As we walked back through the courtyard of the municipal buildings in Valencia, we were watched from above by the Empecinado, the Espoz y Mina, and the Priest Merino. They were the champions of the heroic eight-year war against Napoleon’s armies: huge papier mâché statues propped up in carts that were filled with dried flowers. This year, they had not been wheeled out to the fallas on 19 March. That was the day of the great carnival that normally took place in the town amid the din of kettle-drums, whistles, pipes, squibs, pop-guns, and rockets. And, in this coming year, none of these grotesque puppets, put together in hidden court-yards, would pass rocking down through the streets in a clamouring torchlit procession to the Plaza Castelar. They would not go up in flames while the crowd danced and sang. Fire-works and explosions of a different kind would fill the night. Left behind here, the statues towered above us with their large staring eyes in a gloomy desperation. With swords and banners leaning against them – vain, splendid – they seemed to sneer at us as we left the Baroque hall. We were feeling beaten and disappointed: we had just been turned down by the military commission of the Republic because it could no longer accept foreign volunteers. There was no time left to train them; the brigades had to leave the region within a month. Again we understood the inconceivable: that this civil war might end without our victory. And yet despite everything, suddenly, on this bewildering day in the second week of September, we were not to be used. Unless we came up with something else to do, we were totally useless. At the Party office, we were ordered to take the transport back to Denia that evening and once there to try to board one of the ships for Marseilles. I found myself wandering aimlessly through the town, filling in time before reporting to the departure point of the truck convoy. And, as so often happens in Spain, I witnessed an event that belonged to the past and that was also strangely timeless. Off the Plaza de la Virgen, throngs of people gathered together by a side entrance to the Cathedral. I went over and found I stood before the regional tribunals who held their public sitting there every Thursday. To the left of the door, under the stone figures of the Saints, the judges, quaint in their capacious black jackets, sat on high chairs behind a semi-circular barrier of green wrought-iron. A brass plate was fixed on the back of each chair indicating the name of each water-district: Mislata, Favara, Rovella, Pautahar, and Rascania.
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Translated by Iain Galbraith
Iain Galbraith was born and grew up on the west coast of Scotland and now lives in Germany. He is a poet and translator (Natascha Wodin, Alfred Kolleritsch, W. G. Sebald, Jan Wagner) and has received several prizes for his work, including, most recently, the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize (2015) and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize (2016).More about the translator →