There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Set in Franco’s Spain in 1949, Lluís-Anton Baulenas’ novel For a Sack of Bones manages to weave the story of a leftist sympathizer into a handful of other tales: the fascist victory over Barcelona, the misery of the leftists’ defeat, the concentration camps for the beaten socialists, and a child’s life in a charity home. Early in the novel, Genís Aleu’s father, a Republican soldier, is broken by internment, and young Genís quickly absorbs his father’s politics. He also absorbs Dad’s problematic advice—to survive by deceiving the fascists and passing for one of them. So as an adult he becomes a legionnaire, serving in Africa and playing the part of a loyal soldier of the regime. He’s biding his time to fulfill a promise made on his father’s deathbed: to return to the concentration camp where his father was confined, dig up the bones of his father’s best friend, and give them a proper burial. And more, he’s plotting his revenge on the aristocrat who murdered his closest friend. In Franco’s Spain, however, one does not easily disinter the remains of a Red for proper burial, or go about murdering aristocrats. So Genís practices much deception, and his enduring the tortuous emotions that come with his ruses is one of the novel’s central concerns. “It’s not that I’ve lost faith in my objective, but that I’m afraid of not being able to withstand wearing this mask for so long,” he muses. Genís plays the tough, fascist solider, but the regime inevitably sickens him; after all, this was the government that said “a third of the Spanish male population should be exterminated” in the hopes of putting down the leftists. Baulenas’ descriptions of the slogans, the pretensions, the public worship of a dictator, and the idiocy of a military slavishly in thrall to illegitimate power create a volatile tension between appearance and reality. That’s worsened by Genís being a native of Catalonia, the story’s main setting; the region and his home city, Barcelona, were largely Republican, and Genís has numerous memories of defeat. Many friends and neighbors died, and the concentration camps, like the one that destroyed his father, were crammed with Soviet sympathizers. (The conditions rivaled Hitler’s camps, and certain policies there—like taking infants from their imprisoned mothers and letting “good” fascist families adopt them—were later employed by juntas in Latin America.) Baulenas describes the camp vividly: how the Republican soldiers were packed into cattle cars so tightly they slept standing up, and so long without food or water that when finally released, the corpses just tumbled out; the hard labor, the beatings, the cold, the untreated illnesses, the starvation and the bodies piling up every day. Translated from the Catalan, Baulenas’ writing is simple and straightforward, but it’s clear how much outrage suffuses the pages—this is a riveting tale of vengeance, but it’s also a testament to those who died fighting one of the 20th century’s worst evils.