An excerpt from Manuel de Lope’s first novel to be translated into English. The Wrong Blood will be published by Other Press on September 28.
María Antonia had a feeling that one of those soldiers, if not more than one, was going to rape her. Barefoot, lounging in the field or on the stone bench, they looked like lads on a day trip, and later that afternoon, when a sudden rainstorm drove them into the kitchen, they cursed like drunken day-trippers, too. The men stationed on top of the ice truck covered their machine gun with canvas and took refuge inside the vehicle. The men in the attic retreated from the embrasures and waited for the cloudburst to pass. Rain lashed the glass panels of the balcony on the second floor, where the only officer in the troop was in a discussion with his sergeant. The lieutenant had asked for some lunch to be brought to the room. It was past five in the afternoon, but neither he nor the sergeant had eaten anything yet. María Antonia climbed the stairs with a tray in her hands. There was some of the week’s bread, wine, and chorizo, along with some chestnut purée from the previous winter. The soldiers had dispatched two large cheeses and then cooked some potatoes, which each of them had eaten with his individual field rations. María Antonia pushed open the door and entered the room. The dark, abrupt lieutenant, who could not have been more than twenty-five, was drying his hands on a towel. He pivoted around, turning his back to the balcony. María Antonia stood still in the doorway. Her mother and stepfather’s bed was inside this same room, in the space partitioned off as a bedroom. The spread was on the floor. The wardrobe stood open and its mirrored door reflected the unmade bed, a pair of calf-length leather boots, and a military bandolier and belt, complete with holster and standard issue pistol, which hung from one of the brass balls on the bedposts. The girl noticed that the lieutenant was barefoot and must have been sleeping with his army jacket on since he arrived.
. . . María Antonia, pressing her arms against her belly, thought that the moment had come, and that they were going to rape her. . .
“Who’s this kid?”
“She was in the house,” the sergeant said. “Her parents ran away yesterday.”
“What’s your name, muchacha?” the lieutenant asked.
“Etxarri,” the girl said.
“Leave our lunch on that table. And stay away from the soldiers,” the lieutenant said.
María Antonia crossed the room and put the tray where she had been told to put it. Behind the rain, the valley was suddenly torn by glittering sunlight, and although the downpour continued to beat against the windows, a strange, sunny luminousness flooded the parquet floor. Reflections of the wine danced on the table. Neither of the men paid any attention to the girl when she turned to go. After she left the room and began to walk down the stairs, the sergeant closed the door behind her with his foot.
When it stopped raining, the soldiers went outside again, some stretching, others rubbing their eyes, all of them young country boys, much like the boys in the surrounding villages, and all day long María Antonia had felt that one of them was going to rape her. But she wasn’t afraid. She assumed that that was, in some way, what had happened on the two previous occasions, even though it wasn’t, and she also assumed that her mother and stepfather had beaten her and called her a tramp and a slut precisely because it wasn’t, and because she had let herself be taken in. The young soldiers were wearing pants that were too big for them and outfits that were generally the wrong size, and one or two of them were in their underwear; when they stepped out of the dark kitchen, all were dazzled by the brightness of the late afternoon sun. They took down the stuffed buffalo head, brought it outside, and set it on a rock some fifty or sixty meters away. Some of the troops took target practice, and a bullet split the buffalo’s left horn. Then they stopped, because just as they had orders not to loot, they surely had orders not to waste ammunition, either. One of the men who had been posted to the attic shouted something to his comrades on the ground, and several of them laughed. Others shaded their eyes with their hands and squinted up at the eaves, where they could see a big smiling head and a rifle barrel sticking out of the opening in the dovecote. A rumble of artillery fire came from the direction of Erlaiz, and no one could tell if the steam rising from the valley was coming from the rain or if the rain was putting out a fire somewhere down there. The fields looked as though they had been polished. The mountainsides took on the fir trees’ sharp shadows. The blaze of twilight gave the leaden clouds blood-red outlines, but the most intense brightness, beyond the mountain crests, shone from the sea.
A while later, the lieutenant came down from his room and the two men stationed in the attic were relieved, as were the two serving on the armed ice truck. Those who had gone down to the river to wash their socks returned, sending rocks rolling down the embankment as they came. The sergeant gave a few orders as well, while the officer headed for the bridge, from which point one could see the succession of hills and the river winding among the firs, and from there he examined the valley, aided by a pair of black binoculars whose brass fittings were shiny with use. Darkness was falling. After a few minutes, the lieutenant returned. “Mess and turn in,” he told his men. “Tomorrow’s a fiesta.”
“A holy day of obligation, Lieutenant?” said one of the soldiers, who was wearing an undershirt and drawers and shaking out a blanket into the cool twilight air.
“Shut your trap,” said the lieutenant, without hesitation.
“Does anyone have any aspirins?” the sergeant asked.
Someone had two aspirin tablets, well wrapped in a piece of newspaper, and he gave one to the sergeant, who put it in his mouth and threw back his head and started chewing. Then he took a long pull on a canteen. Then he clicked his tongue and belched.
Night was coming on quickly, and only shadows could be seen, moving from one side to the other, unpacking equipment and carrying bundles. The men gathered in groups of three or four to prepare their mess. The kitchen cupboards and various corners of the inn had been searched, not violently, because the soldiers had quickly confiscated sufficient bread and provisions for the following day, and with the exception of sugar, which was not to be found inside the house or anywhere else, they needed nothing. They turned on no lights and lit no fire. Some of them laid blankets on the floor of the kitchen and the dining room and settled down to sleep. Two or three went out to the stone bench beside the entrance to smoke cigarettes, whose dim embers intermittently lit up their faces with a serene glow. Others bedded down in the stable with the mules, because it was a warm and welcoming stable. After exchanging a few words, however, the men decided to take the mules out into the field so that they could graze. María Antonia Etxarri, unafraid, went out and sat near the three smokers, and then, when they withdrew, she took a seat on the same bench, near the entrance, and remained there with her arms folded across her belly and a blanket over her shoulders, listening to the strident breathing of the soldiers sleeping inside the house and the concert of the owls that had been born the previous spring and the dull thud of the hobbled mules’ hooves as the beasts grazed in the darkness.
The lieutenant went to spend the first part of the night with the men whom he had relieved, the ones who had been on duty atop the ice truck. There were two or three of them. He sent for the girl, and María Antonia, pressing her arms against her belly, thought that the moment had come, and that they were going to rape her when she joined them. There were no men who wouldn’t do the same. Thirty meters separated the house from the brow of the little hill where the ice truck was parked. The top cover of the machine gun mounted on the ice truck was silhouetted against the night sky. As María Antonia walked up those thirty meters, the frozen letters of the Ice Factory gradually appeared and grew clearer, blue and white on a blue background paler than the thick darkness surrounding the ice truck, as if it were a circus truck painted with some kind of glossy or glittering paint, and as if those fantastic letters, snow-crested like mountaintops, were announcing the imminent opening of a circus show with ice, seals, and penguins. The lieutenant was sitting inside the truck, on the driver’s side. His window was down, one elbow was sticking out, and he was smoking like the others. He turned his head as the girl approached the truck. The two men beside him craned forward and looked at her, too. “What do you think of this girl?” the lieutenant asked.
“She looks human, Lieutenant,” one of the other men said.
“Go up to the room. The sergeant wants to ask you to perform a service.”
The girl crossed her arms, pulled the blanket over her shoulders, and turned around. Neither the lieutenant nor his two men were the ones who were going to rape her. She was afraid to retrace the thirty meters, because her heart was pounding in her chest and she couldn’t see where she was putting her feet. In church, the priests taught the children such behavior, telling them that they had to be obedient, even in time of war, even though they could escape and disappear on the mountain with the cows after setting fire to the hayloft, and then, for decades to come, the house that had sheltered Etxarri’s Bar would be nothing but a burnt patch, a few charred beams on ash-covered ground, and nobody except a very few people would know that María Antonia Etxarri had set the house on fire to save herself from being raped, but instead of doing that, remembering other reasons and other rains, María Antonia obediently mounted the stairs to the room, doing as she had been told, fearing only the barrage of blows she would get from her stepfather should peace ever come.
The door was open and the sergeant was waiting for her, wearing a rustic undershirt and long drawers. When she arrived, he looked at her and said, “I’ll have to thank the lieutenant.”
A lighted oil lamp stood on a console table, filling the room with shadows and shimmers worthy of a sacristy. The sergeant invited her inside and closed the door behind her. His face was illuminated and sad, or at least that’s the way she remembered it, giving it the features of a boy who had perhaps been promoted to corporal on the very day when he enlisted, and then promoted to sergeant because of the need for non-commissioned officers or because of some warlike deed accomplished on one of the many occasions a war of that sort would have offered, and after the passage of so many years, that closed face, which contemplated her with neither malevolence nor kindness, without even any desire except to assuage desire, had taken on in her memory the expression, between bad-tempered and foolish, of bridegrooms married against their will. He didn’t smile, nor did he bare his teeth. The lieutenant had turned the room over to him for just this situation, which promised to be awful from the moment the sergeant closed the door behind the girl, and she, who had often heard her mother and stepfather fighting in that room—and years later, the best customers would take up quarters there during the salmon fishing season—she dropped the blanket that she was still wearing over her head like a shawl, and since she knew what she was going to be obliged to do, she hoped only that the man would not force himself upon her violently, and that the young soldiers downstairs would never find out about what was on the verge of happening in that room. She had heard men compared to dogs, and she had watched the packs when they were released during hunts. The indecisive sergeant made no move for several seconds. His profile was silhouetted against the moonlight on the balcony. He told her to lie on the bed and pulled his woolen undershirt over his head as if he were peeling off his skin. Then he sat on a chair and removed his long underpants, tugging first on one leg and then on the other, as though stripping off a long, two-fingered glove. She had never lain on her mother and stepfather’s bed nor, except when doing the cleaning, did she ever enter their bedroom. But she lay on the bed as the man had told her to do, and the man lay down beside her. He had big, cold hands. They seemed rather nervous, perhaps from shyness, perhaps from excitement. The brass balls at the foot of the bed gleamed while the bedsprings groaned, and her only hope was that the other soldiers wouldn’t hear what was going on and wouldn’t wake up in a state of lecherous agitation that nothing would be able to restrain. He threw her skirts over her face as if he were opening a trunk full of fancy clothes and undid the long drawers she used to wear in those days. Then he threw himself on top of her, and without her moving a muscle or shedding a tear or feeling either pleasure or pain, except for the alien warmth in her insides, the ungainly, naked man, covered with the sweat of war, as defenseless as a dog in the bed, raped her.
The sergeant turned over onto the mattress, lit a cigarette, and caught his breath. “Today’s my first wedding anniversary,” he said. “My wife’s in Pamplona, and the lieutenant understood that I needed a woman tonight.”
The cigarette left some shreds of tobacco on his lips, and he spat on the floor.
“Your name’s Etxarri?”
“There are some people named Etxarri in Pamplona.”
The man didn’t speak again, and when he began to snore, she was able to leave the room. She picked up her blanket and spent the rest of the night in the kitchen, where the other soldiers were sleeping. She heard the changing of the guard and the lieutenant returning to his room. Then she fell asleep, too.
Manuel de Lope was born in Burgos, Spain, in 1949. At age fifteen he moved to Madrid, where he again resides, after having lived in Geneva, London, and the south of France for twenty-five years. In 1978 he published his first novel, Albertina en el país de los Garamantes, thus commencing one of the most treasured and significant careers in modern Spanish literature. The Wrong Blood (Other Press, 2010) is his first novel to be translated into English.
John Cullen is the translator of many books from Spanish, French, German, and Italian, including Enrique de Hériz’s Lies, Yasmina Khadra’s Middle East Trilogy (The Swallows of Kabul, The Attack, The Sirens of Baghdad), Christa Wolf’s Medea, and Margaret Mazzantini’s Don’t Move. He lives in upstate New York.
Perhaps the most famous painting depicting the disasters of modern war is Picasso’s Guernica, which for many years could be seen at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art but is now exhibited in Madrid. There’s an extensive body of literature about this painting, about its genesis and about its vicissitudes as a work of art.
I’d like to point something out. The figures in Picasso’s Guernica are women. Aesthetically and emotionally it’s as if a bomb suddenly fell on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. A personal detail ties me to Picasso’s Guernica. My aunt Cheli, who at that time was a young woman of eighteen, was in Guernica the day of the bombing and survived.
In my novel The Wrong Blood, whose action unfolds during the Spanish Civil War, the main characters are two women. In this, I’ve followed Picasso’s thematic lesson. I’d like to recommend, as a parallel text, a book by the historian Paul Preston. It’s called Doves of War. It’s the biography of four women who participated intensely in the war, on opposing sides. Two of them were English: the aristocrat Priscilla Scott-Ellis (I knew her first husband in his later years) and the proletarian Nan Green. The other two were Spanish: the fascist Mercedes Sanz Bachiller and the communist Margarita Nelken. Four lives marked by the experience of war. The events that enveloped these four women are now far off, but their heartrending and human quality is ageless.
On a personal note, I’d like to thank John Cullen for his excellent work in translating The Wrong Blood and making it available for English-language readers.
Two other contemporary Spanish novelists whose work I admire are Javier Cercas and Javier Marías. The accomplished English translation of Cercas’s novel Soldiers of Salamis, a fascinating story about the civil war and its complexities, about its present-day effects, and about the creative process, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004. Javier Marías shares with Manuel de Lope an affinity for long, twisting, exquisitely composed, and perfectly lucid sentences, which reflect the layered, time-shifting nature of his storytelling as well as the strand of surrealism that seems to be an essential part of the Spanish literary heritage. Of Marías’s many fine books, I’d suggest A Heart So White, which has the additional attraction for me of being about a translator.
The tragic Spanish Civil War, one of the cruelest conflicts in a century full of them, has engendered a huge bibliography, which includes several excellent in-depth studies in English, among them histories by Hugh Thomas, Paul Preston, and Raymond Carr. If I were to recommend only one such volume, however, I’d incline toward Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain, which is beautifully written, packed with information, and unflinching.
Homepage photo by Thomas Berg via Flickr