An Honest Man

The Forging of a Rebel

by Arturo Barea, translated by Ilsa Barea
Viking, 751 pp., $15.00

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…

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