Silences from the Spanish Civil War, by Jane Duran

Silences cvr

Jane Duran’s father Gustavo Durán, a composer and musician, enlisted in the Republican army on the first day of the Spanish Civil War.  He saw active service, distinguishing himself and rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.  At the war’s conclusion he was obliged to go into exile and never returned to Spain, dying in 1969, before the restoration of democracy.  Jane Duran was born in Cuba but has lived in England since the 1960s.  Like many veterans of wars generally, her father never spoke about what he experienced during those three years, so these poems are her attempt to understand what he went through, the barrier he erected round it, and the wider implications of the war for Spain.

That refusal to speak, linking it directly to the war’s outcome, is the subject of the first poem, ‘My father’s silence’, which concludes: ‘He lays down his arms./He raises his arms over his head./He will not tell’.  Holding up one’s arms as a sign of defeat contrasts with the image of soldiers fording the Ebro earlier who also raised their arms, but then they were ‘holding their rifles high above the water’ (‘Crossing at Miravet, 1938’).  A single gesture shifts in meaning from resistance to capitulation.

Talking about it only served as a bitter reminder of humiliation and injustice.  The silence is not just Gustavo’s, as a vignette of Jane’s uncle’s house in 1959 suggests.  It is entitled ‘Not Talking about Franco’.  So Jane has to learn about the Civil War from books and travelling in her father’s footsteps rather than from his testimony, and there is a limit to how far her research will take her in understanding this rocky country of the mind.  But words can help; she meets another child of Spanish exiles in London and they swap accounts, ‘so all those photographs I had seen/became moving people’ (‘The Pyrenees’).

The sadness of her father’s situation is that despite his internationalism he can never return to his homeland and is forever wrenched from those to whom he was close.  His wandering becomes his family’s wandering.  Jane, on Crete, ‘almost Spain for my father’, looks at the locals and wonders what it is like to live in one place all your life (‘Elounda, Crete, 1966’).  Going back to Spain, her roots, is something that she, in different times and circumstances, can do, retracing landscapes Gustavo saw in war, now peaceful and fruitful but still holding the memories of conflict, ‘torn up grass’, ‘a cruel river’ (‘Spanish Civil War’).

She feels an instinctive connection with the land he knew, attempting in imagination to see it through the eyes of those who were there during the war.  She finds its detritus still scars the landscape: a crushed gas mask, an opened sardine tin marked 1938.  Such moments help her to slip back in time:  ‘But if I follow I will be with my father there./I will know who he was and I will mourn with him’ (‘To the Aragón Front’).  Trying to put herself in Gustavo’s shoes in her travels around Spain, at one point Jane feels exhausted and gets blisters (‘Research’), and this seems a connection, but of course it is only a faint echo of what he endured.

Many of the poems are recreations of ephemeral moments in the war: Republican recruits having lessons in how to build a trench; a child trying to fasten a man’s leggings as he prepares to leave for active service; drinking wine from a goatskin; celebrating the arrival of International Brigades reinforcements, representing fraternal solidarity and the knowledge that the Spanish people are not alone.  A woman walks across a square with a mattress on her head accompanied by a neatly-dressed boy; only at the end are we told that this is Barcelona, January 1939, and we realise that they are fleeing the rebels poised to enter the city.

Later poems deal with the defeat: the sound of executions; villagers spat on as they return from concentration camps in 1943; and of course exile.  All these snapshots evoke what it was like to be there.  Jane is accompanied, or imagines that she is, by someone returning after a long time away so that she can see it through their eyes – ‘After so many years away … what do you still remember/of the massacre?’ (‘Eye Witness’).  But this recreation only goes so far; memories can only be ‘almost retrieved’, however hard one tries.

Finally she can put it in perspective.  The concluding poem, ‘The Warehouse, 1998’, depicts a line of pensioners sitting whiling away the time in plastic chairs in the shade of a warehouse overlooking the site of a battle.  She does not ask questions about the war, what they did, who they fought for: ‘It is all so long ago now’.  We are not even told which battle was fought there.  It is perhaps, after all those years, an unwillingness now to let the weight of the past define her, a letting go,   For all of the words that try to excavate the past, in the end they cannot alter it.  The final lines of the poem, and the book, are: ‘Here in this sunlight, this silence/they rest in and break, and welcome me to’.  She has come full circle in understanding her father’s silence.

Jane Duran’s poems are supplemented by a useful essay by Paul Preston which provides a brief overview of the course of the war and its brutal aftermath to set them in context.  One of the most memorable talks I think I have ever heard was at school when an elderly gentleman who had fought in the International Brigades visited to talk about his time in Spain, an event I suspect was arranged by my history teacher, Alex Richardson, a Marxist who went on to edit The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left (1992).  Jane Duran’s poems bring the tragedy alive at a personal level in a similar way.

I was a keen stamp collector as a youngster, and among the commonest stamps to be found in bags of kiloware were those bearing the portrait of Franco.  These had mostly arrived on postcards sent by holidaymakers from Spain as it opened up to tourism in the 1960s and 70s.  Even then I found it strange that such large numbers of people would choose to sunbathe on its beaches with no concern for how the current regime, the illegitimate leader of which was depicted on the stamps they licked to say what a good time they were having, had come to power over the bloody corpses of its opponents.  In contrast to their thoughtlessness, these poems are a fine tribute not only to Gustavo Durán’s memory, but to that of all who fought with him to uphold the rightful government of the Spanish Republic.


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