A Most Uncivil War
Written by Nicolas Lalaguna in 2016
Well done to Nicolas Lalaguna. The Unite member has written a highly readable novel that skilfully captures and explains the background to the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939 and was to result in a brutal, nationalist dictatorship led until his death in 1975 by General Franco.
It is 1917. Pedro, whose father and grandfather began their lives as peasants, has taken over his dead father’s role in Aragon as the manager of a Duke’s gardens. The Duke is descended from a long line of large landowners on whose agricultural fields, peasants are forced to toil for very little reward.
The economic hardship and political powerlessness of workers and peasants throughout Spain has led to the development of trade union and socialist and anarchist political organisations that want a more equal society. This threatens the power of the likes of the Duke and the authority of the Catholic Church and the military that ensures that the status quo is maintained.
Pedro is uncomfortable in his role and is well aware of the hypocrisy of the local priest, a child abuser who enjoys a healthy lifestyle, whose appeal to peasants to worship God is little more than a demand for them to obey the Duke and resist appeals to get collectively organised.
The garden manager becomes besotted when sixteen-year-old Marianela enters his life as a domestic worker in the family home that he lives in with his mother and aunt, both of whom are keen to see the family move further up the social ladder by fervently backing those who currently rule Spain.
In return, Pedro is never far from Marianela’s thoughts. However, when the pair do eventually consummate their desire for one another, the outcome is an unwelcome one when the young woman becomes pregnant and later has a son, Salvador.
If the Duke discovers Pedro is the father he will have him thrown out of his job and home. Desperate to avoid again becoming a peasant, Pedro blames the peasants who work for him by contending that they have forced themselves on Marianela. The peasants are brutally beaten almost to the point of death before being chucked off the estate.
Marianela is forced to stay working for Pedro, who later marries his younger cousin, Maria-Theresa. A son, Juan Nicolas (Juanico), is born to the married couple in 1921 but Maria-Theresa dies during childbirth. Juanico is then brought up by Marianela and he and Salvador in their formative years become close friends.
Spain though is changing rapidly. Workers are organising, there is strikes and demands for factories and land to be collectively owned. The ruling class response is brutal and many people are killed or thrown into prison, where they are often tortured to death.
In his own bid to avoid prison Raul has escaped from Barcelona. In 1926 he arrives in the village and immediately makes contact with the local branch of the anarchist union, the CNT. With Raul’s assistance the local branch slowly gathers support over the following years amongst local peasants, many of whom are understandably wary of what might happen to them if they revolt against the Duke and his military and police henchmen.
In turn, Pedro, despite his distaste for the society in which he lives, continues to remain silent and in many cases back the brutality that is used by the authorities to maintain control.
As he grows up Salvador becomes one of the keenest supporters of Raul’s ideas. This is something that worries his mother.
When a leftist government led by President Manuel Azana narrowly wins the general election in 1936 and begins to make small, progressive changes the ruling class is not prepared to take this lying down. With General Franco at its head there is a right-wing military coup that in turn is militarily resisted by those who desire a more democratic society. The village and surrounding lands are expropriated by the peasantry, who immediately begin to improve their lives. But will they be allowed to build a better future?
In his book, Lalaguna is great in bringing to life his characters, all of whom represent, in some cases thousands of similar, Spanish people caught up and actively involved in the Spanish Civil War. He understands the complexities of the political situation that was unfolding before them and the decisions that they were forced to take. As such he has written a compelling story that readers will not only find educational but also highly dramatic.