The Forge by Arturo Barea has been on my Read-Next shelf for decades.  I spent a very fruitful year in Spain in the late 1970s and returned often, trying to grasp the gold ring of remaining, which I never accomplished but, as for many, Spain remains much in my mind.  For some reason  I thought The Forge would be about the forge of the civil war, 1936-39, the Battle for Madrid, or the Battle of the Ebro.  I’d done a lot of reading about the war, translated much of Max Aub‘s magnum opus about it, visited battle sites and interviewed some who had fought or suffered after the Francoist imposition.  When I finally turned its  fragile pages (Faber and Faber, my guess is the 1930s) I was surprised and moved by what I found, not a journal or fiction of war but memory of growing up in Spain, mostly Madrid, in the 1910s and 20s, in a world long gone, modernized and sanitized beyond recognition.

Just the opening lines evoke something we might see today only in movies made of times long ago and far away.

The wind blew into two hundred pairs of breeches and filled them.  To me they looked like fat men without heads, swinging from the clothes-lines of the drying-yard.  We boys ran along the rows of white trousers and slapped their bulging seats.  Señora Encarna was furious.  She chased us with the wooden beater she used to pound the dirty grease out of her washing.

The book is divided into two parts, the first from childhood to Barea’s first job, and leaving boyhood– about the age of fourteen, the second, and less evocative, into his adulthood. He was born into poverty in Madrid the year the Eiffel Tower went up in 1889 to a mother who was also a washer woman.

Sometimes the lye would burn right through her skin and make pin-prick holes all over her fingertips.  In the winter her hands used to get cut open; as soon as she took them out of the water into the cold air, they were covered with little crystals of ice.  The blood would spurt as though the cat had scratched her.

But for all that, he had friends who played together with the makeshift toys and numberless accidents of such a childhood: using heavy wheelbarrows as race-cars, fingers being crushed, a friend on crutches from a father’s beating, tossing chestnuts still in their prickly casings at passers-by;  a fat priest who lives with a pretty young girl known to be his daughter, or his niece or something; processions of the Virgin; an iron Viaduct over a main street which “swayed and trembled, like in an earthquake,” and at each end of which two policemen patrolled, “to keep people from throwing themselves over.”

His mother is so poor she sends him to live with an aunt who discourages her from visiting, as a bad influence on his proper upbringing.  She dresses him in a “starched white collar, silk bow tie, sailor blouse with gold braid, and shining patent leather boots,” and takes him to the cafe where people of the “better class” gather, which does not keep him from playing in ways probably not now allowable

I went off with Esperancita who had been pinching me from behind my chair because she wanted to play.  We plunged into the labyrinth of screens, chairs,and sofas.  The sofas ran along the walls, and we loved to scramble on all fours through the sunken lane between their backs and the tables.  When we banged our heads against a table and got bruised, we stood up on a sofa to look at ourselves in the big mirrors.  Our shoe-soles left marks on the seats and Senor Pepe, the head waiter, came and ticked us off (sic). We tried to wipe out the marks by slapping the sofa but clouds of white dust rose up and our hands left red patches outlined in dusty white.

One chapter takes us out by six mule-team coach for a several week visit to relatives in the country-side, strange even to him: the wineskin maker (some out of cat skins) ; the sieve-maker, the cooper, the rope maker; the saddler; the draper.  Lugging through the town of Mostoles, famous for a brash Mayor’s declaration of war against Napoleon, he recalls his own grandmother who was a child when the French came to the villages along the Guadarrama, “killing children with their bayonets.”  The family legend has it that she was lowered by a basket down a well and hauled up to be fed when the soldiers weren’t looking.

He gives a wonderful food tour of the area, where,

“…in Brunete, the only fruit was grapes from the vines over the house walls and they were not ripe yet.  The only meat I ever saw there was lamb and pork from the last slaughtering, laid in pickle or smoke-cured. … I preferred the food of Mentrida and Navalcarnero to Brunete … where my mother’s people lived.  Mentrida had orchards and gardens, game, partridges, and rabbits, and there were fine fish and eels in the river…the village always had plenty of beautiful grapes and tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. 

Anyone who has spent time in Spain will recognize the on-going conversation, everywhere, about food, its sources, preparation and presentation.  This didn’t come recently with a nouveau-foodie culture. 

The center piece of this boy-hood adventure, and the title of the book, is the forge in Mentrida.  “My Uncle Luis was the village blacksmith, and his two sons…were his assistants.”  Barea helps his cousin pull the chain of the bellows to “fan the coal until the iron was glowing white and throwing sparks.”

Uncle Luis belonged to a race of men which has almost disappeared; he was a craftsman and a gentleman.  He was so deeply in love with his craft that to him the iron was something alive and human. At times he talked to it… He was a Castillian of the old breed, a man with a cast iron stomach.  He rose with dawn and “killed the worm” as he said with a glass of brandy which he himself had distilled .  Then he went to work in the forge. At seven he had his breakfast, a stewed rabbit, or a brace of pigeons, or something on that scale, with a big bowl of salad….

It’s a wonderful, quiet excursion back into a time we can only imagine,  until…

I am no longer a child.  I am working. I am already sleeping with women.  But the school still sticks to me as bits of egg-shell stick to a chick’s bottom.

… They have all taught me how to live.  And nothing they taught me is any good for living.  Nothing, absolutely nothing.  Not their numbers and not their Biblical history.  They’ve deceived me.  Life is not what they teach it to be.  It’s different.  They’ve deceived me and so I must learn by myself about life.

He rebels against the strictures of life an an unpaid ‘learner’ in a bank and finally quits when he is fined for breaking the glass desktop, despite his entreaties to be given padding beneath the hammering of the stamps being used on hundreds of documents daily.  He walks out the door.

The Calle de ALcala was full of noise. Newspaper vendors went by shouting, with enormous sheaves under their arms.  People tore the papers out of their hands.  The European War had begun.

It turns out I am not alone in praising it.  George Orwell mentions it in the September, 1941 issue of Horizon, a British literary magazine:  “…a fragment of autobiography, and we may hope that others will follow it… if the Fascist powers have done no other good, they have at least enriched the English-speaking world by exiling all their best writers.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has called it one of the ten best Spanish novels following the civil war.

And it also turns out that what I have read is the first of three volumes. The Second, titled La Ruta, (The Track), follows Barea into his compulsory military service in Morocco during the “War of the Rif” from 1920 to ’25 in which he sees the beginnings of General Franco’s political career.  Volume three is La Llama (The Clash, or The Flame) and is indeed his experience of the civil war, and then exile, between 1935 and 1940, with a major section devoted to the siege of Madrid.

The three volumes together are La Forja de un Rebelde (“The Forging of a Rebel”) and are translated by his wife, Ilsa Barea, herself of Austrian origin and a journalist and author in her own right.  The English is quite good.  Reading it today any vocabulary that might catch the eye could as well be from an earlier time, or Britishisms, as from infelicities rising from her non-native grasp of it.

Barea himself, once in exile, worked for the BBC Spanish service, contributed to journals, published short stories, several novels and critical appraisals of Unamuno and Garcia Lorca.  His Valor y Miedo waits my reading, and following the pleasant surprise of this, The Forge, I’ll certainly read at least the third in the series, La Llama, the one upon which his reputation as a writer began to grow.