To the Death, Amic

Book Cover: To the Death, Amic

A novel written true to the histories, and true to the memories of Enric Torres i Barbo, whose life and philosophies this novel takes for its guide.Twin boys Enric and Josep, at ten years of age, served as spies and couriers in the Resistance by the Republican Spanish against the invasion of Fascist forces in Spain, then from Italy and Germany during the Civil War.

In Catalonia the war begins in Barcelona.

THE MAZE of alleys and passageways of the old city as we passed through were not at all quiet. The closer we came to the Ronda Universitat the more gunfire we could hear. Not only from the direction of the Placa de Catalunya, it bounced from a building behind us, which made us crouch and whirl, and then from laneways where there was no one, as if the sound of war could stalk the town of its own accord.

The buildings were shuttered tight. The only folk outdoors now were storing water in pails from a corner fountain made from an ancient stone face with faucets in its mouth. The alleyways along here are so narrow that balconies on one side are less than a cat’s leap from their opposite, and up there was strung household laundry. Sudden panic among that population of shirt cuffs and trouser legs came as a first warning. Into the streets blue cloud, like a shellburst, huge and thundery, but it parted to pass us either side. It was alive, a thousand terrified pigeons, and below was a horse in military saddle, at mad gallop, which slid on the cobbles and fell. I think it was dead before its belly hit the ground. The withers trembled, but the eye was as white as gravestone marble.

It had chosen a graceful pose for death. Outstretched, it seemed to me to represent some notion of quest. In a bullring or on fiesta parade the spirit of a horse is held tight by the rider, even as in the paintings of Velazquez and Goya, and yes this cavalry horse was once skilled in the obedient cross-step and the stylish retreat, judging by the intricate harness. Perhaps perilous freedom had burst its heart.

Josep pulled at my arm. The firing had lulled, which allowed us to hear the pealing of church bells, maybe St Jaume’s. Something about them was agitating Josep.‘Mass’, he said, ‘we are late, mother will kill us.’‘There will be no Mass’, I said, ‘the bells are some other sort of message.’More interesting was the horse. Is that how we all die? In mid-leap?

For a year the war was well fought by the Republican Government supporters. Mussolini and Hitler joined Franco’s Fascists. US Ambassador Joe Kennedy, Jack Kennedy’s father, advised the US to allow the Fascist alliance to win the war. Britain also agreed. Basques were now being annihilated. Many Basque families fled to Catalonia. The twins were now eleven years old.

Then Guernica.

The heart of Guernica is an oak tree. It is as holy as a cathedral. Basque leaders are invested, under this dome, with powers of state. Treaties are attested here. A vow taken under these branches is binding upon the entire Basque people. And so for centuries. Napoleon, determined to allow no authority beyond his own, blew it up, but on his death the old wood greened and grew again, a miracle. If the heart of the people lives on, what does a conqueror do?

Guernica was a valley township, built from the trees of the pretty hills nearby. Timber like this does not hold a precise line forever, so the eaves and the balconies found shapes they were comfortable with, and the narrow lanes between heaved a little in winter, but leveled well enough again come summer. A small factory or two appeared, late, at the edges, but this was a farm town, where a belled cow and a sly goat were not out of place in the square.

Think of Guernica in the springtime, on market day, when the buses pull into town with villagers from along the river valley and shoppers from Bilbao. A light shower fell at midmorning but the roads harden in the afternoon sun. School is out, so a close field has been mowed for the children’s games and the air is sweet. The incoming train brings women with baskets of throaty fowl, farmers with sacks of sun-dried peas, and eight clergy whose appointment with the local priest involves a card game and a brandy or so. Most stroll sometime to the town’s famous tree where a hawker squeezes apples for juice, and palms the cores to the twitching muzzle of his tethered mare.

The quick intimacies of crowds in the streets and the marketplace are lost over distance, so it must have seemed to the pilots and the gunners of the Heinkels and the Junkers and the Messerschmitts, coming in low over the hills, that the folk of Guernica were waiting for this moment, spread through the town, at five in the afternoon.

Was it because of the heart in an oak tree that the first bombs took the hospital with its children and nuns? The tree survived. Is the conqueror so un-nerved by a tree that he must lay, thunder after thunder, fifty thousand kilos of explosives on a timber village? The tree survived. What burns in the heart of a general that he plans incendiaries to fire the sticks of anything still standing? Why heard the villagers towards the hills, then strafe them down so they lie in bundles all over the fields? Because of a tree? And to come down to another level, does the Luftwaffe ace, whose gunsights catch a schoolgirl astride a stile, no, come closer to it, this is Maria Ajanguiz, tenth grader, whose skirt has tangled in the wire and she does not wish to tear it, who wears a holy cross on a neck-chain, this one given to her by her pale boyfriend, Diego Aguirre, so is it too much to imagine these crosses coming together, the fine-wire of the gunsight with hers at the neckline, and a squeezed button blows her chest away? Does this flyer have in mind the destruction of an old Basque tree?

The twins will go on, for the Resistance, to gather intelligence, to running propaganda leaflets and contraband across the French border, to guiding fugitives over the Pyrenees.

Of this time in his childhood Enric has said, ‘It was so cold up there, I tell you, I pee icicles.’