68° Good Evening
68° Good Evening

Excerpt from 'Hotel Florida'

"Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War" by Amanda Vaill (FSG, April 2014). Credit: FSG

July 1936: Madrid

Arturo Barea lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of a forest in the Sierra de Guadarrama, northwest of Madrid, with his head in his mistress's lap. It was midafternoon on Sunday, July 19, and the resinous air was loud with the sound of cicadas. Tall, thin, with slicked-back dark hair, the eyes of an El Greco saint, and the mouth of a sensualist, Barea was drowsy with the heat, the wine he and Maria had had with their picnic lunch, and the lovemaking afterward; he longed to close his eyes and give himself over to sleep. But Maria had other ideas. She wanted to talk. Not, this time, about how much she wanted him to leave his wife and children and make an honest woman of her after six years as his secretary and occasional bedmate, a subject that usually ended in stalemate and tears. Today she wanted to know where Barea had been last night, all night: what he had been doing that had kept him both away from home and away from her bed. But the events and sensations of the last twelve hours were too raw, too immediate to discuss; he sensed that the equipoise of his life was about to spin irrevocably out of control, and he was too exhausted to deal with the consequences.

At thirty-eight, Barea had constructed a life that was a delicate balancing act. He'd grown up poor: his father, an army recruiter, dead at forty, had left his family penniless; his mother had had to wash soldiers' dirty laundry in the Manzanares -- breaking the ice with her wooden beater on cold winter mornings -- and work as a servant for her well-to-do brother in order to keep the children out of the orphanage. The brother had taken an interest in little Arturo -- sent him to school at the Escuela Pía, treated him to the circus, and the cinema and the bookstalls in the Plaza de Callao, and encouraged his dreams of studying engineering (he was less enthusiastic about the literary ambitions that fueled Arturo's many contributions to the school's magazine, Madrileñitos). But then he, too, had died and his wife wanted no more to do with her sister-in-law and her children. So Arturo, still a scrawny teenager, had to go to work, first as a jeweler's apprentice; then, after studying for and passing accountancy exams, as a clerk at the Madrid branch of the Crédit Lyonnais.

A quick learner, he soon began to see raises in his modest paycheck; if he'd wanted to play the toady he could have climbed the bank's career ladder in a hurry. But he was proud and thin-skinned -- a dangerous combination -- and he chafed under the cavalier treatment of his bosses while also feeling shame at the humble origins he knew they disdained. He flirted with an alternative ambition -- writing -- but submitting prose pieces to the Madrid weeklies and hanging around the tertulias, the freewheeling discussions in various literary cafes, seemed to lead nowhere. He joined the Socialist general trade union, the UGT, when he was twenty; and despite feeling out of place when he appeared at union meetings in his señorito's suit and tie, he felt more solidarity with the workers in their blouses and rope-soled shoes than he did with the frock-coated bank directors who glared over their pince-nez at him. It was as much their patronizing attitude as his disgust at what he considered unjust profiteering that led him to storm out of the bank -- calling it "a pig sty" -- the day the Great War was declared in 1914; and although he would manage, against all odds, to become a boss himself, with a patent agent's office high above the most fashionable part of the Calle de Alcalá, he still sided with the workers over the fat cats. "I'm no use as a capitalist," he would say.

Not that he wasn't happy to have the capitalist's salary, and the gold cédula personal, the identity card showing him to be in one of the top income brackets, that went with it. But he'd insisted on installing his family in a large flat on one of the narrow, crooked streets in Lavapiés, the working-class barrio where he'd grown up, rather than in one of the bourgeois districts his wife, Aurelia, hankered after. He liked the idea of living in both worlds while belonging to neither, which he'd managed to do, in part, by staying out of the political struggles of the past decade. True, he'd joined the Socialists in 1931, when the new republic was declared, and that year he'd helped a friend organize a new clerical workers' union; but otherwise he'd confined himself to the sidelines, even during the bienio negro, the two dark years following the right's electoral victory in 1934. Although he decried the corruption and exploitation he frequently saw in his position as a patent agent, he told himself he was too insignificant a cog in the economic machinery to do anything about it.

Last February's national elections, however, had stirred him to action. He'd set up a Popular Front committee in the village outside Madrid where he spent weekends with his family -- something that hadn't gone unnoticed by the local landowners and the officers of the Guardia Civil, the rural police force who often acted as the gentry's enforcers. And as the political situation had deteriorated in the ensuing months, with brawls and shootouts and rumors of coups and countercoups, culminating in the twin assassinations of a socialist lieutenant in the Assault Guards, José de Castillo, and the fascist opposition leader José Calvo Sotelo the week before, he'd realized he was going to have to choose sides.

Even so, he hadn't been prepared for what had happened the previous night. Madrid had been on edge all day, everyone keeping one ear cocked to the radio -- easy to do when the government had placed loudspeakers at every street corner -- because, sandwiched incongruously between sets of norteamericana dance music, there had been fragmentary news bulletins telling of mutiny in isolated military garrisons. No need for panic; the government has the situation well in hand. But rumors flew, and then there were reports of another outbreak, and another. Apparently there was street fighting in Barcelona. People started gathering in bars and cafes, on the streets. What if the government didn't have the situation in hand? What if these mutinies were the start of a purge of the left, like Franco's Asturian campaign? If the army turned on ordinary citizens, who would defend them? After supper with his family, Barea had gone across Calle del Ave Maria to Emiliano's bar, his local, where the radio was playing Tommy Dorsey's "The Music Goes Round and Round" at top volume and people were shouting at one another to be heard. He'd just ordered a coffee when the announcer's voice broke in: the situation has become serious, and trade unionists and members of political groups should immediately report to their headquarters.

Excerpted from "Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War" by Amanda Vaill, published in April 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Amanda Vaill. All rights reserved.

More Entertainment