Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Servants and their Masters," by Fergus Reid Buckley

highwayscribery knows first-hand how falling in love with that magnificent state of place and mind known as Spain comes at a price.

Had he fallen in love with England, author Fergus Reid Buckley's "Servants and their Masters," might have become a text of reference in matters related to that country's mid-20th century aristocracy.

Perhaps the BBC might have picked it up and sorted out a new "Forsythe Saga" series, or an "Upstairs Downstairs."

In penning his nine-book, many-hundred-paged epic, Buckley learned that, "I don't think you can sell novels chock full of Spanish names to American readers."


But clearly, writing "Servants and Their Masters," brought joys to an author who immersed himself in all things Spanish, learned to dance flamenco, and clap the various compas that mark the form's musical time, as preparation.

There are books aplenty about the Spanish Civil War. The horrors, or relative peace, of the Franco era are documented in fiction and nonfiction alike. The vaunted democratic transition is still being written about by those who forged it.

But "Servants and Their Masters," stands practically alone in its English-language rendering of 1960s Spain. A period when the country slouched toward prosperity and into the community of Western democracies in spite of the dictator's longevity.

The tale begins with the unflattering portrait of a softened aristocracy eating, drinking and whoring away its dwindling influence in a Madrid exploding with recent wealth and a newfound rich to exploit it.

Supporting this decadent class are a cast of brigands, victims, guttersnipes, schemers, sex predators, and bordello types rendered ever-so-faithfully, by a gentleman who has seen much in his days.

Says Buckley, "I have never been able to comprehend a character unless I had some fix on that person's parents and kin and the society that person descended from. I view almost everything from a perspective of three generations, when, and only then, the person begins to make sense to me."

As such, "Servants," bounds from the death-rattle of the noble clan under its microscope, to the centuries-old warfare they engaged in their northern homeland of Sacedon, while weaving in the progress of a recent Basque peasant for fine measure.

Almost every character gets (at least) one chapter about themselves, their background, urges and vices, without the exposition ever getting in the way because, given its obvious size, the reader is aware of their commitment to something large and worthwhile. And also because Buckley's scenario grabs from the start while establishing a fever for illumination.

The author is a rambunctious prosodic force, in command of English and possessing a vocabulary both extensive and colorful. Moods change throughout the yarn's meticulous unspooling, sometimes macabre, others satirical, alternately noir-like, journalistic, philosophic, or comical.

In a favorite moment, Buckley resorts to thick and somber strokes in conjuring a poem of the coastal Basque country:

"On clear days, especially in the autumn, when the air seems to have been distilled in crystal goblets, their highest crags are sculpted against the horizon. More often, the crags are shut out; and clouds rolling, rumbling herds press down and nearly snag themselves on the belltower of the church, and often blot out entirely the ruins of the castle. The whole northwestern flank of Spain heaves down to the Cantabrian in a front scalloped by coves and tidal lagoons, great bluffs, studding the coast and forming amphitheatres connected to each and within vast sand beaches stretch like ligaments."

Highlighting that passage exalts the writer, but misrepresents the larger work wherein Buckley's rapier pen renders mordant portraiture of rotten people both high and low on the social ladder.

There are good people, too, but they're for contrast and respite from the psychic and physical slaughter the ugly ones unleash.

"Servants" links the lower class with the highest until a reader begins to forget who hails from which side.

Which is somewhat the point Buckley is trying to make through the glib and insightful narrative recounted by the American businessman C.O. Jones in an ambience that effectively blurs which way is up and which way down.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Anarchism and The City," by Chris Ealham

Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937decodes Barcelona's urban landscape for reasons behind the unlikely rise to power of anarchist elements in those years preceding the Spanish Republic and the civil war that consumed it.

Chris Ealham brings an urbanist's tools to this interesting proposition, positing sometimes insightful, other times idealistic, explanations to questions about the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo's (CNT) season of sway over Europe's then-most productive city.

Academic in style, "City," serves up enough good stuff to offset the loss of momentum resulting from the historian's job of stringing evidence from various sources and affixing them to each other with footnote glue.

Ealham documents the geographic reordering of Barcelona as undesirable immigrants from the south of Spain swelled its working class in an era when the city was considered "Europe's factory."

Viewed as something "other" (the author proposes), as fomenters of vice and carriers of disease, this surging class of workers was subjected to a bourgeois reordering of the urban terrain that isolated and marginalized.

Ealham's view is that, left unto themselves, the working class folk of Barcelona wove themselves into a collection of tight units clear on what the issues facing them were and how to address them.

For a while, the anarchist policy guys showed real prowess in organizing neighborhoods, winning their loyalty to the CNT unions' causes, and channeling a universal resentment against the existing order.

Then they put that existing order to work for them:

"Making full use of improvements in the transport system and the growing availability of bicycles, and backed by the Barcelona CNT's paper, Solidaridad Obrera, which played an essential auxiliary role, advertising union meetings, talks and social activities across the city, the local federation would receive feedback from, and send instructions to, the comites with the great speed. This enabled the CNT to respond swiftly to events on the ground and generally mount a more sustained and coordinated opposition to capitalism."

A big policy winner for the CNT was embracing the despised Andalusian and Murcian migrant laborers, and other groups not found on the industrial shop floor.

"Ever ready to mobilize beyond the factory proletariat," Ealham writes, "the radicals applauded street gangs as a vanguard force in the fight against the police."

Harassed ambulant street vendors and the unemployed alike also responded when the
CNT called for action; action that transcended the workplace and transformed the streets.

The union and its minions expanded public space, cultivating working class interaction that produced a dense web of community relations only a civil war sunder.

As its title suggests, this is about the CNT in Barcelona, even though the union's influence stretched well-beyond Catalonia's borders. There the organization thrived under the conditions so painstakingly detailed by Ealham, and did so in its own way.

Resorting to violence didn't hurt.

The author quotes one source as saying, "This was an original type of criminality that was typically Barcelonese. The anarchist robbers of Barcelona are nothing less than the Catalan equivalents of Al Capone...Today it is the fashion among all thieves, pickpockets and swindlers to pass themselves off as anarchists."

"Anarchism and The City" was published by AK Press, an anarchist imprint, and Ealham, while maintaining a balanced tone throughout, is okay with the idea that, at some point, a people being exploited have the right, are obligated by the dictates of survival, to kill the guy who is killing them.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg quandary. For Ealham, the question of whether the anarchists and their constituency had any choice in the matter of violence is worthy of a deeper consideration.

In his examination of how the loosely structured union federation interacted with the working class barris, the relation to and impact of the Federacion Anarquista de Iberia (FAI) upon the CNT, and how shadowy associate groups used the gun to "appropriate" banks and erase political enemies, Ealham's efforts are first-class.

It's fascinating stuff that renders Spanish anarchism more understandable, if not completely dispelling the notion the rank-and-filers were a little nutty, or appear so thanks to their disparate ideas for reorganizing society.

Noting that the anarchist revolution was the first of its kind in the automotive era, the author observes how workers were seized by an "irrationality" after appropriating the cars of the merchant and capital classes.

"But revolutionary motoring possessed its own logic," Ealham writes. "In the first instance, the destruction of cars reflected a desire to usher in a new set of spatial relations as well as resistance to the attempts by the local and central Republican authorities to impose a new urban order of controlled consumption, consisting of new rules of circulation and traffic lights designed to improve the flow of capital and goods."

Or not.

Rather than ushering in new spatial relations the armed workers may have just been having a crazy time in cars. It happens, you know.

He observes that, "On the day after the birth of the Republic, as a gesture of solidarity, the Barcelona CNT declared a general strike that affected all branches of industry apart from the essential food and transport services."

The Republic/Spanish Civil War epoch is akin to a family fight and the multi-sided affair can tug at one's loyalties depending upon which side's version is being aired.

Read the well-written diaries of Republican leader Miguel Azana and savor the portrait of a rational, intelligent and literate man burdened with allies and governing copartners bent on overthrowing the enterprise he's been elected to lead.

It's hard to imagine Azana viewing the general strike as a gesture in solidarity.

While sympathetic, Ealham is not so blind as to ignore the fact that, as anarchists and their allies launched a revolution in red Asturias they hoped would throughout the Iberian peninsula, "Francisco Ascaso, 'Nosotros' member [an anarchist affinity group] and secretary of the Catalan CRT, issued a call to the Barcelona proletariat to return to work from a radio station controlled by the Spanish army."

My revolution, not yours, you see.

The anarchists thrived for a season as the CNT, FAI and related groupings were wonderful at forging a cohesive culture and strategy for the beleaguered barris residents. But Ealham lifts the lid on the corner committee meeting and details the inner-workings, the feuds, and fault lines that hampered the movement.

Ealham spends less time on the CNT's temporary reign over the streets of Barcelona after fascist generals rose up to destroy the Republic. And he does well in eschewing too detailed a rendering of those events, because that is much-tilled terrain.

The real triumph of "Anarchism and The City" is its fulfilling the title's pledge. Showing how a metropolis's geographical configuration, industrial bent, and raw social arrangements made a bed comfortable enough for some very unique individuals to sleep in.