Tuesday, July 01, 2014


Savage Coast

I've been away from this blog longer than I'd intended to be -- I've been caught up in daily life stuff again, and doing much reading in "spare time." One of the books I read this past spring, and really liked, is Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser (2013, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York).

Savage Coast is a novel based on Rukeyser's experiences in northeastern Spain (Barcelona and the Catalonia region in general) for a few days at the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July, 1936. The Spanish Civil War is a large subject; during the years the war took place, roughly July 1936 through early 1939, it became a gravity point for the international political Left, as volunteers from many countries joined the International Brigades and travelled to Spain, and entered full and brutal military war against Fascist armies (led by upper-ranking officers of Spain's military) who were trying to overthrow the elected government.

Rukeyser's novel gives a deeply close-up and personal account, full of remarkable detail, sometimes almost random, sometimes carefully observed and chosen. The overall arc of the story moves from chaos and isolation and vague gestures to sharp vision and collective movement and clarity of purpose. It is a radically political novel, clearly and intentionally, both in the intimately personal-is-political sense and in the public activist communal sense.

Rukeyser travelled to Spain in July 1936 to write and report about an alternative People's Olympics that had been organized in Spain, as a protest and defiance against the "official" summer Olympics that were taking place that year in Germany (and were being used as a propaganda device by the Nazi government there). The lead character in the novel, named Helen, is loosely based on Rukeyser herself, and a number of the other major characters are based on real people who also were there, though Rukeyser says in a short note at the front of the book, "None of the persons are imaginary, but none are represented at all photographically; for any scenes or words in the least part identifiable, innumerable liberties and distortions may be traced."

In the first half of the book the story action takes place mostly on a train after it has entered northeastern Spain; much of the time is spent at a small village where the train has halted because war has broken out further south, and because of a general labor strike in much of the country as a protest against the attempted Fascist counter-revolution. The people do what people do: the passengers on the train try to find information, food, places to sleep, in the village and in whatever small supplies they have with them on the train; the people in the town cope with the sudden influx of visitors as best they're able. Here's a brief passage from early in the book, to give a little flavor of Rukeyser's writing:

All the passengers in third were filling the aisle now, crowding out the open windows, talking to the groups whose heads could be seen, banked thick against the sides of the train, standing on both sides of the station platform. Helen pushed back through the swarming cars, through the holiday knots, laughter, gossip. An arm reached out and seized her wrist. Igt was the tight-skinned Hungarian, the manager.

"Have you heard the rumors?" he shouted, over the laughter and talk. "All sorts of rumors, already. The English are saying that the Communists have bombed the tracks and that we can't go farther; and I heard the Frenchman say that the engineer has gone on strike, and won't move the train until he gets some kind of extravagant promise." He fanned himself with the straw hat. "But come in and meet our team anyway." The Hungarians were standing, politeness and warmth ran around the compartment. The fine-faced printer was introduced. "It looks like something real," he said. "But obviously nobody knows that. You probably ought to find the other Americans."

"I know one of them," said Helen. "I wish you'd go down and reassure her. She's on her way to the bullfights, and she turned into jelly when they searched the train."

"They were absolute correct to search the train," the printer answered. They destroyed some snapshots we were taking, too. Last spring, they said, the Fascists caught a lot of photographs of armed civilians, and anyone whose face was clear got his. They're not taking any chances."

"But if you've been talking with them --" Helen cried, her face darkening with excitement. "What do they say is happening?"

"They only said that," the printer told her. He was a young student, from his look, his earnest clear glance, but the marks about his mouth and his darkened, blunt fingers showed how long he had spent at work; he looked straightforward at Helen now, obviously telling all he knew. "They were ordered to go through the train; for all they knew, the girl said, it's just an examination, and we'll go right on through to Barcelona."

As I read the book, I kept thinking of the word "cinematic" to describe the shifts in scene, the dialogue that often seems carefully written and offhand at the same time, the changes in view from long shot to close-up to angular glance to clear simple frame, again both carefully set up and almost randomly occurring.

Muriel Rukeyser was in Spain for a few days. During that time, she met a man from Germany, Otto Boch, a runner who had come to Spain for the Olympics. They became lovers. Boch stayed, and joined the anti-Fascist International Brigades, and was killed in the civil war. One of the characters in Savage Coast is a German runner based on Boch, and in novel he and Rukeyser's character Helen become lovers. Some years later, in the late 1940's after the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, Rukeyser dedicated her poem cycle Elegies to Otto Boch.

In the second half of the novel, Helen and her several traveling companions find a way to Barcelona, a city bright and joyous with popular insurgence; the city shows marks of recent fighting, and there is still danger from Fascist snipers and abductors. The days become filled with large public gatherings, official ceremonies, following rumors and threads of news reports, as the weight of the mounting events of the larger world grows ever greater. And mingled with this, the realization by the many visitors that they'll need to decide, and soon, whether to leave for home or to stay and join the coming storm.

Here's another passage from the book; the scene takes place on the first morning after Helen and others from the train have arrived in Barcelona:

Helen went immediate to the window, hauled up the venetian blind, and stood in the broad panel of sunlight the struck across the room. The gunfire continued. Facing her, a curved wall of arches surprised her, thrown block-long and receding; it took her a second to recognize the tiers and galleries of the arena, the slim pillars which were so perfect for snipers. Her eye ran over the shaded colonnade with animal speed: she had become vigilant, it gave her a tremendous sense of health and freshness to wake without fear and speculate on concealed rifles.

The angle of the Olympic cut down across her view to the right, and she could see nothing but a boarded up café, a filling station, and the radiator and front wheels of the overturned car. But to the left lay the new city, ruled square, block after block of new apartment houses patched white with flags of truce. Behind them stood the high fortress on its strip of cliff, cutting the mountain range abruptly to an end.

Olive and Peter were lying awake in bed.

"That was the seven o'clock bell, wasn't it?"

"That was the beginning of the shooting," laughed Olive. Correct response, thought Helen. She came over to the window in Helen's room. "They said something about leaving the blinds drawn."

"I don't know," Helen said slowly. "I don't mind an open window on a street, so much, today."

"I think I'm finished with all that too. Peter and I were walking to dinner when we missed you; Peter had just said something about the truck-ride and fear when a car came up. The driver asked us to get in, and we didn't think anything of it. There was a guard with a submachine gun; everything seemed proper until they started driving and took us miles through the country, or park -- darkness, anyway. They didn't say a word to us. Then we began to remember things -- we hadn't noticed the initials on the car, fascists can drive cars too, we didn't speak Catalan, the car had only one door -- all of those things."

"It's a big park," Helen said.

"A goddamned big park. But it may have cured me."

They hung out the window. At the filling station, cars and trucks were already lined up, C.N.T and U.G.T cars for the most part, and the proprietor and two assistants were supplying them, lifting the dripping nozzle out of one tank and dropping it into the next without bothering to check the stream of gas.

"They're going to run short of cars," Helen remarked under the grinding of gears as they rushed down the street."

"The state's requisitioning cars from dealers," said Peter, from bed.

"There was a Ford sign on the road."

Helen knew she would always have this first morning of complete confidence. Peter and Olive had it too, she saw, reading their faces. One more lie to hold against the books! she reflected; the foolish irrelevant stories of people's characters changing like wind which shifts.

She had wanted a life for herself, and found she was unequipped; and adjusting her wants, cared to be a person prepared for that life. I want greatness, she thought, the rich faces of the living. All the tenseness stood in the way, and see how it removes! One morning, and the fear of death is replaced.

Rukeyser wrote Savage Coast immediately after her return from Spain in 1936. Early reactions from at least one reader of the manuscript, and one potential publisher, were strongly negative -- likely reacting against the left-leaning politics of the novel, as much as against the courage and joy and audacity of a woman making a strong clear statement -- and she put the novel away among her papers, and it remained mostly unknown, and unpublished, during her lifetime and for several decades after that.

The edition published by The Feminist Press has been edited with skill and sensitivity by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, and includes an Introduction by Kennedy-Epstein and useful endnotes. Over the years Rukeyser wrote several journalistic articles about her days in Spain in 1936, and the Feminist Press edition includes one of these at the end of the book, "We Came for the Games: A Memoir of the People's Olympics, Barcelona, 1936," originally published in Esquire magazine in October 1974.

The Feminist Press has also published a booklet of several other short pieces by Muriel Rukeyser, "Barcelona, 1936" and Selections from the Spanish Civil War Archive, Series 2, Number 6, published in the Lost and Found series of the CUNY Center for the Humanties, Spring 2011. Both articles help highlight how closely Rukeyser held to the essential facts of the events that occurred during her days in Spain, including many critical details of dialogue, descriptions of buildings and people and public places, and so on. The "Barcelona, 1936" pamplet includes, among other things, an image of a hand-drawn map of the small town where the train waited for a few days.

I'll finish here with one further passage from near the end of the novel; the scene is a large public gathering in Barcelona, in which speakers recount the difficult previous days and the hard time of struggle that waits ahead. This section of the novel includes interspersed lists of names of people in Spain who had died during the previous days of fighting.

They could not be seen, they could not yet be heard; it was the cry advancing with them, its front advancing as their front rank came up, that made them known: a great female animal cry, victorious wail of spectators, the city acclaim of those on the edge and sympathetic, who still have throats to cheer, while those silent fighters pass between their lines.

And now the "Internationale" sprang up, strange, in foreign inflections, as the Norwegians began to sing, changing the wordfall, the sound, almost the song itself.

The Dutch, and the Hungarians; picked it up, unfamiliar, only the form carrying it through, the marching tune.

The French were missing.

But it reached the crowd of Belgians, the song came nearer, the great crying welcome to the army came, mixing, until the chorus became a crying greet:

"C'est la lutte finale,
"Groupon-nous, et demain,"

...El directive de la C.N.T. Francisco Acaso, Eduardo Gorgot, José Biota, Javier Noguera, Alejandro Prodonis y Fuentes, Concepción Canet y Alcaráz, Vicente Vásquez, Salvador Guerrero, José González y Valencia, Enrique Arnau y Erude, Julián Gil y González...


Here! The first line of set faces, brackets of arms set in perpetual fist, red bands about the head, straight stony foreheads dark.

"Sera le genre humain..."

In a high sung note, praising, crying, speeding an army of unarmed men, who walked rope-soled, blankets slung at the shoulder, their women with them, a few, among them, a few, running beside in the blaze, past the shining confiscated roadsters, the homemade armored cars, the lines of spectators, and the Olympic lines who backed them, singing the unique song, finally arriving to the double English version, the English and Americans singing, welcoming, as the army passed; an army, not in the pathetic small battalions of the night before, but rounded up, strong in numbers, unshakeable, but barely clothed, barely helmeted, barely armed.

They passed for minutes, the lines of soldiers, passing to a new phase of war. The city was strong now in its own defense; in a day, eferything would be running once more, the city would be held; but these were going to be the outer front. Almost exhausted by the internal battle, with the strenuous look of purity on their faces, they must be renewed to the next front.

They must be renewed. They must be enough.


I've written about Muriel Rukeyser previously in this blog, here, and here.

There's a great deal of information and general background on the internet about the Spanish Civil War, with varying reliability. A good place to start is the website of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive, here. The Lincoln Brigade was the name taken by many of the volunteers from the United States who went to Spain to join the international struggle against the Fascist military invasion. The Lincoln Brigade website includes history, educational materials, current upcoming events related to study of the Spanish Civil War, links to other online sources, and other material.

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