I first heard about the philosopher Walter Benjamin on a trip to Portbou. In my travel writing, I described the station as a Spanish Crewe with tracks shooting off in all directions, and the town as a place where French tourists are frisked on their way over the border. But it must have been a whole lot bleaker in 1940 when many of those crossing this frontier were in fear of their lives.
In this novel, episodes involving Walter Benjamin are interwoven with the fictional story of some Spanish refugees. For those who already know what happened in Portbou this is a bit of a chronicle foretold. Nonetheless, the Benjamin storyline is the most riveting part. This may be due in part to my personal interest in finding out more about Benjamin as Arpaia’s novel evidently has a solid historical basis with references to events and important figures of the time.
However, the other half of the story, dealing with the Spanish republicans is also a believable tale about refugees. This storyline ties in well with other reading on the subject as the characters get involved in key civil war battles. There is little doubt that Arpaia, a journalist and former history teacher from Naples, has done his homework.
Laureano, the narrator, is an old man and long-time exile in Mexico, reflecting back on events. In his younger days he was involved in the Asturian Uprising in 1934, when the region’s miners rebelled only to be crushed by right-wing government forces in what was an important event in the lead up to the Spanish Civil War. Laureano gives his account of fighting on the Republican side in the war with his friend, Mariano. They are in the Basque Country when it is bombed by the Germans, a tragic event that was, of course, most famously reflected in Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernika.
Laureano escapes over the border into southern France where he relates the misery of the Spaniards gathered in internment camps there. On the way, he catches a glimpse of the celebrated Spanish poet Antonio Machado who is also fleeing for safety but who will breathe his last after only a few weeks in France. Machado’s grave can be found in the sophisticated French seaside resort of Collioure, some 20 miles north of Portbou. The grave is easily found today as it is still adorned with bouquets left by visiting admirers.
A common theme of the exiles in this book is that they feel let down by the way they are received, and later exploited, by the French authorities. Laureano finds a lover called Mercedes in Barcelona. She’s from Portbou, where the story inevitably concludes. The protagonist speaks joyfully and nostalgically about his Barcelona love affair, which was a welcome escape from life on the Aragon front. The same theme can be found in other works on the Spanish Civil War, such as Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom.
But what of our philosopher? Benjamin is hoping to obtain a visa that will take him to America. He is confronted with bureaucracy wherever he goes and the reader has a growing sense that Benjamin is waiting in vain for something that will never happen, rather like the colonel in that Gabriel Garcia Marquezstory. Benjamin is a depressed and melancholic character who only finds consolation in his work. World weary, he looks older than his years. Constantly on the move, the only place the divorced and lonely Benjamin feels at home is ‘his place’ at the National Library of Paris.
In fact, it becomes clear that he values his work more than he values his own life. This applies in particular to his magnum opus – Das Passagen-Werk, known in English as The Arcades Project. Arpaia describes it at one point as “a sweeping portrait of nineteenth century Paris”. Greatly misunderstood during his lifetime, Benjamin lives a frugal lifestyle borrowing from notable friends like Arthur Koestler and Berthold Brecht, whose appearances add further authenticity to a story that mixes fact and fiction. It is perhaps easier to empathise with people you know really existed.
Benjamin was a German Jew as well as a Francophile. At the start of the Second World War he is detained at the Stade de Columbes. Koestler had also been detained there and wrote in Scum of the Earth (a book in which he described his prison camp experiences): “Walter Benjamin, author and critic, my neighbour in 10, rue Dombasle in Paris, fourth at our Saturday poker parties, one of the most bizarre and witty persons I have known.” This is interesting because it differs greatly from Arpaia’s portrayal of Benjamin as a humourless and morose character. To be fair there was little for Benjamin to feel jovial about by the time the Nazis arrived.
The translation by Minna Proctor reads very well on the whole despite some curious toponyms. For some reason the region of Aragon and its capital city, Zaragoza, are left in Italian (Saragozza, Aragona) as is “Maiorca”. Minna Proctor is clearly not a soccer fan either as Laureano is said to play ‘centrefield’ in a football match: a quick check with anyone interested in the game or even a viewing of John Huston’s football flick, Escape to Victory, which was shot in the aforementioned Stade de Columbes, would have told her the correct term for the position.
Arpaia’s use of short chapters keeps the suspense moving while his lucid and controlled prose is pleasing on the eye and the chapters narrated by Laureano in the first person are a little reminiscent of Hemingway in style. But Arpaia complements his pared down prose with an occasionally curious and original turn of phrase such as “I had a horsefly of an entirely different stripe buzzing around in my head”. The Angel of History will linger in mine for a long time to come.
The Angel of History by Bruno Arpaia is published by Canongate
Steve Porter first moved to Spain in 1998 and has travelled extensively around the country working as a teacher and translator in Galicia, Andalusia, Valencia, and Catalonia. He is the author of an ebook entitled The Iberian Horseshoe – A Journey, which is being serialised by badosa
.com. He currently lives in A