As a child visiting friends’ houses, I soon realized that our living room was unusual. Not everyone had an entire wall of books, floor to ceiling.
Beside these shelves in our living room hung the portrait of a man whose life had ended eleven years before mine began. The sad but not unkind face in the picture was that of writer Arturo Barea, the original owner of many of the books. Arturo hadn’t just owned the books – he’d built the bookcase himself, and the shelves held titles he had written. Even before I could read, I was drawn to the repeating patterns made by multiple copies of these volumes. With our mother working in publishing, it is unsurprising that my brother and I grew up with a healthy respect for books. As a teenager, possessed with a sense of urgency, I felt there was so much I needed to read. With the obsessive drive of adolescence I would choose an author – whether it was Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut or George Orwell – and read everything I could find before moving on. From my first awareness of the bookcase, I also knew that the contents held an important part of our family’s history.
In 1956 my orphaned mother had left Austria to live in England with her maternal aunt Ilsa, who was married to Spanish exile Arturo Barea. Ilsa and Arturo played the role of parents to my mother. Arturo shared his love of England; he also taught my mother to cook. Ilsa shared her love for books. My mother, in turn, has passed all of these things on to me.
At the age of fifteen, I finally gave in to curiosity and opened a volume of Arturo’s writing. The book I began with was the first volume of a novelized account of his life: The Forging of a Rebel. Reading his story was like listening to the experiences of an elderly relative. As I sat, surrounded by some of Arturo’s possessions and smoking enthusiastically (as he had throughout his life), our relationship changed. Arturo’s was a life lived and died, yet the conversation, while inevitably one-sided, didn’t feel so. Through Arturo’s writing our London living room opened on to the streets of Madrid.
Arturo Barea’s story begins in Spain where his widowed mother makes a meagre living washing clothes by the river. He is taken in by an uncle and receives a formal education. In 1920, Arturo is drafted and goes to Morocco where he endures harrowing experiences as a soldier in Spain’s colonial war. Following a village massacre, he is tasked with burying the decaying corpses and contracts typhus. The physical and mental trauma of Morocco stay with him for the rest of his life.
Back in Spain, the outbreak of civil war sees Arturo join the Republican cause. He becomes head of the censorship board and meets Ilsa. Together they check dispatches from foreign correspondents, including those of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. The horrors of war-torn Madrid bring Arturo to the verge of mental collapse but Ilsa manages to get her shell-shocked husband to Paris. There, Arturo begins the cathartic process of writing an account of his life.
Later, in 1939, the Bareas came to the UK and Arturo made a series of Spanish-language broadcasts for the BBC Latin America Service under the name Juan de Castille. Over the course of eighteen years, he would go on to broadcast more than eight hundred of these anecdotal ‘fireside chats’, which were originally intended to counter fascist propaganda during the War. These sketches of rural English life often began in the village pub where, among the farm workers, Arturo felt more at home.
The first time I read Arturo’s books, I learned about the lives he and Ilsa had led. But when I revisited Arturo’s story recently, it was with a different perspective altogether. My own writing career was forged in another kind of adversity: one undoubtedly less traumatic than Arturo’s experiences, but emotionally challenging nonetheless.
In 2005, I fell from a tree and suffered a spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia. My old life shattered, I was gripped with a profound sense of loss and an uncertain future. But during my rehabilitation I began to write. Although painful, organising my thoughts on paper started me on the long process of coming to terms with sudden disability. What began as catharsis eventually led me to publish a memoir and embark on a new career as a journalist.
Although I now see Arturo Barea’s work within a wider historical and literary perspective, my connection with him is persistently personal. He continues to be brought to life in my living room: by the DVD of a six-part Spanish television dramatisation of The Forging of a Rebel. As time passes, I find myself more and more drawn to this man I never met.
Feature photograph by Sarah J.; in-text photographs courtesy of the author