“Life is very complicated, and only God knows.” With these words, the hero of José Luis Olaizola’s General Escobar’s War might well be summing up his own unusual life and career.
For life is complicated when you’re a devout Catholic soldier defending the secular, anti-clerical Spanish Republic; it’s even more complicated when you’re defending it from an uprising by the Catholic—but fascist-leaning—forces of Generalísimo Francisco Franco.
Based on the true-life story of General Antonio Escobar Huertas, the novel is his fictional memoir, written while imprisoned and on trial for his life after the Spanish Civil War. In the pithy, matter-of-fact prose of a lifelong soldier in the Civil Guard, General Escobar retells his part in this fratricidal period of Spanish history. And for Escobar, the war was indeed a family affair: two of his brothers and two of his sons fight on opposite sides of the war.
The complexities of Escobar’s career reflect those of the actual conflict, in which radically diverse factions of communists, anarcho-syndicalists, and republicans joined together in an uneasy coalition to fight the nationalists, fascists, and monarchists who made up Franco’s heterogeneous army. Both sides committed atrocities, and the war, in some estimates, left half a million people dead.
Amidst this chaos stands Escobar, a Catholic, a Third Order Franciscan, and a career soldier, serving what he considers to be the lawful government of the Spanish Republic. With the Civil Guard, he works tirelessly to protect and establish civic order—peacefully, firmly, and with force if necessary.
Law, order, discipline, and the diligent fulfillment of responsibility—these make up Escobar’s code of honor. And as he sees it, these things represent the antidote to the violent passions and ideologies underlying much of the Spanish Civil War. “I believed,” he writes, “and still believe, that it was better for the armies to be commanded by professionals, prepared to do their work with no more ill will than necessary.”
His impersonal, professional view of the military’s role leads him to take a firm but merciful stance when dealing with armed rebel countrymen who have seized a local hotel. But he arrests one of his own soldiers for raising a fist in response to the cheering crowd. The Civil Guard is not a personal affair, but the impartial enforcer of law, order, and peace.
For some readers, it may be difficult to follow Olaizola’s account of the many names, places, and movements in Spain’s Civil War, but the “Translator’s Glossary of Persons and Organizations” helps somewhat to bridge this gap. Richard Goodyear’s clear, readable English translation also captures well the matter-of-fact tone of a military man. The novel treats violence in realistic but not in graphic terms, offering a restrained but honest portrait of the effects of war. Indeed, Escobar’s calm, even understated narration of the brutality of the conflict accounts for some of the sobering impact of the novel.
Even against the backdrop of this terrible war, the novel has its moments of delicate humor. After treatment at the hospital for his gunshot wounds, the General makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes, but only “surreptitiously” submerges his wounded arm in the miraculous waters, hoping not to offend his excellent surgeon by appearing to doubt his medical prowess.
But in writing General Escobar’s War, Olaizola also has something to say about the act of writing itself. As Escobar composes his memoir in his prison cell, he frequently comments on the careful pride he takes in his handwritten manuscript:
This would be a minor fault, and I don’t think I should go to hell for it, but it’s intriguing to feel the gratification that takes hold of me when I see how the pages pile up, covered with handwriting in which the fine strokes are differentiated from the bolder ones, all of the accents are where they should be, and the commas start off delicately, widen gradually, and end with a very subtle little tail.
Living under the shadow of his imprisonment, trial, and likely execution, Escobar nonetheless comments that he is “grateful for these sheets of paper, which are sometimes wrinkled, always yellowed, of which I now have about a hundred covered with my handwriting in purple ink. They convince me that, although I may be just an average soldier, I’m an excellent penman.”
At face value, it’s a strangely small detail for Olaizola to highlight in a war novel. But in doing so, he evokes the earlier Modernist writers like Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, or Wallace Stevens, who believed that careful work, done well, especially the creative acts of art or writing, could help provide order and meaning in a chaotic world.
More importantly for General Escobar, his beautiful writing becomes a symbol of his defining trait: his careful diligence and attention to detail in every activity of life. Sustained by a belief that God calls him to holiness and excellence in his daily tasks, Escobar strives to imitate Christ, about whom the Jews commented in the Gospel of Mark, “He does all things well.” Olaizola even hints that the General’s work of writing down his story of faith and sacrifice might have some spiritual value: living in solitary confinement, the General comes to think of his prison cell “as the cell of a Carthusian monk.” Civilization, we might also say, is being preserved by the pen and ink within this monastic cell, while the world outside tears itself to pieces.
Finally, the novel gives us a man who made a profoundly conservative act: to work tirelessly to better and to sanctify his nation from within, rather than by fleeing it or by seeking to overthrow it. And he does this at great personal cost. Choosing not to leave the country when the Republic falls, Escobar accepts imprisonment and ultimately death by the firing squad. When offered a chance to escape, Escobar responds with an answer revealing his love of soldierly duty and good form: “When it comes to wars,” he says simply, “you have to know how to lose them.”
General Escobar’s War: A Novel of the Spanish Civil War
by José Luis Olaizola
Translated by Richard Goodyear
Ignatius Press, 2016
Paperback, 235 pages