Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Helen Deachman gives us a Story About the Spanish Civil War


BITTERSWEET
by Helen Deachman




“Spanish Civil War monument unveiled:  Governor-General lauds idealism of members of famed Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.”    -----The Ottawa Citizen   Oct. 21, 2001

THE LETTER the postman handed me that long-ago morning was tattered and faded---the writing scarcely legible, yet the name and address were mine.

  I knew it was Einar’s writing, the young  Finn I'd met before he went to Spain.  Was he still alive then, after all this time?    My hands shaking, I read the words but they scarcely registered.  Simply a jumble.

 Months had gone by, and I’d never fully given up hope.  But eventually I’d had to face reality.  Other volunteers, defeated and haggard, had returned home, but not Einar.  His parents had received no word.  I knew nothing of his friends.  And living here in this town so far from everywhere, I had no idea where to look or who to ask.  There were no official lists.  The government seemed to be treating these men who’d gone to fight Franco as non-persons.

I opened the letter, written from France in October 1938.

Dear Maggie,
We are still here in France.   No way to get home.  We did all we could, but the war is lost.  Germany and Italy gave Franco what help he needed.  Britain and France, the United States and Canada, none.  We had no chance. 

Now we wait.  The C.P.R. wants $10,000 to sail us home.  300 of us.  A joke!  None of us with a cent.  If we are still here in three days the French say they will move us to the camps.   I feel no hope, but in my head I am home to you. 

P.S.  I hear talk this morning help may come.  A Canadian reporter in London has maybe found some money.   A British member of parliament will maybe donate half of what we need,.   The reporter hopes someone else the rest.
Much love from me,
Einar




                           ***

     It was back in the late thirties when I was living with Mother that I first met Einar.  Mother did not approve.  “Isn’t he a Finn?” she asked icily.   In this small northern Ontario town, most of us of British stock assumed we were superior to these recent European immigrants;   ‘we were us’ and ‘they were them’.  ‘They’ being Ukrainians, Scandinavians, Austrians, Poles, Finns and Italians.  We knew almost nothing about them..  What we didn’t know, we imagined.

     We didn’t mingle with the newcomers.   They worked in the bushcamps, the sawmills, the coal docks, or on road gangs. Many, especially the women, spoke little English.  Once or twice a year when our shoes needed repair, we took them to the gentle Nick Los over on Van Norman Street.  For an occasional treat we walked down to Secord Street and bought a loaf of melt-in-your mouth rye bread from the Kivela Bakery. Mother, if she needed a taxi, called Oikonen’s. 

     We all knew the Finn Hall down on Bay Street was a gathering place for bush workers when they came to town: Lumber and Sawmill Workers, other Wobblies.  Radicals.  A tough bunch, everyone knew.  Years afterwards, of course, the Finn Hall’s Hoito became ‘de rigeur’ for Sunday morning breakfasts. Even for tourists.  Lineups out the door and down the street. But that was later.

     Mother’s feelings about Einar  didn’t soften.  When his first letter came, I‘d been skating with Jenny and Sally down at the Co-op Dairy rink with its ice made from leftover skim milk.  A night that was cold and crisp, the sky full of stars, and me higher than the moon as I walked home.  That feeling didn’t last.  As I opened the front door, Mother was waiting in the front hall waving a letter at me. “Just who do you know in Toronto,?” she demanded angrily. 

     “Don’t you remember?” I reminded her.  “I told you about Einar.  He’s on his way to Spain.”

     “A Finlander!” she exploded.  “Where did you meet him?  He’s a Communist!  Why did you give him your address?  You will not answer his letter!”

     Tight-lipped, I snatched the envelope from her hand and went to my room.  She stormed off to the kitchen, pointedly banging the pots.

     She needn’t have worried.  It was far from a love letter.  Simply his impressions of Toronto:  how people there seemed more proper than those back home.  No one carrying a lunchpail.  He described his enlistment for Spain at the Seaman’s Union Hall on Spadina Avenue; meeting up with a couple of buddies he’d known when he worked in the bushcamp; finding a reliable person to sign his passport, a passport that included a warning forbidding travel to Spain.  That certainly would have alarmed Mother.  What he was doing was illegal.

     His ship was to leave from Montreal, a city he seemed to fall in love with.  Mother, who instinctively disapproved of this French, Catholic Gomorrah, would have been aghast at his enchantment.  The city’s contrasts excited him: its prosperous mansions high up on the ridge overlooking the working-class neighbourhood that edged the railway tracks below; the bustle and noise of downtown traffic, gradually giving way to the quiet serenity of the wooded Mount Royal.  The gray stone architecture—wrought-iron railings leading up to second floor flats, or seductively down a few steps into secluded grotto-like cafés;  the old-time calèches drawn by horses clip-clopping along midst the rest of the traffic.  Some street signs in English, others in French.

     Sight-seeing along Sherbrooke Street near the university, Einar had met a friendly “bon homme”,  time on his hands, eager to talk.

 “I don’t see you before,” the fellow began, and when he heard Einar was on his way to Spain, he couldn’t wait to describe the rally he’d attended earlier that week in the huge protestant church down on Dorchester Street..

 “L’invité, speaker, you say? is André Malraux.  You know the guy is writer from France, très passioné, tu sais, he tell us about Spain.  Franco.  The take-over, you say?  Coup d’état.  Illégal!  He tell us about Spanish people, civilians, bombing!  Civilians!  People poor, worse like us.  Ils font rien!  Nothing !  Killed by bombs!  Franco and Hitler. »  He stopped.

Then started to laugh.

     « But Premier Duplessis,  you know ?  He is drole, you say ?  Joke on Duplessis.  When he ‘ear about meeting in arena, he cancel it.  He know Malraux.  What he will say.  So he cancel arena.  Mais, meetingpeople act quick.  Très vite.  Move meeting to big church on Dorchester.  Church is packed.  To the doors.  I am there!”  And he laughed again.  “Duplessis ‘as egg on ‘is face.  That is how you say?”  And off he want, still chuckling.

***

     I hadn’t told Mother how I’d met Einar.   I think I was afraid that talking about him would destroy my image of him ---like a dream that dissolves in the telling.  Besides, I was trying to avoid a storm.  Mother’s feelings were clear.  She disapproved.   She knew nothing about his family.   Didn’t want to know.  He was foreign. 

     It was November, late afternoon.  I can still see the whiteness of twilight in the air.  There I was, absent-mindedly walking up the path of leafless poplars in Waverly Park when I stumbled, and my library books went flying.  A tall, gangly, blonde fellow caught up with me, and without a word, helped me to my feet, gathered up my books and began walking alongside me.

     There was nothing suave about him, but he wasn’t tongue-tied like I was.  A little awkward, he began asking me questions about myself.  I told him I loved reading, listening to music, especially my new Louis Armstrong’s ‘St. Louis Blues’that I’d just bought.    He interrupted and asked me if I’d been reading about Spain.  “Spain?”  I wondered. “Why Spain?”  But before I could ask, he told me he was planning to go there.  I assumed he meant on a holiday.

     We met a few times after that.  Once a late supper at the Arthur Café, and while we ate our fish and chips, he told me about his family.  His father coming from Helsinki in the late 1920s, and his mother, with Einar and his sister Hilka, a year later.  How his mother’s spirits sank as the train rumbled its endless way through the wilderness of northern Ontario: nothing but trees, rock, water; trees, rock water.  Her first encounter with the town: the clatter of breaking glass---her grandmother’s fragile china --- as the baggageman hurled her trunk onto the platform.  The muddy streets, with here and there a board sidewalk.   The rudimentary house that awaited her---with its thin walls and rough flooring,  anything but welcoming.  And, worst of all, no indoor toilet, no running water.  Hoards of blackflies and mosquitoes.   She’d held back her tears;  tried not to think of Helsinki, with  its parks, its coffee houses, its lively theatre.  Her childhood friends.  To find herself with so little English in a foreign place so far from home,  where people sounded rough and discourteous.  She felt lost.   Abandoned.

     I was relaxed with Einar.  His straightforward manner, his warmth, even his casual acceptance of his difference made him seem grounded.  I didn’t want to let him know, I couldn’t--I was too shy—but he was beginning to grow on me.  Not that I would have admitted such a thing, except to myself.

     But Spain still bothered me!   I needed to know more, and I kept searching the Chronicle for news.   At first there were graphic photographs of the horrific bombing of Spanish civilians in Guernica, but later reports became scornful: ‘unpatriotic  rag-tag idlers defying the law’ and other disparaging remarks.  Only one tiny item of protest, hidden in the back pages: a local lumber union protesting  the government’s ban on travel to Spain.  I had only a vague idea what that meant.    Presumably a reference to the passport warning: 
Not Valid for Travel to Spain  But what was wrong with support for the Spanish government?  It was all very confusing.  I felt like a child, hearing fragments, unable to sort it all out.

     Einar’s next letter came from Spain.  Sometime in February.  Reading it, I could hear his soft, lilting accent.

My dear Meg,
We are in Spain at last.  I have so much to tell you.

At the end of our crossing, the ship tied up at Le Havre.  Customs checked our passports and took our $30 fee to enter.  They knew we are not tourists heading to the Paris Exposition like we were told to say, and they stopped asking where we were headed.  Just to look at Sammy’s cardboard suitcase---only socks and underwear---but they let us pass.

Christmas Eve we headed south, and the next day was a village (how to spell the name) where  church ladies made us dinner.  Soup, roast duck, potatoes, apple pie.  We all talked at once: Norvege, Dane, Finnis, Czeck, and thirteen Canadians.  Impossible  to understand, but we use our hands.  After dinner a movie Rose Marie’-- Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.  All us Canadians we laugh at the freezing north looks so romantic. 

It was late when we board the bus for Pyrenees mountains.  Riding in darkness I felt alone.  Homesick.  I thought about Christmas when I was a boy.  Me and my sister pulling the toboggan to the end of our street for a tree.  Ones far away look just right, but up close, skinny and bare.  We hurry home, my hands and feet are like ice.

At night, we light candles on the tree, like in Helsinki.   Church at midnight, then home and open presents.  Late in the night, I can not sleep.  Out the window I’ watch huge snowflakes floating down.

*  *  *

Our steep climb up mountain pass begins after midnight in snowstorm.  Up 9000 feet they tell us, single file, narrow path.  No warm boots, only thin shoes and socks, flimsy jackets.  No talking, the enemy can be close.  One huge man trying to keep up, sinking in deep snow.  He begs us to leave him but we can not.  We found rope, and pull him behind.

At last the top.  Then the going down, steep, narrow, slippery, nothing to hold  to.  Worse almost to climbing.

At the bottom a shack.   Two Spanish soldiers come out, smiling,
 give us cigarettes and coffee, strong, like Finns make.  We want to stay but must keep on moving.
Love     Einar

P.S.  I send you a hug.  A friendly bear hug.  Please write.  I think you can use this address.
      Canadians in Spain 
      Seamen’s Union Hall
     Spadina Ave. Toronto, Ont.

     Whenever a letter came I was excited,  but between times I felt flat.  Einar didn’t write often.  I did all the usual things: skating, skiing, reading, working at Lowry’s Stationery, but it wasn’t the same.  Thinking about Einar, I’d compare him to the boys at school.  They seemed young and boring now, no sense of adventure.  I couldn’t imagine them going to Spain.  Einar was an odd mix: earnest, adventurous, shy, and funny.  Made me laugh when he gently poked fun at me, never made me feel stupid.  He seemed to know what was going on in the world.

     When his family moved to Lappe, a few miles from town, Einar came in to go to Tech, but stayed only a year or two.  He was older than his classmates, restless to be working.  He found a job in the bush camp.

     Then he heard about Franco and Spain, and knew he had to help out.  But why, I wasnt sure.  A longing for adventure?  Knowing Einar, I think it was his innate sense of fairness, his vision of what things could be like.  He had listened  as a child to his father’s dreams of a new, more just Finnish society, so for him, the Spanish Republicans' plans to break up the huge estates and divide the land among the peasants did not seem such a radical idea.  It was the right thing to do.
    

     I felt bereft when he left.  Would I hear from him?  See him again?  In the meantime I still had to learn about this war he talked about.  Franco.  Republicans.  The ban on travel to Spain.  What was it all about?

     Late one afternoon when I’d come home from work early, Mother, all out of breath, burst through the front door, slamming it behind her.  She’d been to visit our minister, to ask what he thought about Einar, that ‘foreign fellow’.   She couldn’t get home fast enough to tell me Rev. McCann’s warnings.  “He was most emphatic”, Mother announced. “ It is illegal for Canadians to take part in the Spanish conflict!”   Inwardly I fumed, but I had no response.

                                             ***

     Mr. Robinson was my  funny, wise history teacher.  Band leader as well.  In my final year at school,  I‘d asked him if I could play trumpet in the school band instead of piano for the school choir.  His serious demeanour had turned mischievous. “I wish I’d known earlier,” he said regretfully.  “All the trumpets have been taken, but I do have a tuba.  How about trying it out?”  He could see, of course, that I was a mere five feet tall, that I would have to parade with that cumbersome horn.  But I was game.  I could forget the piano.  And despite his mischief, I knew he could be serious.  He was interested in politics, in what was going on in the world, not just someone who followed the crowd.  He would take me seriously.

     Still, I was a little hesitant about knocking on his classroom  door, appearing out of the blue.  But I had to overcome my ignorance about the war.  And though I hated to admit it, I was a little apprehensive about what Einar was doing.  Of course there was a conflict between Einar’s decision and the law, but was he morally wrong to defy the law?

     Being there again in my old third-floor classroom was re-assuring:  out the window the same  day-dreamy view of the bay guarded by the Sleeping Giant. The same Cadbury’s map of the world rolled down over the blackboard, and the framed print of Wolfe’s men scaling the ramparts of Quebec.  And just as I knew he would, Mr. Robinson listened carefully as I told him how muddled I felt.

     He was his usual wry, measured self.  Sympathetic.  He didn’t know Mother, but he understood her fear, knew that perhaps it stemmed from ‘a little knowledge’.  He wasn’t surprised at all the misconceptions about the war.   Most newspapers, including ours, gave only one side of the story.  The propoganda was doing its work.


     “The war in Spain is hard to sort out,” Mr. Robinson explained.  “It didn’t develop overnight.  The last straw was when General Franco returned to Spain from Morocco and overthrew the government.   A government,” he added, “that had been elected by the Spanish people.  Many countries, including Britain, the United States, and Canada, chose to remain neutral.  That’s when over a thousand Canadians, many of them out of work or recent immigrants, defied the law, and along with volunteers from several other countries, went to Spain.”

     He paused.

     “Did they believe in democracy?  Or were they seeking adventure?  Probably both.  Whatever their reasons, they knew the Spanish government needed help.  Not only did Franco have the backing of the wealthy landowners and the Catholic Church, but he was receiving huge loans, planes and weapons from Hitler and Mussolini.”

     As he stopped to light his pipe, I told Mr Robinson about a conversation I’d overheard after church a few weeks before.  Our family physician, Dr. McKibbin, had just returned from a visit to Germany with the news that Canadians had nothing to fear from Hitler.  The German people liked and trusted him, and were willing to do his bidding.  And even though they resented the exorbitant reparations payments the British allies had forced on them after the Great War, Dr. McKibbin was certain the Germans were reasonable people.

     Mr. Robinson smiled wryly at that.

     “Of course he would say that.  I know McKibbin and his views on communism.  He’d be sure to approve of Mackenzie King’s ban on travel to Spain.”

     He appeared lost in thought for a moment or two, and then he continued.  “Listen.  Here are a couple of examples of what our government is afraid of.  Recently the Spanish government released 30,000 political prisoners.   Pretty scary, right? Besides that, it announced that henceforth tenant frarmers would be rent-free, and that in order to distribute the land more fairly, the government would break up the huge estates owned by powerful landlords.”

     He stopped and let me absorb all this.  Gradually I began to see why Britain, the United States, and Canada were so worried.  In their eyes this Robin Hood idea of taking land from the wealthy landowners and giving to the landless peasants amounted to communism.  What if such an idea spread to their own countries?

     I came away feeling relieved.  A cloud had lifted.  I had a much clearer sense of what was happening.  Mr. Robinson  hadn’t made me feel stupid.  He hadn’t denounced Einar.  He even seemed sad and a little angry that Canada’s government had remained neutral when Hitler and Mussolini were anything but. Mr. Robinson had seen a lot—--had served in the Great War—I guess nothing surprised him.

      I left more confident than I’d felt for a long time.  Like a new person.  After church the next Sunday, when Mr. McCann shook hands with me and said in an undertone, “I hope you have taken to heart my warning”,  I knew exactly what he meant.  Einar going to Spain illegally.  But this time I was ready.  Mimicking his reverent tone, I solemnly recited that re-assuring verse from the new testament:  “Render unto God the things that are God’s”.   No longer would I be intimidated.

     Weeks later, another letter  came from Einar.   This time I whooped for joy, waved it in the air, childishly taunting Mother, daring her to react.   To my surprise, I waited in vain.  No rebuke followed.  I felt a huge relief!  I read it aloud to Mother.

May 5, 1937
Dear Margareta   (your name in Finn.  Do  you like it?)
Your letter arrived at last!  Can you see us here when mail comes in?  All crowding around, short fellows trying to see over tall ones, waiting to hear our names.

You want to know what it is like here.   To hear about my comrades.  I never met anyone like Tony.  He lives in New York.   Speaks Spanish.  A guy who reads books.  He worked in a cigar factory in Florida and they paid him to read to the workers.  He knows about people like Cervantes and Tolstoy and Marx.  Have you read them?  Tony knows many stories, and  when there is time, we sit around listening to them.

Some  days is like war disappears.  We travelled in countryside of orange trees and olive and grape vines.  Villages where churches and castles seem like growing out of mountainside.  Where only sign of war is Spanish women singing the Internationale.  (‘’Change will not come from above!’ Tony tells us.)
They hold up jugs of wine, call to us ‘bebid, por favor’, please drink. We are like sons and brothers.  A young man and his girl stand under a huge tree, fists in air to cheer us on our way.   Children call to us ‘Salud!  A la Frente’.  

     In one of his letters Einar talked about how resourceful  some of the Finns are, finding a stone building on a farm they had taken,  repairing the stonework, fixing up a stove that was inside, and transforming it into a sauna.  And then cheered.  

     In another letter he wrote about a buddy who’d escaped one of Franco’s ghastly prisons, a stinking black, watery dungeon full of rats and filthy ooze, where every day he’d been interrogated and beaten by Germans.  Franco’s allies.

     Still, despite the horror, the prisoners put their spare time to good use:  carving chess men from bread or wood or soap.  Making  cards to play bridge.    Organizing classes in Russian, Spanish, German and Greek;  teaching each other math, algebra, electricity and journalism.  They formed a choir. 

     I loved his letters.  He seemed in good spirits.  But later, the tone changed.  No longer light-hearted, he sounded despondent.


(I think August)
Dear Maggie,
For weeks rain and more rain.  Stsill we march on and on, soaked through our skin.  There is no sense.  We are all so tired.  No billeting in villages, our French commissar shouts.  If we want shelter we must take the town of ***.  He says we are taking ‘evasive action’ against air bombardment.  What does that mean?  He is not a real person.  All the time shouting, calling us cowards! Why am I here?  I do not feel myself. 

Yes, always complaints.  About food.  Never changes:  lentils, bread, bacalav, garbanzos.  I dream of Kivela rye bread.

 And lice.  In every crack.  Crawling in our socks, in our shirts, in our trousers.  Every place on our bodies.  And typhus.  Spread by lice.  I was sick for days.   Still weak.

Worst is how they treat us.  Harsh punishings for small misbehavings.  We are volunteer, remember? but we are thrown into dungeons by our own officers.  Last week I can not believe.  Two men sent out in the night to dig trenches in no mans land.  Only one came back.  You imderstamd?  You call it justice?

Our new commissar will maybe change how things go.  Last night he order us to sleep in barns near the village where we can stay warm and dry.  I want  to sleep and sleep and never wake up.

Much love to you.

     Einar’s last letter from Spain has disappeared.  I tried to put it out of my mind.  He sounded confused,  frightened, completely unlike the young Einar, so eager to leave for Spain to fight Franco.  I could feel his terror---fighting on unknown ground with out-of-date, useless weapons. Terrified and helpless under enemy bomboardment.  The drone of planes circling overhead; bombs exploding; the sharp retort of rifle fire, knowing the next bullet could be fatal.  The screams of the wounded, calling out for their mothers.  I knew his faith in the cause had been shaken.

     And now this letter.  Waiting in France to come home.   I look again at the envelope.  The right address.  But the word ‘unknown’ in that feathery handwriting.   Where did that come from?  I’ve always lived here, in this same house.  Who could have written it?  Only one determined person. 

     I read the letter again.  Written from France.  He’d been on his way home.  With 300 others.  But no money for passage.  Nothing.  Threatened with confinement in the camps.  Then a glimmer of hope.  Money might be found.  What had happened?

     I knew some of the men had returned to Canada.  Unheralded, of course.  They were the ‘undersirables’ who had broken the law.  Subversives.  Criminals.  Only the RCMP was interested.

                                             ***

     I ‘d heard that a couple of the men who’d returned were living somewhere on Hilldale Road, on the edge of town, and I went to see them.  No, they didn’t know Einar, but they did know Ed Rynnanen and Walter Elomaki, the two men Einar had run into when he’d signed up for Spain at the Seaman’s Hall in Toronto.  They were almost sure that Rynnanen had returned home to Sunshine.

     Rynnanen’s face fell when I asked about Einar.  The last time he’d seen him was on the ship coming home.  Einar hadn’t seemed well.  “The way he acted,”
said Rynnanen. “Didn’t answer when I spoke to him.  Just stared. “

     He told me the returned men had split up in Toronto.  I made up my mind to go there.  I knew Mother would do anything to stop me, but I wouldn’t give her a chance.  I said not a word, bought my ticket, and boarded the train for Toronto.

     Toronto Western was the hospital closest to Spadina Avenue and the Seaman’s Hall, and I went there first.  They had no recollection of Einar.   “Why not try the Yonge Street Mission?  He might have eaten a meal or two there.”

     The man in charge seemed sympathetic.  He looked me over carefully, then shook his head.  I came away empty-handed.

     A bar close by on Queen St. W. was crowded at four in the afternoon.  Smoky and noisy.  A congestion of languages came from every table in the room.  Except one.  In the far corner I noticed a group of 4 or 5 men, sipping their beer, saying nothing.  Finns maybe?  Not exactly morose.  No, they didn’t know Einar.
But they had run into someone who could fit his description.  “You might find him around Dundas Street.  In a bar or a pool hall.”

     By the time I tried the third pool hall, I no longer felt self-conscious.  No thick cloud of smoke, no habitués standing around; in fact there were only two men.  I knew at once I’d found Einar.   He was stooped and haggard.

     Neither one looked up.  I waited till their game was over. 

     “Einar!”  was all I said.  Startled at first, he turned to me, but his eyes were vacant.  He seemed frightened and he clutched his friend’s arm.  Then found his voice.  “Maggie!”

     “Let’s go next door for a coffee.  A Finn coffee,” I added, as playfully as I could manage.

     We sat facing each other.  Silent.  How to begin?  I studied his face as he groped for words.

     “I couldn’t, Maggie.  I couldn’t go back.  I can’t go back.  Too much has happened.  You think you can help, but you’re wrong.  I won’t go back.  I don’t want anyone to see me.  I don’t want my family to see me.  I didn’t want you to see me.”

     He stood up.  “I loved you, Maggie.  But now it’s too late.”    Wiping a tear, he lurched a little as he made his way to the door.

     I stood there, dazed, confused, a jumble of grief, bitterness, resentment.  I watched until he disappeared.

     So this was Spain.  Without the romance.

     The sky was beginning to darken.  I began to walk.


    Story originally published in the New Orphic Review. Photos by Bruce Deachman


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner

In one of her finest reviews, Margie Taylor, amazing book reviewer, sets out to explain a great masterpiece and perhaps the most difficult of Faulkner's novels, Absalom! Absalom!  Personally I have avoided this book, but after reading Margie's  review, I might give it a try. Margie reads for us, leads us on and so we develop an urge to follow.  


There are writers whose books take you into another place and hold you there, from the opening sentence until the moment, finally, when they release you. Alice Munro and the fictional town of Jubilee, Ontario. Harper Lee and Monroe County, Alabama. John Steinbeck and the Golden State of California.

William Faulkner set all but four of his novels, and 50 short stories, in Yoknapatawpha County, which was inspired by and based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he spent most of his life. He called it his apocryphal home, and wrote about it with the kind of somatic understanding that comes from knowing a place better than you know yourself. Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most difficult of these works, not only because of its structure – it’s told entirely in nonchronological flashbacks by a series of unreliable narrators – but also because of the language. Which is powerful and rhythmic but wrapped in long, unwieldy sentences that can frequently run to a page or longer. The difficulty is compounded by the references to “niggers”, a word that appears so often you are tempted to simply close the book and move on. But the very use of such words, tossed out so casually and frequently, underlines the brutality of a country whose economy was based on the labour of slaves. Cursed by it, as Faulkner has said.

First published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who came out of nowhere and established a dynasty, only to have it fall to pieces within his lifetime. The story is told, first of all, by Quentin Compson, who is 20 years old in 1910 and attending Harvard University. Quentin has a Canadian roommate named Shreve, and through a series of exchanges Quentin tries to explain the South to this foreigner, this cheerful young man from a cold climate who can’t possibly know what it’s like to be born and bred south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Quentin begins by telling Shreve about a summons he received the previous summer from his elderly aunt, Rosa Coldfield. Miss Rosa never married  – she has “the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity”; the house she lives in is “unpainted and a little shabby, yet with an air, a quality of grim endurance as though like her it had been created to fit into and complement a world in all ways a little smaller than the one in which it found itself”. Rosa has nourished a bitter hatred of Thomas Sutpen for more than 40 years and she wants to tell Quentin the reasons. She has something else in mind, as well, although we don’t get to hear about that until very near the end of the book.

As Rosa tells it, Sutpen rode into town one day in 1833 accompanied by a “wild” band of slaves and a French architect who’d been somehow coerced into working for him. Through means that were legal but not necessarily ethical, he bought 100 square miles of land from a local tribe and spent the next two years building a cotton plantation and a large, ostentatious mansion. Who he was – who his people were and where they lived – was a mystery. He was a handsome but cold man, with no inclination for friendship, but he did make one friend shortly after arriving: Goodhue Compson, Rosa’s father. When his mansion was built and it came time to marry, Sutpen chose Compson’s older daughter, Ellen. Within a few years Sutpen, who was pretty well universally disliked and even feared, was well established within the local aristocracy and had fathered two children, Henry and Judith, with Ellen, and another daughter, Clytie, with one of his slaves.

After listening to Rosa’s version of Thomas Sutpen’s story, Quentin sits with his father and they go over it, the story of Sutpen and his legacy. We learn that Rosa’s anger towards Sutpen goes back to the time when, after Ellen died, he proposed to her. But in doing so, he offered her such an outrageous insult she walked away and never forgave him. But it isn’t until much later that we learn that Sutpen was born into poverty in the backwoods of West Virginia (which wasn’t West Virginia until a half century had passed). He ran away when he was 14 after being snubbed by a well-dressed Negro who turned him away from the door when he was trying to deliver a message.

Having heard about the West Indies during the short period when he attended school, Thomas gets it in his head that one could go there and, if one was courageous and shrewd, one could become rich. He finds a ship, lands in Haiti, and becomes the overseer of a French sugar plantation. After showing great courage in subduing a slave revolt in 1827, Sutpen marries the plantation owner’s daughter and fathers a son. (It should be mentioned, I think, that there were neither slaves nor French plantations in Haiti at this time. In 1791 the slaves revolted and by 1804 the independent republic of Haiti was the first black national state of the Americas.) After the child is born, Sutpen learns that he’s been tricked: his wife, Eulalia Bon, has negro blood. Sutpen renounces her, hands over his fortune to her as compensation, and leaves. The child, however, will reappear 30 years later.

At the age of 20, his son Henry goes to college at the University of Mississippi where he meets the handsome, sophisticated, and laconic Charles Bon, who is eight years older. Henry looks up to Charles, aping his style and manner of speaking, and they become close friends. In his letters home, Henry talks about his new friend, how much he admires him and so on, and Ellen, who lives in a kind of perpetual fantasy, decides that Charles and Judith will marry.

That Christmas, Henry brings Charles home for a visit, and Sutpen recognizes him as the son he left behind in Haiti. Without acknowledging this to anyone, he forbids the marriage – primarily, one would think, for reasons of incest, but as it turns out, given the time and the place, the greater crime is miscegenation, or “race mixing”. When Sutpen eventually tells Henry the truth – that Charles is his half-brother – Henry says he doesn’t believe it. He refuses to abandon his friend, repudiates his birthright, and leaves.

Shortly afterwards, the Civil War breaks out; Charles and Henry enlist together, and for four years Henry struggles to convince himself that incest is acceptable, under certain situations. What he doesn’t know, and we learn later, is that Charles has realized early on that Sutpen is his father. He’s been waiting all this time for some sign of recognition from Sutpen that yes, he is his son. If Thomas will only do that, Charles will refuse to marry Judith, will leave and never return. But Thomas is incapable of giving him even that. Instead he seeks Henry out and informs him that Charles has black blood. He knows that this, more than incest, will convince Henry to take direct action to prevent the marriage. And he’s right.

The tragedy is that Henry, more so than Judith, truly loves Charles. He sees him as a kind of heroic figure. And he’s not wrong: at one point, during battle, Charles saves his life. So the fact that it’s he who must do his father’s bidding and destroy his friend makes the final outcome even more painful.

The title, being a direct reference to the biblical story of King David and Absalom, his third and favourite son, may lead you to think of Faulkner as a “Christian writer”. He has, in fact, been called that. But he wasn’t. At least, not in the sense of preaching Christianity. Far from it. But he used it, as all writers use what they know. He once put it this way: “The writer must write out of his background. He must write out of what he knows and the Christian legend is part of any Christian’s background, especially the background of a country boy, a Southern country boy. My life was passed, my childhood, in a very small Mississippi town, and that was a part of my background. I grew up with that, I assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it. It’s just there. It has nothing to do with how much of it I might believe or disbelieve—it’s just there.”


Much of what we learn about Sutpen is speculation; while Quentin, his father, Miss Rosa and even Shreve attempt to translate the thoughts and intentions of characters who died before the story begins, we can never be sure if we, the readers, are meant to place any faith in their telling.

 Faulkner is writing myth, and debating what is true and what is not seems beside the point. What we can say, though, is that all of his characters, young and old, are damaged. Even Quentin, a young man distanced by three generations from the darkness of those times, appears to be succumbing near the end. “I am older at 20 than a lot of people who have died,” he tells Shreve. He knows the terrible truth about the South – he may not have lived it, but he carries the burden. And yet, at the very end, when Shreve asks him why he hates the South, Quentin denies it, quickly and immediately. “I don’t hate it, he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”