A novel of artistic strength

August 31, 1994

A novel of artistic strength

To the death, Amic
By John Bryson
Viking 1994, 252 pp., $29.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

In the Spanish province of Catalonia in 1936, ten-year-old twins Enric and Josep mistake the first rifle shots of the Spanish Civil War for fireworks at the opening ceremony of the anti-fascist alternative Workers' Olympics in Barcelona.

As Melbourne writer, John Bryson, relates in his new novel, the twins could be forgiven for being naive because they were growing up in a province where a revolution had put workers' committees in charge of factories, education was free and increasingly secular, women had equality in law, and everyone was calling each other "Comrade". "It seemed natural to me," reflects Enric, "that contentment could replace misery, and happiness was not too difficult to come by".

They hadn't reckoned on Franco's fascist uprising. As Franco's takeover of Spain approaches, Barcelona experiences its first bombing raids, when 500 people were buried in one and a half minutes of terror bombing. The twins, sons of the Secretary of the Tailors' Branch of the anarchist union confederation, the CNT, learn politics very quickly. They help out as couriers and arms smugglers for the anti-fascist resistance which draws in other fighters from humanitarian nuns and priests to prostitute collectives who pass resolutions to refuse service to those men who have not fought for the Republic at the front.

The fascists advance thanks to "50,000 Italian soldiers, German Luftwaffe and 60,000 North African Moors". Their way is smoothed because of the Stalinist craziness of persecuting the anarchist, Trotskyist and anti-Stalinist communist allies in the Resistance. The twins rebel against the sectarian rigidity of the young Stalinist activist Ramon Mercader (the later assassin of Trotsky) whose eyes reflect "some glint of the ice-pick raised in a treacherous hand".

Dolores Ibarruri (La Pasionaria), Spanish Communist Party orator, however, poses a dilemma for the young anarchists — "she spoke our hearts with her heart ... she was an icon of freedom but her cronies would crush us". Franco settles the matter as his troops march in to crush revolutionary Barcelona behind the tanks of Mussolini. The twins learn then "the stupefying might of evil".

Bryson's novel captures all the heroism, brutality, the political effervescence and crimes of the Spanish Civil War. He clearly feels for the tragedy and greatness of the Spanish people and their revolutionary enterprise.

The novel is structured around short episodes from the war which contain a dramatic moral or key insight at the end of each anecdotal passage. The blend of realist narrative and impressionist, poetic symbolism works well though character development; the political context sometimes remains underdone in the rapid change from scene to scene.

To The Death, Amic is a politically committed novel of artistic strength that deserves a wide readership. Fascism is not a historic curio, nor, as this novel reminds us, is the struggle (if we learn the political lessons of working class unity) that can halt it.

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