TO explain the significance of Douglas Day’s singular novel, Journey of the Wolf, which chronicles a heroic Republican soldier’s illegal return home 34 years after the close of the Spanish Civil War, I need first to construct a kind of perspective without which a discussion of this strikingly original fiction would be incomplete.
At least since Dr. Johnson told Boswell, “There is a good deal of Spain that has not been perambulated. I would have you go thither,” the English, and in time we who call ourselves the Americans, have frequently manifested what I refer to as the Hispanophile Imperative—the utter inability to resist writing books on Spain. The zenith surely occurs in the Romantic period and its long undying afterglow, in the various Don Juans, in George Borrow’s archetypal gypsies, in Washington Irving’s sketches of a quintessentially Romantic Granada.
The nadir belongs in our time, and although we have some very fine books—Brenan’s Spanish Labyrinth and Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War spring at once to mind as do John McCormick’s The Complete Aficionado and Robert Vavra’s superb photographic essays, The Bulls of Iberia and Curro— we also have a virtual farrago of terrible books, especially novels, about Spain, the listing of any of which would be pointless.
The characteristic that most books on Spain share is their explanatory nature. Within a European or Occidental context, however, if we understand Spain to represent the most radically different culture from our own, that explanatory nature becomes understandable (see how easy it is to fall into?). Spain is different; the Romantics and their modern followers went there seeking—and finding—a peculiar exoticism (actually orientalism is a better term, but this is not the place to quibble), the decipherment of which to the reader is proportionately related all too often, especially in fiction, to the writer’s fascination with his subject, and not, unfortunately, to his ability to make it exoteric.
What Douglas Day has done, mirabile dictu, is to disregard the styles and the fascinations of the vast majority of his predecessors and to present us with a pure vision of Spain instead of the more usual vision of “pure” Spain, diluted—or explained—somehow to suit Anglo sensibilities. The result is a novel quite as rare in English or American fiction as the subject it paints: an “old” man whose sole concern in life is the poesis of his death.
The “predecessor” who looms largest is quite obviously Hemingway: whether it is justified or not, we seem collectively unable to speak of Spain, of los toros, or of the Spanish Civil War without his shadow falling over the discussion. Thus Journey of the Wolf will inevitably be compared to For Whom the Bell Tolls, with which it has in common practically nothing. Those who liken the books will do so because they fail to realize how essentially American Robert Jordan is, and how authentically Spanish Sebastian Resales, the wolf of the title, is made to be. I have no intention of “attacking” Hemingway whom I regard as the greatest English language stylist of our century. However, as Hispanist I ought to point out that his Civil War novel is full of error, fantasy, and speculation.Journey of the Wolf, on the other hand, and I must be candid here, far exceeded my expectations with regard to its accuracy and authenticity. As critic, I will venture that it is a much better novel than Hemingway’s: Journey of the Wolf is not, therefore, the best novel on the Spanish Civil War since Hemingway; it is simply the best novel on the Spanish Civil War in English.
The clean, quiet, understated beauty of this fiction resides in Day’s ability to capture certain essences of the Spanish character and to superimpose them onto a highly researched and notably accurate infrastructure of fact, geography, and history. The Spain through which Rosales travels—homeward in space, backward in time to his alternately idyllic and bellicose youth in the highest and most remote mountains in Spain—is exact, geographical, and grammatical. The Hispanist’s (and in the future, the Spaniard’s, I predict) jaw begins to loosen as this story of an exile’s return unfolds. What a relief at first, then what a pleasure, to watch how authentically—with none of the gross generalizations or inept Anglo-Spanish characterizations that one always fears and almost always encounters—Journey of the Wolf develops. Develops is not strong enough: whistles along with the accuracy and flatness of trajectory of an aluminum hunting arrow.
Sebastián Rosales, “known in other times as “El Lobo,” “after 34 years of life in France, “this woman’s country of people who speak and act like maricones, like faggots,” decides to go home: “He was going to find his life in the only place it could exist for him. He was going home.” That he would also find there his death, we understand from the beginning with the inevitability with which—if we stop to think about it—we understand our own mortality. The power of Resales’s character derives particularly from this thoroughly Spanish “tragic sense of life”: the knowledge, the arid certainty, of death’s finality and the necessity to control, temper, and value life in the face of, and in spite of, this nada.
Perhaps the most difficult theme, as well as the most pervasive, in all of Spanish art, it is one that Day has understood with harrowing lucidity and presented with masterful control. Alongside Day’s Spanish sense of death, Hemingway’s digressions about the “smell of death,” bullfighting, and the nature of suicide, sound whiney and romanticized. Rosales is no philosopher: he merely takes what we would call existential anguish for granted (he would call it la vida). If we were to seek more valid comparisons we would have to consider some of Unamuno’s characters, or perhaps Cela’s Pascual Duarte. To understand the full implications of what Pedro Salinas called this “culture of death,” we would have to go also to Goya and to the poetry of Antonio Machado and the unplumbable poetic depths of Lorca’s later poetry. Outside Spain only Camus, whose Spanish and African heritage are hardly coincidental, has traveled this way. The few who saw and understood Manuel Artiguez in Fred Zinnemann’s film, Behold a Pale Horse (1964), will recognize a compadre in Rosales.
Some undoubtedly will dislike this novel, perhaps intensely. There exists among us a certain type of critic who becomes flustered or even hysterical when one mentions this Spanish sense of death. Meaningless words such as machismo and “psychopathological” fill the air, and one regrets that such critics will confuse a few readers. Yet I have no doubts that in time the serenity and the veracity (what many critics mean when they call a novel a “classic”) of Day’s art will silence them: the man he has portrayed in Journey of the Wolf, “ El Lobo,” is not describable in modern terms since, as his lupine sobriquet suggests, he belongs to a vanishing species that I can only refer to as ancient Mediterranean man, the kind of man whose traits, habits, and beliefs stem from a primordial way of life that understands the earth as the source and substance of everything, of life and death itself.
Rosales, who earned the name “El Lobo” for his efficacy as a killer early in the war (this kind of sobriquet is typical, by the way, in Spanish), is a chthonian man who must be discussed in his own terms. To try to corner him with narrow, critical terminology is to fail to understand the kind of natural man he is and to display a risible ignorance of his meaning as a character, Perhaps it is worth pointing out that such critical hysteria is one of the unnatural products of exactly the kind of society against which Rosales stands at bay with the canny and solitary nobility of the wolf, able to live and die on his terms and in his own territory but categorically unable to succumb. The kind of mountain fastness in which Rosales was raised before the war was one of the few places such a man could still be found: it is to that piece of the Spanish earth that he must return in Day’s novel.
At one point in his journey home Resales realizes, “it was the land and the sky, much more than the people, that were drawing him back,” From what does Day fashion his chthonian man; from what substance or cloth or range of experience does he make this man who conceived of himself during the war as a survivor: “Let all these die, he thought, looking around him at the column of troops straggling down the swampy road: I will last; I will live to go home”? Let me begin to answer by saying that this novel comes complete with a bibliography: Day’s extraordinary talents as biographer have stood him in good stead.
First he has reconstructed in Rosales’s memory parts of the Spanish Civil War—that archetypal fratricidal nightmare the collective blame for which so haunts us that no party in the Western world seems able entirely to escape its shades. Then he has created a contrapuntal maze the spatial poles of which lie along an axis which stretches from Rosales’s exile in the French Pyrenees to his home in those nidos de aguilas as he thinks of them, those eagles’ nests, which are the tiny, pristine, highest mountain pueblos of Spain in an area between Granada and the sea called the Alpujarras, which lies just below the snowline on the south flank of the Sierra Nevada; and the temporal poles of which run from the time of Rosales’s youth in his mountain village (when Spain was about to flare into its ideological holocaust) up to the time of Rosales’s clandestine return in 1973, when, unknown to Resales, Spanish terrorists had just blown President Carrero Blanco’s car— with Carrero Blanco in it—over a five story building. In Journey of the Wolf, Resales is constantly running a part of this maze, now through tourist-and-terrorist-ridden modern Spain, now through memory the horrors of the war. Ostensibly, the journey is “El Lobo’s” trip home; in actuality there are the many journeys that make up the life and death of Resales: his passage into manhood, the retreat from Malaga during the war, the march from Barcelona into exile, his perilous and solitary trip home, the final journey of transito, the Spanish euphemism for the ultimate passage into death.
While this construction sounds complicated, in reality it is the stark simplicity of this novel that emerges as its salient trait. The episodic narration, never intrusive or showy, moves us along with “El Lobo” on his journeys in the most natural fashion: Day has managed his transitions in time and in space so well that the rhythm of the novel seems biological or vital, paced even as “El Lobo” paces himself on his return.
Since Rosales belongs organically or ethnologically within the mainstream of the picaresque tradition, no sense of quest (Rosales seeks no Grail) obtrudes, and Rosales carries no “literary” impedimenta on his journey home. On the contrary, he is taciturn, suspicious, and distrustful of anything intellectual or doctrinaire. As author Day pays tribute to the great poet Antonio Machado by writing him into the novel, Rosales observes absently that “Poets die, too, my captain.” When he attends the required lectures of political indoctrination by the Communists, he realizes ironically that “all this was only words, not much different really from the religious instruction he had suffered, with the same silent cynicism, in Poquiera.” He regards the International Brigades as “dangerous adventurers” full of “ideological enthusiasm.” On his trip home he thinks “that he had been robbed of 37 years of his life—his life in the Alpujarras—by some stupid idea, and cause, What a stupidity. Again he realized how much he preferred the land to the people. There were no causes and ideas in the land, It took people, people and their damned thinking, to come up with reasons for men to kill one another.” In an ironic Hitchcockesque vignette, Rosales has his hand shaken by a well-meaning American liberal: “Rosales let his hand be shaken.What’s to honor? He looked from the yanqui to himself.What does this amiable fool know?”
At every turn, author Day, the biographer of his fictional— and therefore higher, to follow Aristotle’s reasoning—character, purposely throws away the chance to make this a novel fraught with symbolic or mythical importance. In this process he paints a very real man in a very real Spain and depends on us to infer the echos, the resonances, the concentric patterns. Rosales’s journey will not become a quest; “El Lobo” remains a very lupine man but will not undergo that final metamorphosis into wolf. The “Lobo” who finally achieves his destination by a brilliant passage over the top of the Sierra Nevada and then sets about the ordering of his own demise is unlike any fictional character in American or English literature: the “Lobo” who is slammed back into his lair by the guardias machine gun bursts is both the victim and the master of his— and his country’s—fate; yet he remains in a Spanish way characteristically unsymbolic by virtue of his anarchic individualism.
In Resales there is something of the campesino facing the firing squad in Goya’s The Third of May, that solitary figure whose pathos stands out in such bright relief against the gray and faceless rank about to execute him. Yet there is one essential difference between the two men: although they die in the same fashion and although that death is the central subject in both pieces, Goya’s brave campesino has no choice, no alternative but to perish in the utter despair written on his face; Resales perishes too, as he knows he must for having had to kill a gypsy in Granada, but Rosales directs—actually stages— his own death, and he dies laughing, cursing his executioners and provoking their fire. Rosales says: “Me cago entus muertos” (I shit on your dead), the worst insult mouthable in Spanish, by which he voices exactly his encomiastic hatred for these men of the guardia civil, and in which he sets the sierra ringing with his visceral, ancestral, and still very real denunciation of “the two Spains.” To Rosales, death is victory.
Rosales’s fictional history tempts me to use the word tragedy and reminds me of what Francis Fergusson said of Hamlet, that “he is content, now, to let the fated end come as it will. . . . that he feels the poetic Tightness of his own death. . . . that his death was the only adequate expiation for the evil of Denmark, according to the ancient emotional logic of the scapegoat.” Resales is not exactly content to let his end come as it will; rather, as he wills it. Is that tragedy? Surely he does feel the poetic rightness; it is, literally, his own ecstatic creation. Is there anything in him of the scapegoat? There is most certainly some kind of hieratic residue about this man such that when his essential humanity has been snuffed out, we are made, by contrast to him, cathartically aware of the lack of control and the lack of authentic emotion that threaten to eviscerate us and to erase the configurations of our own original humanity.
What I believe that means is that Journey of the Wolf not only goes beyond the Hispanophile Imperative but becomes a kind of Spanish novel written in English: in that process, a unique and startling achievement, it attains the dimensions of an authentic work of art.