Malaga Burning: An American Woman's Eyewitness Account of the Spanish Civil War Hardcover – 1 Feb 1998
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The poet and wife of Gerald Brenan describes their experiences in Spain during the Civil War.
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Woolsey's remarkable book, "Death's Other Kingdom" (1938?), is far less known than her husband's writings, but for no good reason. Fortunately, it has now been edited, given a new title ("Malaga Burning"), and made available for the first time in the United States by Brenan's one-time neighbor Zalin Grant, who rightly acclaimed it one of the best memoirs of the Spanish Civil War. Grant has also happily removed the mysogynistic preface by Woolsey's brother-in-law that appeared in the British edition.
"Malaga Burning" is Woolsey's eyewitnees account of the first seven weeks of the war in Málaga and its outskirts. Among Civil War memoirs it is unique, for it is one of only a handful written by women and, in addition, it moves beyond the "great events" of the war and the experiences of foreigners, to focus, instead, on the agony of ordinary Spaniards of all classes and political persuasions. Sandra Mardenfeld criticised the book for this in the "New York Times Book Review", saying that Woolsey "provides little education about the war; rather her story captures the cruelties of humankind without offering much context." Ironically, the author would agree 100%.
Woolsey is decidedly apolitical. She portrays all groups -- anarchists, communists, fascists, even refugee Englishwomen sipping tea in Gibraltar -- as equally inclined to ferocity and (with the exception of the latter group!) brutal murder. One of the central parts of the book narrates her struggle to help a Málaga businessman escape death at the hands of the anarchists. Yet Woolsey is not inclined to sympathize with the fascists -- at night, she can see the smoke and flames rising from Málaga from her home several miles off, nationalist bombs bursting over civilians' heads, shattering their world to ruins. She is also critical of the many journalists who flocked to Spain to scoop up stories about "anarchist atrocities" and the "Red terror". In fact, she coined the term "pornography of violence", noting how effete Englishmen and anti-communists seemed to enjoy reading horror stories about raped nuns and wealthy families burned alive in their homes, stories often made up to satisfy this very lust for exploiting other people's nightmares.
Obviously, the book isn't a "pleasant" read, but it's an incredibly important one. Woolsey's vivid writing makes for emotionally engaging, profoundly stirring book that no one who is interested in Spanish or European history should miss. 5 stars.
This book was originally published in England in 1938 under the title "Death's Other Kingdom" but was never published in the US until this edition, newly titled, was published under the editorship of Zalin Grant.
The book is very short on factual details and makes surprisingly few references to actual events beyond the walls of the farm house she shared with husband Gerald Brennan. Yet, she captures with sensitivity the uncertainty, anxiety and absolute terror that overtook Spain at that time. (Read this along with Orwell's classic "Homage to Catalonia", written around the same time and Ramon Sender Barayon's "A Death in Zamora.)
Woolsey's memoir is best for what it tells us about the basic division that tore Spain apart and how ordinary people in a small village suffered the consecuences.
The Spanish Civil War, from abroad, still resonates with the romanticism and the dashing braveness of foreigners is Spain; strangers of all types played in this Spanish sandbox of blood and terror. The literature that emerged from the war was perforce partisan, Manichean, judgmental. This little book by Gamel Woolsey made its appearance in 1939 under the title of DEATH'S OTHER KINGDOM, and promptly vanished from sight in the shadow of Orwell's HOMAGE TO CATALONIA and the turbulence that preceded WWII. Now it has been published again under this new title, and rightly so, for it is a delicate and non-partisan narrative, such as only a poet would produce. Those who have very strong opinions about the war and its players will at first be disappointed by the book's apparent blandness (at least I was); but after a day or two, the true horrors that are only hinted in the book will dominate one's consciousness and perhaps illuminate more clearly the nature of the conflict.
There are a few objectionable efforts at translation, unaccetable in these days of easy information: the ancient Castillian song "Esta si es siega de vida" ("This, now, is the reaping of life..." is translated as "This, this is the sowing of life..." rather entirely changing the meaning and making the poem pointless. An additional linguistic failure is in the mention of the peculiar Spanish verb used to denote that someone is wearing new clothes for the first time: "estrenar" which appears in the book as "estreñar" (meaningless but perilously close to "estreñir," which means "to constipate").
Despite those minor faults, this is a haunting book that stays with you, and certainly an obligatory read for Spanish Civil War aficionados, of which there are surprisingly many in this country.
The book attempts to describe the servility and vulgarity of Spanish locals as well as the aura of "untouchables" created around Ms. Woolsey, husband and other foreigners around Malaga. Bombs may fall near by, but please do not disturb my 5:00 p.m. tea!. At the end, the book leaves the reader with a feeling of superficiality and lack of analytical skill, a book without compassion for the people suffering and for those who were victims of utter brutality.
Not worth spending a minute on this book.
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