Spain was the country of some former life of mine, I’m sure.  I loved living there as a younger man and since a winding road took me elsewhere I try to keep an eye on my second home  from afar — the news, recent films, the occasional novel.  Last month an acquaintance told me she’d done a translation of  The Mule by Juan Eslava Galán.  Had I read it?

I hastened to.

I hadn’t known of Eslava Galán at all previously so didn’t know when I began what his preferred metier  is –though it turns out to be historical fiction [over 50 books and essays,] from which this seems to be a departure.  The Mule [2003, tr 2008] is a light, often humorous  story of Juan Castro Pérez, a corporal and a mule driver in a battalion of Franco’s falange, fighting the Republicans south east of Madrid  from Sept 1938 to the end of the war in April, 1939.  Castro has two things on his mind, getting Concha, a young lady of a respectable family, to succumb to his wiles, and bringing Valentina, a very fine mule which wandered into his care, through the war and back to his family.

He has the sweet naivete of a country bumpkin, amazed by the story of a zeppelin, vowing to Concha he is the son of a well to do landowner, a Marquis in fact, though his father is actually the groundskeeper for the Marquis.  He asks his Lieutenant to write love letters for him and listens dumbfounded as his superior officer drunkenly confesses to sympathies with the Reds.

As Castro came from a Red region of Spain, though he switched to the Fascists, he has many friends on the other side.  They run into each other from time to time, putting aside ideologies and uniforms to reminisce and make plans for good times in the future.  There is plenty of “guy” talk, as would be true in a war novel, but always done with a light hand.

Both sides calmed down and all they’d do was talk shit over the loudspeaker at night.  So a national would brag ‘Red Roger!  We had potato stew with ox meat for dinner tonight!  How were your lentils?’  The reds would get mad  ‘If you weren’t such bastards, you wouldn’t take it up the ass so much, you Franco loving fuckers!’  ‘And if you weren’t such Pasionaria -loving commies sons of bitches you might know who your fathers were; only reason I don’t curse your father is it might be me!

Though Castro gets dumped by Concha, after she discovers his actual bonafides, he has the good fortune in the closing weeks of the war to come upon, while trying to get Valentina back from the Republican side,  some old friends ready to desert from the Republicans, about to lose the war.

“Manolico, What are you doing here?” Castro asks.

“Just trying to get taken prisoner, see if we can make it out of the war alive.  Can you do it?”

“Take you prisoner?  I …. don’t get it.”

“Christ, prisoner!  Yes!”  Shouts the sergeant.  “Lets get a move on; we want to make it to a concentration camp before they bump us off.”

An enterprising reporter, hounded for morale boosting stories, hears of Castro’s deed and splashes the news all over the front page.  Castro becomes a war hero.  Franco himself pins a medal on him, a beautiful creature seduces him in a room that actually has curtains (!) and Concha, changes her mind.  She is overcome with love for him.

It’s an amusing story, with nice touches of irony and the juxtaposition of common sense against the stupidity of war.   One of the only Spanish novels I’ve read with a Nationalist at the center of the story.  Like many Spanish stories this one is more of a tale, wandering to the end, without the worked-out climax and resolution we expect from Anglo-Saxon writers.  It’s OK though,  We feel satisfied on closing the book.  A good story with a memorable character, and surprisingly of a civil war of such bitter memories, a tale without anger and revenge at the center.

I did have a few quibbles with the translation, nothing serious but I thought it should be toughened up in a few places.  This is a story of men in war. A few marked Americanisms could easily be replaced.

“You can’t fake it”‘ Shouts a lunatic from the train.  “We know you’re all reds, and will give you your comeuppance!”

“This is going to be the john!”  Heliodoro calls from the brake-box.

“A kitchen corporal informs them that its chow time.”

“Castro addresses a pen-pusher …”

I wouldn’t have used “concentration” camp in the dialog quote above, as it has moved so far from its original Spanish meaning.  On the other hand, the several letters Concha writes to Castro to reveal her emotions in almost literate Spanish are nicely done.  You’re and your are mixed up, sentiments is misspelled, averse is written as two words.  The over wrought sentimentality combined with  the formality of Spanish letter writing brings us to a time and a place very nicely.

I don’t know that I’ll rush out and read another Eslava Galán, though In Search of the Unicorn, for which he won the prestigious Premio Planeta in 1987 might attract me.  With a little direction from someone more knowledgeable than me, one of his histories might be good say, The Secret History of Sex in Spain (1992) or The Loving Life in Rome (1996.)

The Mule would be a good read for anyone going to or recently coming from Spain.  A good book for any Hispanophile.