of Barcelona with the Catalan star and stripes: five red bands over a yellow background, signifying the trails of blood left by a dying martyr during the Catalan defeat by the Spanish in 1714. This red over yellow background (known unofficially as the Senyera kit) is sometimes sported by Barcelona players, while playing at Camp Nou-the spiritual home of Catalan football.
It is Barcelona’s unrequited love affair with independence that forms the backdrop of Joan Sales terrific book Uncertain Glory (not to be confused with the economic tome written by Jean Dreze` and Amartya Sen).
Originally published in 1956, this novel by a proud Catalan native, who fought in the Spanish civil war, was probably one of the first to tell the story from the vantage point of its losers. As they say, the history written by the hunted instead of the hunter is always a tad bit more interesting. The book was recently translated into English for the first time by Peter Bush.
The book is underlined by a distinct sense of sadness and pathos; all of them probably underlined by Sales’s brutal experiences during the civil war. It was on 19 July 1936 that the opening shots were fired in what was to become the Spanish civil war. Spain remains a nation torn between its predominantly Basque and overwhelmingly secessionist Catalan identities.
There is much that is known about the civil war; ironically all of it documented by famous English writers like George Orwell. It is perhaps a less-known fact that Orwell fought in the civil war, along with some 2,000 Britons who served as volunteers in the International Brigades. Not surprisingly, a quaint plaza in Barcelona has been renamed the Placa de George Orwell in his honour.
This review is not about Orwell though. It’s about Joan Sales and his terrific book. The book depicts presciently how the civil war left a bitter, still festering divisive legacy. Rather than harp about the politics of the time, he focuses on how the atmosphere of the day was, what people lived like; the constant gnawing lump in the throat which threatened those living under a period marked by constant upheaval.
The book is a mesmerising meditation on the universal themes of death and loss: loss of ideals, loss of innocence, loss of sanity, loss of delusions.
This is a book that rages against fascism and anarchism with a ferocious intensity, and criticises both sides of the conflict. This may explain why the novel was met with a studied silence upon its release in the 1950s.
The title of the novel echoes two lines from the end of the third scene of the first act of The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare, included in chapter XVII of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir:
O, how this spring of love ressemble th
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away!
It’s a sign of the collective amnesia of our times that the book when it came out did not receive much media attention. After all a forgotten civil war is not a sexy news item. Despite the lack of wider attention the novel is an important one of our time. It tells how not a single decent person wins in this story of war and revolution, only the criminal minded end up benefiting from the situation. The author does manage to avoid the gritty and monotonous tone which most war novels invariably segue into. He combines the elements of an epistolary novel, the diary and the veiled autobiographical in spinning a narrative which is both rich and real. The characters are people you can relate to: products of their vexing circumstances; torn between the desire to escape and stay back and fight.
Characters with abundant humanity, empathy and a moral fibre which even war cannot break. This was an admittedly hard book to read. It was, however, worth every minute.
Barcelona is not just home to one of the greatest football clubs in the world. It is also home to a civil war which never faded away.