by SRB

Joaquin Perez Navarro: One Man’s War in Spain: Trickery, Treachery and Thievery (ChristieBooks, 2013)

October 17, 2013 | by SRB

Joaquín Pérez Navarro, trans. Paul Sharkey


For this Spanish anarchist, ‘Anarchy is the Highest Expression of Order’. Spanish anarchy,and its relevance to the Spanish Civil War, is discussed fervently in this first English translation of a book published in 1999. Pérez Navarro died in 2006, aged 99. The people of Spain’s Civil War, and the subjects of Franco’s lengthy subsequent dictatorship, often appearin film and literature as a population of ghosts, spectral images and fantastic apparitions. Julio Llamazares’ novel Luna de Lobos (Wolf Moon, 1985), for example, is dotted with fugitives disguised by a landscape of snowy horizon and deserted village. In Bayona’s film ElOrfanato (The Orphanage, 2007), a family is destroyed by secrets, awful mistakes and denial.In Del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006), Spain is transformed into a shadowy netherworld transfixed by unspoken horror. Something haunts Spain, as cultural theorist Jo Labanyi has remarked. Cultural historian Paul Preston’s recent work The Spanish Holocaust (2012) was controversial for its analysis of the Civil War as genocide. Many accounts of this period remain unspoken, unrecorded or shrouded in ghostly myth, and the dominant narrative remains one of turning away from the past. The past, however, keeps reappearing; the Spanish recession of recent times – la crisis – seems to act as a reminder that, after Franco’s isolationist stance, Western capitalism’s greedy eye on the future is not infallible. The lean times of Francoist policy have not disappeared entirely, even if they only return in spectral disguise. But Franco is dead, and his heir is the king of a democratic state. The state’s level of borrowing and corruption charges seemed to come as a surprise to the Spanish pueblo, suggesting a level of psychological denial deeply ingrained in the Spanish psyche. This is also inherent in the pacto de olvido (pact of forgetting) encouraged by politicians during the transition to democracy. Franco had, of course, at least some ideological input in to the accession of King Juan Carlos. ‘Corrupt toad’ Franco, great enemy of the Spanish anarchists, thus inserts his own ghost into the contemporary Spanish cultural and political panorama. The subject of this book desires to ‘hold up a mirror to the disorder of contemporary society, a society that goes by the name of Money’. But who’s going to believe him, when the past is a myth and Money is Spain’s latest master?


New accounts like these do appear to challenge the ghosts of History. What value these texts have is arguable. Joaquin Pérez Navarro was a lifelong member of the anarchist group Los Amigos de Durruti (Friends of Durruti), which was active during the Civil War. This translation of his political memoir brings together letters, interviews, notes, reports and commentary as ‘documentation of the Spanish people’s revolutionary history 1936-9’. The authority of the text is immediately confronted by scholar Luis Monferrer and by friends ofPérez Navarro; these personal and academic pieces at the beginning of the book attempt to convince the reader of the counternarrative’s essential value as a political memoir. Whatbecomes clear is that the reader is subject to the ‘views of a Spanish anarchist’, views which have not been widely aired in the place publique. For that reason, at least, this translation is a welcome addition to a hastily forgotten time. Pérez Navarro’s translator, Paul Sharkey, has translated a formidable number of anarchist texts and the publisher, Christie Books, specialises in such texts and translationsThe tone may court controversy, but there is a sense of righteous anger in the unveiling of Spain’s ‘murderous clowns’. The subjective nature of the account means the text is interspersed with direct attacks, some satisfyingly blunt: ‘the Church, the world’s biggest capitalist’; some clumsily repetitiveReaders may question howmuch a document of this type can be trusted as a means to reconfigure history. But this clarion call for anarchy does cover crucial dates in the Civil War, such as May 1937 in Barcelona, when the Communist Party who held power in Barcelona fought pitched street battles with the anarchist workers. This time is also described in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which Pérez Navarro’s alludes to various times. Pérez Navarro follows ‘a specific approach to action and existence’ that consistently went against state norms, and it is as rebel and remarkably consistent political animal that this anarchist’s memoirs are collated.


Pérez Navarro’s story is enthralling: his constant activism; prison camp in France; his escape to London in 1940; his lifelong anger and zeal. He believes in ‘the natural root of anarchism which feeds the commonweal of all human beings’. The book purports to break new ground on accounts of the failures of a pre-war Republic that undermined the anarchist movement in Spain at this time. This does indeed change History’s focus from Franco’s ‘counter-revolutionary’ Nationalists and the many killings they are associated with. However, atrocities instigated by the left- and right-wing armies during the war are well documented in Paul Preston’s recent book. Pérez Navarro’s account does offer the reader an on-the-ground witness to Preston’s sprawling history of deceit and slaughter, however, and it is this detail that offers most to Spanish cultural memory. The ‘bottomless pit of state corruption’, populated by ‘toads’, ‘alley cats’ and ‘wolves’ from both sides, is the target of PérezNavarro’s spirited tracts. He questions political events relentlessly and describes army manoeuvres, counter attacks and militant uprisings. His militancy and drilled truisms are continuous, and the ‘authentic witness’ and his focus on ‘courage, heroism, blood and sacrifice’ detract from a memoir that deplores the murderous. The inherent irony of punting the party line in a war so riddled with guilty parties leaves little room to consider war’s ambiguities. There is great authenticity in this book, however, and much to be deeply admired, especially the incredible bravery of this anarchist. However, as a memoir it is too wholesome and zealous to give one an emotional or psychological sense of the time. It is neither a historical account nor a personal memoir, and as an anarchist memoir comes across at best as tenacity wrapped in party dogma. Yet it remains a crucial trace of the explosion of internecine violence between 1936 and 1939, and after. Pérez Navarro’s ghost exhorts the reader to ‘never forget the past, which must never be repeated’. A worthy sentiment which nevertheless reflects the schizophrenic legacy of a Civil War that made heroes and villains of everyone. The true means to interpret this legacy, it would seem, is still out there.

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