Maria de la Concepción Martí Fuster, better known as Ada Martí, was born into a middle class family in Barcelona on 1 July 1915. She became an anarchist, a highly cultivated intellectual and a writer of great fluency in Spanish and Catalan. A university graduate, leader of the Federación Estudiantil de Conciencias Libres (Student Free Thought Federation), and active in the Mujeres Libres, she impressed and charmed the youngsters of her generation with her beauty, intelligence, wide reading, educated conversation, intellectual passion, her flowing dark hair and white clothing.
During the fighting in October 1934 she was wounded alongside Jaume Compte defending the CADCI building. Well versed in — and could quote from — Kierkegaard, Unamuno, Freud, Reich, Romain Rolland, Gide and Rabelais … she corresponded with Pio Baroja whom she regarded as her mentor. In April 1936 (and again in October) she published two stories in the ‘Novela Ideal’ series published under the auspices of the Revista Blanca.
Her room in Poble Sec (Pueblo Seco) was crammed with books, and she was a regular frequenter of the social gatherings or salons (tertulias) held each afternoon on the fourth floor of the Casa CNT-FAI, that were conducted over a Paraguay tea by González Pacheco, founder of the ‘Teatro del Pueblo’, and in which Simón Radowitzky, Vicente Torné, Antonio Casanova (one of the founders of Argentina’s FORA) her friend Dolores (Eva) Cascarte and others took part. It was at such gatherings that Ada met and fell in love with Lunazzi, a militiaman from the Durruti Column, before severing all connections with him the day he turned up sporting military uniform.
Towards the end of 1937 she spoke at the congress in Valencia that launched the FIER (Federación Ibérica de Estudiantes Revolucionarios/Iberian Revolutionary Student Federation), publisher of the journal Fuego, of which Ada was the editor-in-chief. She also confronted Serafín Aliaga of the Peninsular Committee of the Iberian Libertarian Youth Federation (FIJL) arguing that the FIER should be more than just a forum for pointless philosophical discussions and should be an active anarchist and trade union body.
Ada was at the forefront of the education drive launched by the Workers’ Institutes, the object of which was to make further education accessible to young workers; even though the Institutes were short-lived, surviving from 20 December 1937 until the Francoist push against Aragon, at which point many of the youngsters enlisted.
During the civil war, Ada published many articles in the most diverse publications: Estudios, Evolución, Esfuerzo, Ruta, El Amigo del Pueblo (mouthpiece of the Friends of Durruti), Libre Estudio, Tierra y Libertad, Nosotros (paper of the Valencia FAI), Mujeres Libres, Acracia, the single-issue Fuego, etc.
Ada was as flighty and volatile with her lovers as she was uncompromising and radical in her thinking. During the civil war she espoused an anti-collaborationist line that earned her the label of “piel roja” (redskin). A non-conformist and iconoclast, she repudiated the cult of personality and penned an article opposing the deification of St Durruti and St Francisco Ascaso. Her series on the role of women in the revolution, as published in Libre Estudio, are both provocative and level-headed, identifying woman as a person with a duty to liberate and educate herself as a free individual, quite separate from her female gender.
From an early age she identified with nihilism and existential pessimism, which she had imbibed from the works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, arguing that “anarchism is like silence; merely to speak of it is to deny it.”
During the Second World War she led a nomadic, semi-clandestine existence, helping Spanish refugees and was a member of a number of agrupaciones, without ever taking part in the French resistance, considering it as overly nationalistic. Despite unwavering support from Antonio García Birlán (aka ‘Dionysios’) and Gaston Leval, she was grievously wounded when she was prevented from rejoining the CNT in 1946, a decision that has never been adequately explained. Possibly it was down to her refusal to collaborate with the Stalinists who had murdered the revolution in Spain in the fight against the Nazis; or because her sex life, which acknowledged no taboos or rules, offended the moral code then prevalent within the CNT. This led to a painful parting of the ways; isolation was the price she paid for her freedom.
A voracious reader, she developed an interest in the existentialism of postwar Bohemian circles in Paris; and for the ‘Café Flora’ and Edith Piaf, and her letters urged people to read Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Breton, René Guénon, Robert Brasillach (shot as a collaborator), the Pole Milosz, Meister Eckhardt, Taoism, Ernst de Gegenbach, Mazo de la Roche …
In 1946, in response to a frantic appeal for help from a friend, Dolores (Eva) Cascante who in 1943 had made a trip to Vienna in the company of a Nazi officer who had fallen in love with her, she vouched for Dolores as an antifascist. Not only do Eva’s unsettling letters confirm their common love of literature but also a close personal relationship that went beyond mere friendship and mutual love and point to a sort of sentimental “tyranny” based upon their shared determination to be free and looking beyond any repressive or possessive Christian morality; this seems to bear out Ada’s obligation to render Eva whatever help she sought. Ada and Eva revelled in the tricky art of seduction, bestowing upon their on-off lovers an unforgettable, extraordinary experience that satisfied and enhanced them. On pages 167 and 168 of his book Entre la niebla, Abel Paz offers a masterly account of his own brief one night of romance in 1941 with Eva in Bordeaux.
Ada’s heady love life despised the notion of marriage, but, paradoxically, she married a Danish teacher-writer, the father of her son Frédéric, born in February 1948. In September that year she divorced and was awarded residency of her son, despite the father’s protests; after that he lost interest entirely. In the 1950s Ada settled in Paris.
On 30 November 1950 she wrote to her girlfriend Adora (Adoración Sánchez) “ the struggle for material things has done for whatever there once was in that might have been passed on. All that remains is a sensitivity to suffering.” Separation from her son, whom she was unable to see because she could not afford the trip to the boarding school he was attending, tormented her to the point of desperation. “What’s the point of having children if you cannot be together!” She was acutely aware of her selfless character, starkly contrasting with her inability to seek or accept a helping hand herself. Her reluctant and ineffective grappling with the problems of everyday life and the prospect of a slow, living death in her inner self took hold of her mind: “It looks like everything that matters, everything of any real importance has died in me.” And there was also this dark musical metaphor: “A harp makes no music with its strings broken.”
She fell in love with Boris, a reasonably well-to-do Russian bookseller, with whom she shared an apartment on the Boulevard Raspail. Boris bought her a bookstall on the banks of the Seine and hired a “charlady”. Her domestic problems resolved, joy and the appetite for living returned to her. As she travelled around buying books she met her old friend and one-time lover Ginés Alonso in Toulouse; they had had a brief affair in Barcelona during the civil war, after which they had corresponded with each other, on and off. In 1953 Boris gave her a daughter, Claudia, and that seemed to snap the delicate balance. Boris took off. Once more everyday problems became an unbearable torment. Nightmares and insomnia merely added to the mix.
In August 1956 her friend Ana Sánchez, living in Barcelona, visited her in Paris while consulting a specialist with regard to her heart problems. In Ana’s opinion, Ada was dressing sloppily, wearing baggy male clothing. By then she was living in Saint Germain-des-Prés with Roland, a cultured and educated book-keeper. The children were living in a guesthouse. Ada surprisingly asked Ana to adopt both her children and went into a sulk when she declined. The following day she faked a suicide attempt. Ana returned to Barcelona disillusioned: her girlhood dream shattered. Roland also deserted her.
In the autumn of 1957, Abel Paz bumped into her when she came to his second-hand bookstall. By then Ada was living with the Hungarian exile Georges Villa in a dark and gloomy apartment at 115 Notre Dame des Champs, close to the Boulevard Montparnasse. Sparsely furnished and strewn with aborted literary drafts. Her children were still in a guesthouse. Her work as a second-hand book-seller on the banks of the Seine, with a kiosk on the Quai des Grands Augustins beside the Pont Neuf stocked with Spanish literature barely afforded her a living.
In her correspondence she built up and knocked down wistful thoughts of family and homeland, the sadness of a wretched family life and separation from her children. The boundless preoccupation caused by defeat and the rootlessness of the exile, added to an inadequate diet, manifested itself in an overpowering insomnia that undermined her frail health even further. She bemoaned the painful loss implicit in the loss of use and fluency in Spanish and Catalan (her mother tongue) due to her total immersion in French. And was tormented by being unable to commit herself wholly to literature, being at full stretch trying just to cover her rent and the upkeep of her two children.
Her son Federico (Frédéric) died on 29 August 1959, having failed to come round from an anaesthetic applied during a low-risk surgical procedure. There was the stark paradox in her son’s not being able to wake up and she not being able to sleep. She placed her daughter in a convent home. She felt a failure as a writer and made a number of attempts to taker her own life. In her nightmares the voice of her son called out to her. Her self-analysis was as profound as it was sinister. In her letters she lucidly explained what she construed as the crazy rebelliousness of the poet who refuses to come to grips with reality and escapes only to return, reborn, after each suicide bid, with more of an appetite for life than ever. She told her friends that, mindful of past failed efforts, she was savouring an out-and-out rebellion against the oppressiveness of a life burdened with suffering.
Her partner Georges Villa moved heaven and earth to look after and protect her. She died on 1 December 1960 from an overdose of sleeping tablets following a horrible night of insomnia, delirium and fretting which ended with her swallowing all the tablets left in the tube, in an understandable and urgent search for rest. Her last words were: “I just want to sleep.”
Her funeral (on 6 December) was attended by around thirty friends, a few of whom were Spaniards or Catalans, like Carmen Quintana. Virtually none of them had known her in her glory days back in revolutionary Barcelona, such a long time ago. Her daughter Claudia was received into a convent and none of her friends could do a thing to prevent it. So vanished, broken, one of the freest, most sensitive and brilliant women of her generation.
After her death Abel Paz (Diego Camacho) collected materials and correspondence from Ada’s acquaintances and friends, with an eye to writing a biography that he never managed to publish. This obituary notice would never have been possible without his research.
Agustín Guillamón (translated by Paul Sharkey)