For the vanquished
Letter from a Milician Woman
In 2001, Anita Besson sent me an enigmatic manuscript from London. It was a sheet of onionskin paper, yellowed and folded over and over, with writing on both sides in fountain pen in a hand so small that it was almost unreadable. It felt to me like a relic or a partially-erased palimpsest.
In an accompanying note, Anita Besson asked if I could transcribe it, because she, with her poor Spanish, didn’t think she was up to it. She thought it was from the time of the Spanish Civil War. She’d found it while cleaning out a drawer in the apartment of her dead sister Miette, in Lausanne, among other things that had belonged to her father.
It wasn’t as hard to read as it had seemed at first glance… I couldn’t read every single one of the words, but perhaps I didn’t have to in order to guess that it was a diary written by a woman. It was a text written in the first person, in which day by day the anonymous author took note of the most remarkable facts about a boat ride or a certain concentration of militiamen. The initials CNT, FAI and UGT stood out among the tiny, dense lines of bluish ink.
On this first approach, I felt a growing doubt that the text was not what it seemed to be. There was something that wasn’t right.
It had a look of great beauty: traversed by years and mystery, the fragility of the paper, its multiple folds like old wounds, its semitranslucidity and the incredible tracks of the minuscule calligraphy made it seem to my eyes like a jewel or a relic to be venerated.
After transcribing the first paragraphs, I confirmed to Anita that in fact it was a text that made reference to the Civil War and that little by little I would transcribe the whole thing. Meanwhile, I put it inside a cellophane portfolio to hang it like an icon in the study. I would look at it out of the corner of my eye, in passing, lingeringly, distractedly, spellbound, from far away, close up, front and back; like an object, like a single image closed on itself and not like a text to be read.
Months went by, and I never found an excuse for getting on with the reading. I tried a couple more times, but to
my surprise it now seemed much more difficult. The parts I couldn’t understand were more frequent and more extensive, the words didn’t flow and the sentences were left hanging.
How could someone have written a diary on such a small surface? For lack of paper? To hide it easily? A diary is taken up and put down very often, it has to be practical, especially if it’s a travel diary. The manuscript was far from practical or appropriate for a trip. For what reason had the author encrypted what she wrote in that awful little writing?4
I put it aside. After all, wasn’t the Civil War a topic that it was best to forget or ignore?
In 2003 the Commission of Culture of the city of Olot invited me to take part in a closed competition to erect a memorial to the Republicans who died in the Civil War. In this way, they took on a proposal by Sigrid Werning to do homage to the dead, exiled and persecuted Republicans.
The manuscript once again claimed my attention. Somehow, I had to find an answer to the question before me.
To touch, examine, decipher that material first-hand was a direct way to impregnate myself in the essence of the war. Because, in short, the war seems to me to be the sum of many individual lives, the majority of them covered up by History with a capital letter, like that of the manuscript itself.
Slowly the narrative took on meaning. After a month, I had filled some ten pages, which were the equivalent of one side of the manuscript. As I was transcribing, I numbered the lines, so I could go back and re-read them.
It was in fact the diary of a militiawoman who had embarked on a great military expedition that, leaving from the port of Barcelona and making a stop in Maó, was to disembark in Mallorca to oppose the fascist members of the military who had revolted on the island. She recounts briefly, in two or three lines per day, the vicissitudes of the expedition and her life among her companions.
The following days would change their plans and they would be attached to a blood hospital, in the rear. Gradually conditions worsen, they are sent from one old house to another, and the narrator continues to take careful note of the details of the fighting, with few personal opinions.
She describes life together, relations with the commanding officers, with a group of women, daily life in the camp. The operations unfold as she faithfully describes the small details of her days: we went to the castle to get cloth, today we’ll sleep on sheets, today we draw lots for the few remaining mattresses, we found a piano and I played for a while, to the disapproval of the head nurse and the pleasure of the patients…
The effort of deciphering the minuscule writing merged with the sensation of listening to myself as if I were the voice of the unknown woman, as if I were sharing the present moment with her. That voice wrote with my handwriting, and that handwriting was her voice. I was swept away by the sensation of bringing the unknown militiawoman back to life.
What had begun as the chronicle of an adventure began to darken rapidly until it was full of shadows and bad omens. Now the chronicle of facts gave way to opinions. Where before each day had taken up three or four lines, suddenly, on the second side of the manuscript, there’s a single paragraph fifteen or sixteen lines long, a furious and demoralized declaration of principles: what is this sacrifice for? What is the fighting for? Where are the ideals? Liberty, equality, where? The high command is presented as parasites who sleep in the beds that the wounded do not have at the front, who sit at tables and eat succulent food. Everything is a disaster. The various factions fight among themselves.
Things get even bleaker. The Italian planes strafe them continually and they have to take cover in one house after another, as insecurity worsens their fear and their sense of inferiority. The battle goes on and on.
Four friends are part of a group of twenty very close to the front. They are cut off, far from the main camp, incommunicado. The situation is more and more alarming.
They make it to the main camp, but find no one there. It seems that they are alone. “We have food for two days, munitions too. We await developments.” This is how it ends: “We await developments.”
I had been submerged in the atmosphere and the lives of
some of the protagonists of the war, reading in a kind of braille what perhaps no one had read before.
The more I transcribed, the clearer it became that no one could write a war journal like that, in an impossible format. I realized that in the text there were numerous words and constructions that sounded like French, though the International Brigades were nowhere mentioned.
Meanwhile, the commission for the future Republican memorial in Olot selected my project. It was 2003, I had a lot of work ahead of me and I had to look for assistants. While giving a tour of the show Blocs, which I had just put on at the Sala Gaspar in Barcelona, chance or fate brought me a group of Arts and Crafts students. Four of the girls from the past semester expressed interest in helping me: Lara, Auba, Sandra and Eva. Four, like the militiawomen, like a gift of fate.
In February of 2004 we began the work, which lasted until June. The echo of the manuscript was more present than ever.
One late afternoon, sitting on the sofa distractedly watching television, I saw scenes of a ship full of militia setting sail from the port of Barcelona. The images were of a crossing bound for Mallorca. And all of a sudden I realize that the narrator is citing sentences right from my manuscript, referring to the “diary of a militiawoman” that ends with a sentence that I find very familiar: “We await developments.”
The narrator continues with the story: the militia, under the command of General Bayo, in view of the resistance put up by the fascists with the support of the Italian air force, and in consultation with the high command, is withdrawing. At night, urgently and in secret, all of the troops re-embark, except for a few small groups that could not be contacted in time. Events come to a head the next morning. After a brief exchange of fire, the remaining militia surrender and are paraded as prisoners down the main street of Manacor.
On the television appears a blurry photo of a group of four women, on their feet and with armbands of the Red Cross on their coveralls, expectant and surrounded by soldiers.
The men are held in the hotel on the Plaça Major; the women, considered to be prostitutes at the service of the militiamen, are subjected to an examination by a military doctor and afterwards raped and tortured. Before dawn, men and women are taken to the outskirts of the cemetery.
To save ammunition, they are executed with machetes, and afterwards the cadavers are burned. The program ends. I can see that it is part of series called Zona roja (Red Zone).
That night I didn’t sleep. I would’ve liked to be able to cry.
In the following days, I got in contact with the makers of the documentary, with a Mallorcan historian and with Josep Massot, author of the book El desembarcament de Bayo a Mallorca (Bayo’s landing in Mallorca), where a transcription almost identical to mine of the diary of a militiawoman appears in the appendix. After these conversations, I have some idea of what must have happened.
When the fascists take the group of militia prisoners, they find the girl’s diary, examine it and decide that it’s quite juicy, especially the parts critical of the militia themselves. Before they confiscate it, they force the author to read it out in public.
After the war crime is committed, the diary is passed from hand to hand in Manacor, and clandestine copies of it are made. Anita Besson’s father, a French-speaking Swiss, is about to embark on the last boat that will leave the island. He leaves behind a small farmhouse, some land he had bought, a broken future… but he will have time to take with him the copy he has made of the diary, hidden like microfilm, as witness to the tragedy. It seems that the diary itself will travel to Italy with Mussolini’s troops.
For years the rector of Manacor kept a copy of it, from which the transcription reproduced by Josep Massot came.
And like waves on the surface of a pond, echoes mix with voices, the past with the present. Step by step, layer by layer, coat by coat, chance becomes meaningful and things come together.
The manuscript that Anita Besson had entrusted to me, in which the voice of a woman goes in a few days from idealistic exaltation to disappointment and horror, was deposited in June of 2006 inside the block of the memorial Als vençuts. It is its hidden soul, trying to escape into the light, to be remembered forever, like all of the lives cut down by the war.
Als vençuts Memorial, Ajuntament d’Olot, 2007.