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Uncertain Glory, the Catalan classic of the Spanish Civil War

(By Maya Jaggi/Guardian) Joan Sales’ novel was the first to portray the civil war from the republican side, but gives no ground to ‘glib partisan flag-waving’

If a novel with a Spanish theme is to succeed, says Juli Soleràs, the facetious antihero of this magnificent civil war novel, “the hero just has to be a bullfighter and the heroine a Gypsy and by the third chapter they must be fornicating in a tropical jungle full of wild bulls.” Foreigners “will turn this huge mess into stirring stories of bullfighting and Gypsies”.

Notwithstanding the cynic’s jibe, the “huge mess” of 1936-39 is familiar to English-speaking readers largely through Orwell and Hemingway. Seen through Spanish eyes, Uncertain Glory – originally published in 1956 and now available in Peter Bush’s superb English translation – was the first Catalan novel to depict the civil war from the defeated, republican side.

Banned then mutilated by Franco’s censors for its “heretical ideas” and “obscene language”, it appeared, heavily revised, in this uncut version in 1971. Yet Joan Sales, who fought for the republicans in the Aragon trenches he portrays (and died in 1983), undercuts sides and causes, good and evil. As Juan Goytisolo], the exile who championed the novel in the 1950s, writes in an introduction, it gives no ground to “glib partisan flag-waving” in its grief at the absurd “procession of blood, death and injustice”.

sales3The title evokes the doomed Spanish republic, proclaimed in April 1931, through Shakespeare’s “uncertain glory of an April day” in the precarious “spring of love”. With three characters enamoured of the same woman, the thwarting of youthful passions against the backdrop of the war makes for an undertow of disillusionment – and a riveting read. The protagonists are former student friends from Barcelona and a brother in arms, all drawn to anarchism. Lluís de Brocà, a lawyer posted to the Aragonese front, and Trini Milmany, a geologist and “new woman” from an anarchist family, have a son together outside marriage.

In epistolary form, The protagonists are former student friends from Barcelona and a brother in arms, all drawn to anarchism. Lluís writes to his brother about life in the trenches, and his enthralment to the former maid and lover of a “martyred” Francoist, whose eye is on securing the deeds to her castle. Trini’s letters to their mutual friend Solerás, philosopher-cynic and mordant prophet, are a fascinating record of Barcelona’s home front, with rationing, air raids and a brutal “priest hunt” across Catalonia. The final part is the retrospective wartime memoir of Cruells, a medical adjutant and would-be priest of the slums, who aspires to saving the couple’s informal marriage but has his own crisis of faith.

Nationalists and republicans battle during the siege of the Alcázar in Toledo in July 1936.Where Orwell encountered rats, Sales notes “battalions and brigades of flies”. Drawing metaphors from putrefying donkeys and a mule’s festering sores, this realist novel also juggles with ideas, from existentialism to pacifism, Spinoza to Stendhal (the author translated Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov into Catalan).

There are shafts of humour. Lluís is horrified by mortajo, a regional delicacy of “sheep’s belly stuffed with the unfortunate beast’s entrails”, from which “vapour hisses out as if it were a steam engine”. Some of the sharpest satire is reserved for the “revolutionary carnival”, as Barcelona’s well-to-do hide in exaggerated proletarian garb. Meanwhile, in a curtain raiser for the 1960s, anarchist “free love” is exposed as yet another pretext for unscrupulous men to leave women holding the baby.

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In a polyphonic novel whose voices are operatic (the pompous Llibert is a “sonorous baritone”), Bush conjures deftly with a range of registers, from the archaic dropped aitches of the Aragonese rustics to the prim eloquence of the seminarian. He and MacLehose Press have done a great service in reviving this Catalan classic. The promised sequel, The Wind in the Night, cannot come soon enough. (Full Guardian Review)

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British Library hosts the presentation of the English translation of Joan Sales’s ‘Incerta glòria’

Translator Peter Bush will be talking to Paul Preston, the British historian and Hispanist

(By Vilaweb) The English translation of Joan Sales’s novel Incerta glòria (‘Uncertain Glory’), one of the classics of Catalan literature, will be presented today in London. The event will take place at 6 p.m. in the prestigious British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the largest in the world. As part of the presentation, the translator Peter Bush will be talking to Paul Preston, the British historian and Hispanist, one of the leading international experts on the Spanish Civil War.

The English translation of the Catalan literary classic was published in the United Kingdom on 2nd October by the distinguished publishing house MacLehose Press.

From the start, Uncertain Glory has earned the favour of book reviewers writing in some of the most renowned titles in the British media, such as The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement or the reputable journal Literary Review, and also the Irish newspaper The Irish Times. The reviewers concur in pointing out the value of Joan Sales’s work as a historical document.

They also stress the fact that it gives Anglo-Saxon readers the chance to learn about the Spanish Civil War through a Catalan witness who experienced it from the inside. They thus describe it as an ethical and philosophical novel.

A literary autumn in the United Kingdom

The publication of Uncertain Glory falls within the Institut Ramon Llull’s support for the translation and dissemination of works of Catalan literature. Recently, Arcadia Books published Mara Faye Lethem’s English translation of the latest novel by Jaume Cabré, Jo confesso (I Confess). (Full Post)

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