THE SPANISH HORSE by André Héléna. Translated by Paul Sharkey. eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

Spanish Horse2THE SPANISH HORSE by André Héléna. Translated by Paul Sharkey. 

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IN THE 1940s AND 1950s, ten and twenty years on from the civil war, a handful of Spanish anarchist exiles waged a stubborn rearguard action against the Franco regime. With his novel The Spanish Horse, André Héléna remains the only French author to seize upon this feat in order to pay tribute to its obscure heroes.

Raised between Narbonne and Leucate, young André was 17 years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out. He was obviously affected by the ripples from the nearby conflict and later by the spectacle of the republican defeat when 500,000 refugees, a mixture of soldiers and civilians, flooded into Roussillon in February 1939 via every border crossing.

No doubt a little intoxicated, like so many other writers or poets, by the feverish lyricism of the Spanish civil war, Héléna was happy enough with the suggeston that he himself had been across the Pyrenees while the war was on.

In 1959, the year that The Spanish Horse saw publication, an article Paris-Presse L’Intransigeant had this to say of Héléna: “Once upon a time he was a reporter, notably during the Spanish War when, as the special envoy of Le Petit Journal, he found himself in Teruel with El Campesino.” In 1966, a release from Fleuve noir regarding its newly acquired author stressed: ‘The Spanish War was raging. When one lives along the border, Spain is practically the suburbs. And so André Héléna set off to see what was happening beyond the mountains. He discovered Teruel and Guadalajara, bare-handed in the midst of the abomination of civil war. There he met Kessel and Malraux before scuttling back to France.”

In a 1986 letter to Frank Evrard, a former girfriend, Helene Halsdorff, who had known André in Paris in the years after the war described him as “a kindly boy, but unduly loquacious” and thought she could remember something about his having been “a volunteer with the International Brigades.” His widow, Marthe, also remembers him having mentioned his articles about Spain in Le Petit Journal.

However, doubt persists about the youthful André Héléna’s escapades in the heart of the civil war.

Scanning Le Petit Journal from 15 December 1937 to 20 February 1938, the dates on which the battle for Teruel began and ended, we find no trace of any article over the Héléna byline: dispatches on the Republican attack on the city of Teruel are unsigned and sourced from Zaragoza and Salamanca, on the Francoist side. Le Petit Journal, a pro-republican popular daily newspaper, had in fact been bought over in the summer of 1937 by Colonel de la Rocque for conversion into the house journal of the Parti Social Francais that backed the Caudillo in his crusade.

In the end, there is no appeal against the testimony gathered in 1986 from lawyer Rouzard Danys, a schoolmate of Héléna’s at the high school in Narbonne before entering the legal profession: “according to him, André, still a minor, never got any further than Gerona before being escorted as far as the border by two Civil Guards and got a severe telling off from his father upon his return.

On the other hand, it is obvious that the young Héléna inevitably rubbed shoulders with Spanish exiles who were especially numerous in the southwest of France where they were very active in the maquis and who settled in the area after the war. He definitely saw the camps into which the Gardes Mobiles herded the routed Spanish troops, the Argeles camp maybe and, for sure, the Rivesaltes camp which was quite near to his village of Leucate, which he describes in J’aurai la peau de Salvador (published in 1949), the first of his novels to invoke the legend of the Spanish Civil War.

In that book we find a José Ruiz, a petty thief from Barcelona who had enlisted with the republicans and been caught up in the chaos of the final debacle. With war now over, he bumps into Salvador, a former accomplice whose life had mirrored his own before Salvador joined the ranks of the Falange. From that point on and for almost 150 pages, our hero conducts and unrelenting search for the s.o.b. Salvador who has not only double-crossed him but has also become a stalwart of the Francoist regime. It is this double vendetta — at once personal and ideological — that provides the book with its title “I will skin Salvador”, of course.

Ten years after that, The Spanish Horse was, in a way, a follow-up to J’aurai la peau de Salvador, taking as its backdrop the aftermath of civil war and featuring Spanish anarchists as its protagonists.

Besides these two “black and red” novels, Iberia has a very definite presence in Héléna’s output: it even supplies the setting for two minor books written under pseudonyms — Massacre a l’anisette, depicting bloody score-settling between a gang of thugs from the Pigalle district who have come to Barcelona to fence their loot and a smuggler gang determined to double cross them, and Ne Compte pas sur le sursis, wherein Allied agents arrive to dismantle a pro-Soviet network in Francoist Spain and lock horns with both Falangists and Russian spies — an opportunity for Hélénato ventilate his contempt for both Franco and “that Stalin guy”.

In the pages he devotes to her, André Héléna’s Spain is primarily an assault upon the olfactory senses of the reader, a land of “heavy, breathless air scented with anisette and pistachio”, as well as with watermelon and roasted peanuts, or indeed, fish, sour garlic, terracotta, warm wine and café con leche. The menfolk smoke little black cigarettes as dry and gnarled as vine shoots or mummy’s fingers; the girls all go by the names Consuelo, Conchita, Carmen, Concepcion or Ascension and wear “heavy, overly sweet, almost African perfumes”. Of course, when only mad dogs and Englishmen” are out and about, all of the above are taking a siesta. They drink El Mono brand anis, aguardiente, crystallised rum, muscatel and manzanilla — cheap plonk which, according to the well-advised Helena, goes down like sweet milk but soon has one on all fours.

However, even though Héléna sometimes lapses into tourist brochure cliches (“shady patios”, “water jets weeping into basins”, “wistful guitars”), his Spain is more than the merely exotic setting exploited by a number of mediocre spy books in the 50s and 60s. In Héléna’s “Spanish” novels there is an immaculate authenticity: because Héléna was on familiar, warm, cooperative and sensual terms with what was going on beyond the mountains. When he was at home in Leucate he wore his vigitanes, those typically Spanish rope-soled espadrilles also to be found on the feet of Catalan farmers. And when he ventured as far as Collioure with friends, he was happy to dance the sardana to the wailing accompaniment of the flabiol (flute) and woodwind of a local sardana band.

Héléna’s Spain remains a borderland and his characters never venture too far from the Pyrenees, from the little port of Colera to San Sebastian Bay in the west, taking in Figueras, Pamplona and Oviedo: nor do they venture any further south than Barcelona, even if his exiles, once the skies of Panama turn low and overcast choose to reminisce from afar about “the oppressive heat of the cities of Castile”. Héléna’s Spain is primarily Catalonia, the extension of French Catalonia. Héléna is at ease there and at home as is sensible in the almost documentary opening chapter of The Spanish Horse when he offers of painstaking description of a night-time expedition fishing by dynamite.

There is no denying that the background intrigues in The Spanish Horse is wholly unlikely: the notion that in the 1950s a DST inspector charged with monitoring the activities of Spanish anarchists in Paris should infiltrate one of their groups and get away with it stretches one’s credulity. But that the purpose behind this gambit should be to entrap and arrest a Falangist boss who is bumping off FAI anarchists takes one into the realms of utter fantasy. True, in the immediate wake of the Liberation, anti-Francoist Spanish exiles who had paid a considerable personal price in the Resistance enjoyed the sympathy of local authorities in the departments of South-West France. Radical-Socialist police inspectors were found securing papers for Spanish anarchists; some police officers, former members of the Resistance themselves, would pay a discreet visit to the Toulouse headquarters of the CNT-in-exile to warn of an imminent search operation; and for its part the anarcho-syndicalist CNT naively issued its militants with papers requesting the indulgence of the French authorities towards resistance activities mounted from French soil against the Spanish state.

But by the time in which the novel is set (1959) the political climate had well and truly changed and Francoist police were often working hand in glove with French colleagues in order to suppress the conspiratorial plans of Spanish anarchists exiled in France.

This in Barcelona in May 1955, when the anarchist Francisco Sabaté, nominated as Public Enemy No 1 by the Barcelona police, gunned down a pursuing detective in the streets, the Spanish press carried a police mugshot of Sabaté. Now, Sabaté had never been charged in Spain: the mugshots had been supplied by the French police. In January 1957, while the Spanish police was on the trail of Sabate in Barcelona in the wake of a sensational hold-up, it forwarded a report, drafted in part on foot of confessions by one of Sabaté’s accomplices, to the French authorities who in turn passed it on to the Direction de Renseignements generaux. That report mentioned the arms dump that Sabate stored in Mas Graboudeille near La Preste (Pyrenees Orientates department). The French gendarmerie searched the mas (farmhouse) and Sabate got 8 months in prison and 5 years’ assigned residence in Dijon.

And when the libertarian guerrilla José Lluis Facerías was killed on 30 August 1957 in an ambush in Barcelona, the Spanish police had probably been tipped off by the French police that he had entered Catalonia by irregular means.

Returning to Héléna’s imaginary intrigues, his Spanish Horse, the horse-faced inquisitor ruling over a ghostly network of killers, looks equally fantastic: whist the Falange had played an active part in the crackdown on the anarchists during the civil war, it then surrendered that task to various police agencies of the Francoist apparat, like the Brigada Politico-Social, the Policia Armada and the Civil Guard. But The ‘Spanish Horse’s’ vicious pursuit of libertarian resisters is not unreminiscent of that of their sworn enemy, Barcelona police inspector Eduardo Quintela, who made life hard for the anarchists after the civil war. And the deal that Hernández strikes, passing himself off as a traitor, with the Falangist and notary Escobar is quite plausible. After the civil war, the Falange tried to ‘turn’ many libertarians and a few did turn informer, like Eliseo Melis Diaz who was gunned down by an action group.

Before we proceed, we need to offer the curious but perhaps rather bewildered reader a broad outline of the historical backdrop to The Spanish Horse, ie the urban guerrilla war in Catalonia in the 1940s and 1950s, an utterly unknown episode in the life of a largely unknown movement, Spanish anarchism.

We ought first to remember that the war in Spain had been a somber succession of defeats for the militants of the CNT and FAI, the two anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist organisations which had, on 18 July 1936, played a telling part in the backlash against the Spanish military’s attempted putsch.

Obliged to play a political game to which they were allergic and to retreat day after day from their ideals and threatened by the rising power of the Spanish Communist Party and then persecuted by these Stalinists and finally defeated by the Francoists and shot en masse, jailed or driven into exile in the case of the most fortunate among them, many Spanish anarchists looked upon the Second World War as their chance for revenge. Despite the shabby welcome accorded them by the Daladier government in 1939 and in spite of the disease-ridden makeshift camps on the beaches of France, many of the Spanish exiles joined the French maquis in the South-West. Others, winding up in N. Africa, enlisted in the Free French Forces and took part in the reconquest of France and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

With Mussolini shot and Hitler a suicide in his bunker, those defeated in the Spanish civil war reckoned that Franco’s turn would soon come. After the bloody dfeat of an attempt to liberate Spain in October 1944 through a bridgehead established in the Val d’Aran by guerrillas operating from French soil, it became plain that Franco would not be swept aside overnight.

The Cold War was to complete the dampening of the anti-Francoists’ hopes. The Soviets gobbled up Central Europe and the Americans had no wish to se a Red Spain in control of access to the Mediterranean.

The Spanish anarchists, split by internal differences, divided between the exile community in France and the underground inside Spain, tried to refloat their outlawed trade union organisation despite savage repression by the Francoists. The most impatient among them had not given up on violent action. From bases in France they embarked on often heroic operations that were, however, increasingly isolated and desperate: bank robberies, raids on jewellers or companies, attacks on high-ranking police figures, sabotage against electricity pylons. A raid into Spain represented an eight day march, four of them through the Pyrenees, with 25 kilos of gear on one’s back. Guerrillas regularly fell to the bullets of Civil Guard patrols as they crossed the border in one direction or the other.

The Francoist authorities’ response to every offensive by the libetarian action groups was a wave of arrests, jailings and executions in Spain: the anarchists then retaliated with bank robberies to raise funds needed for the defence of their imprisoned comrades. An endless spiral …

The most dogged of these anarchist guerrillas was, without question, the die-hard Francisco Sabaté mentioned earlier, a veteran of the civil war. Nicknamed El Quico, Sabaté, ingenious and daring, carried out hold-ups by taxi, his machine-gun planted at the bottom of a basketful of vegetables. He had devised a “mortar” destined to fore rockets which would explode at a height of 150 metres, showering the streets of Barcelona with a rain of anti-Francoist leaflets.

On 2 March 1949, Francisco Sabaté pulled off one of his most daring coups. With three comrades carrying Sten guns and automatic rifles, El Quico attempted the life of their sworn enemy, Inspector Eduardo Quintela, in the heart of Barcelona. Sabaté fired a burst at Quintela’s car, killing or wounding two passengers and the driver. But the boss of the Brigada Politico-Social was not on board: the passengers were two Falangist bigwigs.

After that attack, Barcelona was virtually subjected to a state of siege by the Francoist police. 1949 was undoubtedly the toughest year for the underground anarchist groups: searches, round-ups, torture and beatings.

In France, every segment of the Spanish exile community was riddled by Francoist spies. Their reports enabled Madrid, enjoying the altered political climate of Cold War, to bombard the Quai d’Orsay with protest notes essentially about the sabotage work being carried out in Spain by anarchists striking from French territory.

However, at the other side of the world, the Cold War was warming up and turning hot with the Communist invasion of South Korea. At the start of September 1950, while things were taking a critical turn in Korea, the French police mounted “Operation Paprika” against the Spanish Communist refugees. They were suspected of actively preparing a fifth column ready to abet the Red Army should it swoop upon Western Europe. 250 PCE militants were arrested then expelled to a third country or banished to Corsica or southern Algeria. Nine Communist organisations were disbanded and their publications banned. Encouraged by these measures, Spain then asked the Quai d’Orsay to ban the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL) as well. At first the French government turned a deaf ear. French police were under orders not to target the Spanish anarchists whose rabid anti-communism was well known …up until 1 January 1951.

On that date three armed men robbed a post office van in Lyon. The job went awry: a guard was killed and nine passers by were injured, one of them fatally. The police quickly arrested the three robbers — Juan S. , a 37 year old civil war veteran and the Bailo Mató brothers.

After the war in fact a few Spanish anarchists had slid into out and out gangsterism. Moreover we can find this evolution on the part of Spanish civil war veterans reflected in several of Héléna’s detective novels, such as Hold-Up with the character Ortega, or Une affaire en or with the character Vincent, a Spaniard who is part of a gang of robbers, or indeed in Par mesure de silence (which in fact was initially to have been titled Garcia, from the name of the protagonist , a one-time Republican air force mechanic who has turned to crime.

After the hold-up in Lyon, the major French daily newspapers carried headlines about the “gang of Spaniards” and, blithely lumping everybody together, credited their misdeeds to the Libertarian Movement-in-Exile.

The movement’s general secretary, José Peirats and other militants were rounded up in February 1951 and charged with criminal conspiracy before being cleared. That same month, France reestablished diplomatic relations with Spain.

In February 1952 in Barcelona a council of war sentenced nine members of the libertarian action groups of 1949 to death. Despite an international campaign of protest, four of them were executed.

Weakened and divided, the Libertarian Movement-in-Exile had lost faith in armed struggle. its leaders washed their hands of Sabaté’s methods. According to them these were placing the Organisation within Spain in jeopardy.

Deserted by their organisation but stubborn and determined, the last remaining libertarian guerrrillas carried on with their suicidal endeavour come hell or high water: hunted like mad wolves, José Lluis Facerias, Francisco Sabaté and Caraquemada (“BurntFace”), to cite only the three best known names, perished one after another while bearing arms.

Sabaté was killed in Spain on 5 January 1960 with three young comrades shortlly after they had crossed the border. When he learned that his long-time adversary had been located and surrounded, Inspector Quintela, although by then in retirement, showed up to take part in the hunt with his bloodhound.

As we can see, with its damned heroes, its burden of fatalism and its bitter aftertaste and its record of hard knocks and violent deaths, this hopeless and forgotten guerrilla war is the stuff of which drama is made. André Héléna who saw the roman noir as the heir to Greek tragedy, could scarcely have remained untouched by it. Clearly what stirred Héléna was the loneliness of these men in sticking with a hopeless struggle: witness this passage in The Spanish Horse where he captures the weariness and doubts assailing the character Etchegoyen:

“Suddenly he felt a great weariness. Twenty three years of struggle had left their mark on him. And he had just realised that his comrades, but for a tiny minority, were only dialecticians worn out by the passage of the years […] And after all was it worth a candle? For the very first time he had come to experence the ghastly feeling that he was alone, fighting for things and for people he did not understand.”

Whereas in his books Héléna makes no bones about his commitment as a republican and above all as an anti-Francoist (Falangists and Civil Guards are targeted on this score) his characters, Spanish petty criminals and crooks, are generally republicans through circumstance rather than conviction — except in The Spanish Horse which features genuine militants from the Iberian Anarchist Federation, including a veteran of the Durruti Column.

André Héléna was never closely involved with the libertarian movement and was not — as Leo Malet had been — a member of an anarchist group in his adolescent years and obviously he displayed only a rather superficial grasp of the Spanish anarchists’ history and ideology. We can sense that his sympathy goes more to these men than to their rather nebulous utopian ideas which he saw as “the old anarchist dialectic”.

Moreover there are a few glaring errors in his references to Iberian libertarian circles: for instance, in The Spanish Horse, the name Durruti is misspelled as Durruty (the Basque style of spelling): and in J’aurai la peau de Salvador especially, there is the passage in which the hero, half-anarchist and half-gangster, reads in a French newspaper the report on a gunbattle fought by himself and a few buddies against some Falangists on the Ramblas in Barcelona. The writer of the article lashes out at the tearaways responsible and Héléna’s hero, José Ruiz, notes that “by the same token the point was to demonstrate that Mr Franco offered decent folk protection against riffraff like us, these anarchists … these Marxists … Because they made no distinction between the disciples of Lister or of Stalin, lumping them all in the same basket.

Héléna’s intention here was to show that the Francoists were incapable of seeing the distinctions between anarchists and Marxists, but the funny thing is that Héléna smply embarrasses himself. Plainly none too well informed as to the political affiliations of leaders on the republican side, he contrasts “Listers’s disciples” with “Stalin’s disciples” when they are one and the same. In fact, Lister, contrary to what Héléna appears to believe, was not an anarchist leader but rather the most rabid of communist commanders which makes a complete nonsense of friend Héléna’s whole point. In order to press home his point he ought to have contrasted, say, Durruti’s disciples with Stalin’s.

But in the end none of this matters much: André Héléna was no historian and never claimed to be writing history books, let alone historical fiction. Ultimately what matters in J’aurai la peau de Salvador as well as in The Spanish Horse is the blend of atmosphere, tension and languour of a Spain that Héléna populates with indomitable, gloomy desperadoes and exiles. He also excels at conveying the sadness of those grey years in a land doing penance under the mantle of Francoism, condemned to genuflection and straight arm salutes, stifling under the fug from incense-burners and stooped under the Falange’s yoke and arrows and with the black tricorn hats of the Civil Guard riding herd on it. — Phil Casoar