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Definitive fictional account of the Spanish civil war

A Most Uncivil War by Nicolas Lalaguna (Matador Books £9.99)

THIS is a heartfelt and moving testimony to the millions of Spanish men and women who struggled against oppression in the years leading up to and during the 1936-39 conflict in Spain.

In a clever device employed by author Nicolas Lalaguna, the class war across a whole nation is powerfully distilled into a handful of characters who exist in the fetid confines of a small village in eastern Spain.

In so doing, he exposes the explosive drama of each step taken by the Spanish working classes to attempt to liberate themselves and bring hope and dignity to their lives.

Lalaguna is unabashed in his use of the dialectic as a literary technique and the result is a politically and emotionally engaged work — Marxist literature at its most effective.

In a brutally rigid society, he juxtaposes the lives of the maid Marianela, her illegitimate son Salvador, Raul — a thoughtful and determined revolutionary — and the mass of the agricultural workers against those of the remote and uncaring duke, the vile paedophilic and ultramontane priest, the thuggish Manolo — head of the local civil guard — and Soledad, her employer’s brutally vile mother.

Yet it is around Pedro that the uncertain and unstable synthesis of the novel revolves. Escaped from generational servitude, Pedro struggles to enforce his present social standing against his own inclinations.

He is a painfully conflicted character who resolves his contradictions through explosions of violence and the serial use of sex workers.

He’s the father of Salvador but, following the constricted and hypocritical norms of the day, only acknowledges him in harsh words and ferocious beatings. His relationship with his legitimate son Juanico is equally distant and confused.

Yet his evident disinclination to publicly endorse the vile prejudice and hatred of his fellow bourgeoisie sets him apart from them and makes him a focus of their suspicion.

Lalaguna periodically widens the aperture of the narrative by directing the characters to other parts of Spain, most notably a Barcelona under martial law and the Asturias, the scene of the brave miners’ insurrection in 1934.

Yet the emotional power of this novel is saved for the confines of the unnamed village. We witness the hesitant but long hoped-for assault of the workers against the oppressive forces that join in with Franco’s military coup against the Spanish republic.

We become an active part of the collective and egalitarian society briefly established by the workers’ victory over the fascists and their youth-wing bully boys.

And we cower in horror and fear as the fascists launch a criminal assault by land and air against the nascent society striving to deliver fairness for all.

Only occasionally does the author stumble. The workers’ successful assault against the local civil guard is described in self-indulgent cinematic slow-mo detail, with a forensic depiction of bullets exploding into foreheads. Just to know a fascist has been removed suffices.

Equally, the novel’s postscript, while moving, is an unnecessarily saccharine and almost complacent conclusion.

But this must be the definitive fictional expression of the Spanish civil war in this, the 80th year since it began.

If you read no other novel occasioned by this heroic working-class struggle, then Nicolas Lalaguna’s work will tell you everything you need to know. No Pasaran.

Paul Simon

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