Arturo Barea
Arturo Barea; drawing by David Levine

Arturo Barea was born in Madrid in 1897 and settled in England in 1939 after the Spanish Civil War was over. His autobiography, The Forging of a Rebel, first came out in English in three successive parts, The Forge, The Track, and The Clash, and won high praise from the reviewers, among others from George Orwell. The Spanish text did not appear till 1951 when an edition was printed in Buenos Aires, but the censorship has not yet allowed it to be published in Spain. Although it must rank both on literary and documentary grounds as one of the most significant Spanish prose works of this century, it is not mentioned in Angel Valbuena Prat’s four-volume History of Spanish Literature, which appeared in 1964. Very few Spaniards have heard of it.

The story Barea has to tell is a moving and dramatic one. His father died when he was a few months old and his mother was left with no money on which to bring up her four children. She therefore went out to work as a washerwoman in the river Manzanares while the children were either parked out on relations in Madrid or sent to an orphanage. Arturo went to live with his aunt and uncle, who were rather better off. His aunt was a grumpy old bigot, but his uncle, who earned a steady income as the caretaker of a cemetery, was kind and tolerant. In her spare time his mother worked as her sister’s unpaid servant, but she went home every night to her garret in the poor quarter of Lavapies, where she lived with her daughter. As soon as Arturo was old enough he was sent to school at the Escuela Pia, a college run by priests, where his intelligence soon brought him to the top. Then every July he and his mother would leave the stifling streets for one or other of the villages of the plain that lies to the southwest of the city.

Here they stayed either with one of his many uncles and aunts, the most striking of whom was a blacksmith, or else with his grandmother. The account he gives of the life of these villages, some of which lay in cornlands and others in vineyards, is a very vivid one. He has an astonishing memory for sights, sounds, and smells and can describe a face or a gesture so that it comes up before the eyes. This is an accomplishment of the Spanish school of realism, based on minute and almost painful observation, for to the Spanish ego every face is the face of a possible enemy, but his descriptions of character are equally convincing and his comments on things are always to the point.

Arturo grew up to be a quick and precocious youth. In his spare time he read a good deal, principally literature, but also manuals on technical subjects. Secondhand books were very cheap and his uncle provided the money for them. His ambition at this time was to be an engineer and as he was good at mathematics he could have become one if he had consented to go to a Jesuit college. But the Jesuits were bitterly hated by the poorer classes and he refused to do this. Instead when he was only fourteen he took a job as a bank clerk.

His bank was a branch of the Crédit Étranger, one of the largest banks in Europe. The newcomers were expected to work for a year without pay, after which, if they gave satisfaction, as few of them did, they drew a salary of 25 pesetas a month. At the end of six years this would be raised to 100 pesetas. Barea gives his usual vivid account of his life in the bank with its intrigues, its exploitation of its employees, and its doubtful financial proceedings. Then his aunt died, leaving him around 26,000 pesetas—that is, enough to relieve his mother from having to wash clothes again. His uncles and aunts were enraged at his receiving so much, though they got a share too, and there is a splendid scene in which they all quarrel violently. Barea brings out very well both the closeness of Spanish family life and the feuds and jealousies that divide it. Full of his new independence, though he would not receive his bequest till he came of age, he joined the socialist trade union, stormed out of the bank when he felt insulted, and, having reached the age of twenty, was called up by the army.

In his next part, The Track, we find Barea serving as a sergeant of the engineers in Spanish Morocco. At first he was employed in constructing a road from Tetuan to Xauen, the sacred city of the Moors which had recently been occupied by Spanish troops, after which he held other posts in Ceuta, Tetuan, and Melilla. In his preface he tells us that this is not an autobiography in the strict sense of the word and in fact there are some episodes that he describes in the first person but which I suspect he did not witness. One of these is the disastrous campaign against al-Raisuni to the west of Xauen, where he gets the geography wrong.


But his general account of life in the Spanish zone is totally convincing. Both the army and the Foreign Legion were deeply demoralized because they were riddled with graft. Officers and sergeants stayed on in Morocco to make money and after a few years had put by enough to retire on. All returns were faked and there were even cases of officers at the base selling rifles to the Moors. Barea gives us a very lively picture of this, telling his story chiefly through conversations and making us feel the tedium of life in the garrison towns where there was nothing to do but gamble and visit brothels. Unlike other Spanish writers he is very frank about sex. He also gives us his impressions of Millán Astray and Franco, who in turn commanded the Foreign Legion. Then after an attack of typhus which nearly killed him he got his discharge from the army in 1923 and returned to Spain.

Somehow in all this he had found time to learn French and a little English, and he had a gift for understanding machines. This enabled him to get a post in an agency that dealt with patents and he describes the way in which big international corporations prevented useful patents from being registered. Swindling and injustice everywhere! The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera had by this time come in, and Barea met Primo, whom he admired, in a night club and talked to him about Morocco. Then, tired of being a bachelor, he married his novia without being in love with her and had two children.

Since he was now earning a fair income he had moved up into the middle classes, yet he had not lost any of his socialist idealism or his desire to see the exploitation of the poor by the rich brought to an end. This is what makes his autobiography so outstanding. It expresses the view of a man of the working classes looking up from below at the powers that ruled him and, since his intelligence had enabled him to rise out of his class, understanding how they did it. As Spanish writers have always come from the middle class, this book has a truth and authenticity which theirs lack.

Time passed. Primo fell and the Republic came in. Barea’s marriage was now dead, for he had taken as his mistress the secretary in his office. But he still lived with his wife and children, so, as he was now earning more money on commissions, he rented a house in a village near Torrijos where he spent the weekends with them. This was at the time of the Oviedo rising and the tension between rich and poor in the village had become very great. As usual he gives a good account of it. Then came the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of February, 1936, and the tension, aggravated by the Falangist squads, mounted still higher. On July 16, the news came that the army had risen in every provincial capital in Spain, and the Civil War began.

The weak Liberal government at once lost all authority. Power passed into the hands of the various trade unions, whose members were either Socialist, Anarcho Syndicalist, Communist, or Left Marxist. Each of these, or rather each local group of these, set up its own communal feeding center, its own supply service, its own municipal battalion, its own police, its own prison and execution squad. Chaos ruled everywhere. The various groups thought only of themselves, and since they wished to increase their membership middle-class people and fascists were allowed to flock into them. A trade union card, antedated to two or three years, could be bought quite easily.

Barea was a very humane man who hated violence and cruelty, and the executions, which he forced himself to witness, horrified him. Crowds of men, women, and children flocked along the road by the river to look at them. What shocked him most were not the corpses, of which he had seen many in Morocco, so much as the collective cowardice and brutality of the spectators. Revolutions bring out the worst in most people—the hatred and sadism that in peaceful times lie buried under the surface.

He refused to join the party militia, but found work in organizing the battalion of the Clerical Workers’ Union, which he had helped to found five years earlier. He also attended the summary courts which the unions set up to try people accused of fascism and was able to save some innocent rightists. Then, owing to his knowledge of French and English, he got a leading job in the press censor’s office. Here he met the young Austrian woman who was later to become his wife. Ilsa was a highly intelligent and well-educated person who spoke French and English perfectly, and as an active socialist she had come out to Spain to offer her services to the Republic. Barea enrolled her in the censor’s office and, as she sat beside him at his table, he slowly fell in love with her. She responded.


The siege of Madrid had now begun. Shells exploded in the street killing women and children, and crashed into buildings. This affected Barea badly. He had fearful nightmares and then long bouts of insomnia and to steady his nerves he drank too much. Still he persisted, and after the fall of Bilbao in June, 1937, he gave broadcasts to Latin America under the name of “an unknown voice from Madrid.” These broadcasts seem to have been extraordinary for their passion and intensity, and Ilsa on reading his scripts realized that he had in him the stuff of a writer. It was the frenzy that he lived in, the terrors and anguish that sometimes prevented him from leaving his bed in the cellar for hours at a time, that gave such urgency to his account of the life of the besieged city and convey better than any other book has done its horror and suffering. For Barea is always the honest recorder of his own feelings and of what he saw around him, and lacks entirely the partisan spirit.

Meanwhile the chaos of the first days of the war had passed and the government had reorganized the army and the supply of munitions with considerable efficiency. The Communist Party was now playing a larger part in affairs and there was a good deal of intrigue and in-fighting. With the strong backing of Ilsa, Barea had been running the censor’s office with efficiency and imagination, but his neurotic condition and his drinking were beginning to antagonize his superiors and when called to account he became violent and intractable. He was therefore sent back to the base at Valencia and though later he returned to Madrid it was only for a short spell. During the past months he had made a friend of Father Lobo, the only priest who was allowed to say mass in Madrid, and now he went to him for advice and to make a sort of informal confession. The answer he got from that admirable man is one of the best and wisest things in the book.

But Barea was by this time on the verge of a complete breakdown. Ilsa, calm and mature, the perfect wife and mother figure, had kept him going, but now he could work no more and so in February, 1938, he was given permission to leave Spain so that he could recuperate in neutral surroundings. He spent a few weeks in Barcelona waiting for his divorce to come through, then he married Ilsa and they left for Paris. After passing nearly a year there, writing the first volume of his autobiography and earning a scanty living by journalism, he moved on with Ilsa to London just as the troops of General Franco were entering Barcelona.

I first met Arturo Barea in 1943 after the publication of my Spanish Labyrinth and we became good friends. He and Ilsa twice stayed with me in my Wiltshire cottage and I and my wife visited them at their cottage on the Thames. In appearance he was a dark, slight man with a lean, rather worn face—not in the least the type of Spanish intellectual, but suggesting rather a mechanic. The sort of man one would run into in any Madrid café or bar. He spoke fairly fluent English, but with a strong Worcestershire accent that sometimes made him difficult to understand. This was because he had spent his first years in England in that county. He talked well in a serious, straightforward way, but needed frequent glasses of beer to keep him going. He had developed a strong liking for the English country because of its peace and tranquillity: he enjoyed talking in pubs with the local people and growing vegetables in his garden, but his experience in the war and the spate of executions that had followed it had saddened him. Also he missed Spain and the society of his fellow countrymen. Otherwise he was very like his books, truthful and serious and without recriminations or hatred. He died in 1957.

Ilsa made a strong contrast to her husband. She was a large, solid woman who spoke perfect English without the least trace of an accent. She was very well informed on a great many things, even on botany, had a clear, exact mind and an attitude to life that was broad, generous, and humanistic. In short a completely civilized person. She and Arturo were obviously very happy together. For her he was the child and the creative writer, while she was the calm and efficient mother who could provide him with the culture he needed. Her translation of his books could not be improved on.

The publishers are to be congratulated on having brought out an excellent edition with a useful preface by Helen Grant, but the reader would have liked an index as well as portraits of Barea and his wife.

This Issue

March 6, 1975