Arts & Entertainment
Casualty of war
Book Review - Savage Coast: A Novel - By Muriel Rukeyser
The train crosses the border without any trouble. But then it slows down, stopping at almost every crossing. Men with rifles exchange words with the engineer before waving it on. The train comes to a halt in a little town called Moncada. The confused passengers are stranded just a few miles from their destination in Barcelona.
“Savage Coast” is a fictionalized memoir of the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Author Muriel Rukeyser was on her way to Barcelona to cover the People’s Olympiad, a progressive alternative to the 1936 Berlin Olympics during Hitler-era Germany. On the day Rukeyser arrived in Spain, a cabal of military officers, with the support of Spanish conservatives and much of the Catholic Church, rose against the democratic Popular Front government. They had planned a quick coup d’etat that would leave the army in control of the country. Instead, the government defeated the uprising in some major cities by arming the massive anarchist and socialist trade unions; in Catalonia the unions took control of the province, beginning a social revolution there.
The war would last three years before the better-armed fascist forces — supported by Italy and Nazi Germany — defeated the government forces. Armed workers’ militias and volunteers who had streamed in from a number of countries had been significant in holding back the fascists. They knew their fight was the opening round in the coming war against Nazi Germany.
Rukeyser and her fictional alter ego, Helen, knew very little of this context at the time. The novel, written between 1936 and 1939, portrays Helen’s gradual comprehension of the significance of what was happening in Catalonia and her commitment to help. A poet and a writer in the modernist literary movement (think D.H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf), Rukeyser was less interested in telling an objective story of those days than in conveying how it felt to be a confused though well-intentioned traveler in the midst of a civil war and revolution.
Particularly in the early parts of the story, Rukeyser captures this confusion: The passengers don’t understand the language, have no access to news, and are unsure what their status is and how or whether they should help. Some of the passengers are left-wingers and naturally support the people’s militias; others are apolitical middle-class tourists or even fascist sympathizers. Through it all, Rukeyser sprinkles her narrative with fine poetic images, like this description of a passenger: “The boy was very gay, dark, his mouth was almost purple in the young, intense face, the smile was a dim archaic smile. Remembered, in Renaissance paintings, the purple curved lips, the youth, this grace intensity.”
Helen falls for Hans, a buff German athlete in exile because of his politics. By the time she gets to Barcelona, the military revolt has been largely defeated in the city, but there are still intermittent shoot-outs and sniper fire in the streets. Athletes in training for the Olympiad, which is eventually canceled, are fired upon, and one is killed. In this dangerous environment, Helen finds that she has the capacity to let go of fear and accept danger — as well as Hans’ love, even as he volunteers to go to Saragosa to fight the fascist army.
As Rukeyser writes on the first page of the novel, “Everybody knows who won that war.” By telling the story from Helen’s point of view, the reader sees how the initial defeat of the fascists in Barcelona and the simultaneous social revolution felt like a turning point, a time when the Nazis and fascists might lose in their attempt to dominate Europe. We understand some of the inspiration that brought people from all over the world to fight in Spain.
Rukeyser’s novel was never finished. Parts are fragmentary, though the fragmentation fits in with the style and with Helen’s sense of confusion. There’s only one place where the unfinished nature of the book is jarring — when, with little transition, Helen and her friends begin calling a pair of left-wing American schoolteachers “the bitches,” possibly because they tend to complain, or perhaps as a coded homophobic insult to two independent and assertive women traveling by themselves. In any case, this small piece of the narrative is an accurate testament, possibly unintended by the author, to how cruel even idealistic people can be toward those who don’t quite fit in.
Ironically, after she went home, Rukeyser never was able to get back to Spain during the civil war; she couldn’t find a newspaper that would give her credentials as a reporter there. Like Helen, who constantly finds herself wishing for a way to participate in what is going on around her in Moncada and Barcelona, Rukeyser was never able to be a part of that great struggle, and that unfulfilled desire appears on many levels in the novel. The editor who brought the novel to recent publication attributes its rejection by previous publishers to its avant-garde style. But, given it was never finished, a deeper reason may be that Rukeyser herself had trouble fully expressing her inner conflict.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.