Maria de Visitaçao is a newly-arrived prostitute in a Spanish brothel.By night, she deals with the “strenuous thrusts” of the smugglers who have taken over the contraband industry in nearby Fronteira, a town just over the border in Portugal; but by day she has time to listen to the Civil War stories of her pimp and landlord Herbal, a man of few words who sketches on napkins with a carpenter's pencil while waiting for customers.
The worn-out red pencil with which Herbal passes the brothel's dead hours has had many lives. In the years before Spain's Civil War broke out, it belonged to a Galician carpenter, who in turn gave it to a shipbuilder friend of his, a communist and “self-confessed libertarian and humanist” - or, as far as Franco will presumably label him, a dangerous subversive.
The shipbuilder passes the pencil onto another carpenter, who stumbles across a painter sketching the façade of the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Perhaps thinking that the artist could do with some new tools, the carpenter gives him the little red pencil. It remains in the painter's possession during his imprisonment (for no crime other than being of an artistic temperament, one supposes) after the outbreak of war, when he uses it to sketch the faces of his fellow inmates. The pencil is in his possession right up until the moment when his head is blown off by one of Franco's minions. His executioner's name is Herbal, and this book is Herbal's melancholy remembrance - recounted to his newest employee, Maria, as they wait for men to come to the brothel - of a crime he regrets.
At the heart of Manuel Rivas' poetic and dreamlike novel is the question of whether Herbal is deserving of condemnation for executing the painter: was it just something he had to do, as one of Franco's soldiers, or should he be held personally responsible for murdering the man whose pencil he now uses (or both)? An equally difficult quandary posed to us by this Civil War masterpiece is whether the laconic and surly pimp merits praise for deliberately botching the murder of another Republican prisoner named Doctor Da Barca.
Herbal guards Da Barca in prison in Santiago de Compostela throughout the Civil War and is on duty one bleak morning when the doctor is taken out to be shot. Yet Da Barca survives (despite being shot through the neck by Herbal) and appears in the novel's opening scene, in which he is interviewed in his old age by a hungover journalist. But why did the doctor survive and not the painter? Why did Herbal shoot the artist in the head yet lower his gun at the last minute when tasked with dispatching Da Barca?
As futile as it might seem to ask unanswerable questions such as these, Rivas' novel compels us to confront them; and in doing so, it takes us further into the Civil War's moral complexities than any historical account could.
As we are reminded many times throughout this strange and moving book, meaningless crimes were committed in abundance throughout the Spanish Civil War. When the conflict emerged in July 1939, men and women who had been friends and colleagues just days before were suddenly on different sides of a lethal dividing line.
For those who would later be asked to kill in the name of either the Republic or Franco, their supposed enemies were already unbearably human. This awful reality is explored in one of the novel's central passages, the protagonist of which is a singer named Pepe Sánchez. Pepe is one of Da Barca's fellow prisoners in Santiago de Compostela. He brings life and colour to the prison with his music and is accompanied by the other prisoners, who voice the sounds of their various instruments (lacking as they do the actual instruments).
The night before his death Pepe sings all night long, backed by his improvised orchestra, and the guards love his voice as much as the inmates do. How do we know this? Because, as Herbal tells Maria in the brothel, “there were no volunteers for the firing squad that time”. Pepe was a singer and had a great sense of humour: but he was also a Republican, so he had to go. A universe of pointless suffering is contained in that one sentence.
Herbal, we realise, learnt a lot from silently observing Da Barca in prison. The charismatic doctor was popular among the other inmates in Compostela, who sought him out for his medical advice or simply to hear a good story. Herbal remembers Da Barca once explaining the “worst pain you can get” - the phantom pain experienced by those who have lost a limb. The doctor calls it “the memory of pain. The pain of what you have lost”. This is the pain that Herbal endures, as he sketches in the brothel with his stolen red pencil.
This is the third in our five-feature series looking at contemporary Spanish literature available in English. This week we review Manuel Rivas' The Carpenter's Pencil, an internationally acclaimed novel published in English by Random House. Next week look forward to All Souls by Javier Marias; set in Oxford, England, a Spanish lecturer falls for a young, married tutor .