Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

In John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the snarling malcontent Jimmy Porter - whose father fought in the Spanish Civil War - complains that "there aren't any good, brave causes left". First spoken in spring 1956, the line proved a trifle premature: Britain, France and Israel soon colluded in the Suez invasion, and Soviet tanks quashed the Hungarian uprising. What Osborne missed was rather the blazing certainty that the war in Spain had brought to overseas supporters of the elected Republic against Franco's mutiny.

There could hardly have been a worse week - or a better week - to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish war. In Spain itself, the Socialist premier Zapatero has called for the "recovery of historical memory" and so broken with the impunity and forgetfulness that many Spaniards had swallowed as the price of liberation after Franco's death. And across the Mediterranean, in Lebanon, the fog of war descends again - a refresher course in the mixed motives and twisted morality that partner civil and cross-border strife. On the ground, much of Spain in 1936 - and for years after - felt more like Beirut than like some story-book battleground.

So, 70 years on, revisionism about the war fights on two separate fronts. On the Spanish side, historians and amateur researchers - often students - dig up (in many places, literally) the hidden evidence of Franco's crimes. Abroad, the Republic's half-cock defence of democracy looks more confused and compromised than ever - as Orwell could have told the cheerleaders by 1938.

At least British publishing has acquitted itself pretty well in the latest struggle for truth. In recent months, the lingering trauma of war has fuelled memorable novels in translation from Dulce Chacon ( The Sleeping Voice), Juan Marsé ( Shanghai Nights) and Almudena Grandes (see our review on page 22). And Anglophone travel-writers and historians have done well by (and out of) Spain, as they have ever since the Romantic heyday of Richard Ford in the 1840s. To Giles Tremlett's Ghosts of Spain we can now add Jason Webster's ¡Guerra! (also reviewed on page 22).

For the big picture of the war, all the more powerful for its blending of narrative intensity with emotional restraint, there is no rival to Antony Beevor's masterly The Battle for Spain (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). Beevor published the first edition of his epic history in 1982, when Spain's infant democracy had just felt threatened by a pistol-waving fool in a silly hat. The impetus for this revised but still hugely readable version, which incorporates new findings from both local historians and freshly opened Russian archives, came from his Spanish publisher, Gonzalo Pontón. Not surprisingly, the torrent of extra knowledge, as Beevor admits, tends to "swell the number of vital questions", not to resolve them.

Even so, the "hypocrisy" of the British and US embargo on arms sales to the Republic still stinks. And the latter's blunders and betrayals did not make it equal in savagery: Beevor gives a figure of 38,000 non-combatants killed in the "red terror"; 200,000 in the Nationalist "white terror". His coolly devastating account makes you suffer not only with all the victims, but even with the perpetrators seized by dehumanising hate: "the first casualty of war is not truth but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual."

Yet we know that all the horrors have a happy ending. Three decades of freedom in Spain have seen "one of the most astonishing and impressive transformations" in Europe. Auden wrote in "Spain 1937" that "History to the defeated/ May say Alas but cannot help or pardon". But soon he backtracked, and said "This is a lie." So it proved in Spain: history could, and did. Will Beirut ever have the chance to follow Barcelona's path?