To portray fictional events in a fictional setting and remain faithful to both history and art is a difficult and perilous task for any author. On the one hand is the risk of transmitting a historical reality into purely romantic nonsense; on the other that of being forced into documentary sterility by the sheer enormity of the subject matter. When successful, however, the device can produce stunning results - as witnessed by the remarkable novels of Victor Serge - both in terms of literature and political comment.
In Hermanos!, William Herrick (an American who served in the International Brigade during the Civil War in Spain) attempts to show the significance of the Communist Party’s cynicism and betrayal of Spanish revolutionaries, not merely as events which affect history, but as things which shape the lives of ordinary people.
Revolution is ultimately about changing the nature of human existence. In his novel, Herrick sets out to show that the way that change is conducted will determine the end result; that it is not a matter of the end simply justifying the means, but of the means actually deciding what the end will be. If a single theme can be taken as being central to the book, it is spoken in the first chapter: “A man lives like a beast, he becomes a beast”. From that point on, the story merely puts flesh on the bones of that statement.
But it is precisely that flesh which saves the novel from becoming just an abstract and second-rate lesson in morality. Chronicled in Hermanos! are all the hopes, highs and tragedies which were Spain in revolution and defeat. A strange mixture of war story, romance, brutality, and biting political commentary. The Soviet manipulation of the struggle against Franco, their blackmail (withholding arms) of the Republican government, political infiltration into the volunteer army, and the savage campaign of repression and murder waged against the POUM and the anarchists in Barcelona are all vividly portrayed. So, too, are the beginnings of the libertarian resistance movement - a movement still fighting against the same enemy today when other former champions of the struggle in Spain find it more convenient to mumble about “democracy” into their whisky and soda.
A particular high-spot of the book comes when one of the guerrilla fighters, Nunez, is finally tracked down and captured by the Communists. In an impassioned reproach of his captors’ actions Nunez pours forth the full weight of the author’s moral argument:
“…I must maintain my individuality or die… Socialism is supposed to free man, not shackle him… You are in the world, you say. Exactly. You manage to be IN the party, IN the stream of history, IN the world. You are in everything and take responsibility for nothing. Why should you? It is all predetermined. All you can do is help the predetermining process along. It is the PARTIDO, history, the world which dominates your life… dominated by history and manipulated by your PARTIDO - the leader, the vanguard, the bulwark of the future, the engine, God - you lose your identity as a man, you lose your responsibility as a man to other men - to yourself. How can you possibly be blamed for anything if the world’s so big and you are so little?
“The world is in me, and I am the world. I am a selfish man, a vain man that when I wish to look into the world’s heart, I look into my own. I am responsible for myself, and therefore for the world. I am my brother’s keeper - and he had better be mine. And that is the truth COMPANERO MIO, very unrelative truth. I am beholden to no man - and yet to all. I gaze into my heart and, knowing myself, know all men. UN POCO. A little”.
William Herrick is not an anarchist, neither does he possess the same artistic force as his predecessor Serge. But Hermanos!, nevertheless, manages to capture the tempo and spirit of a people in revolt in a way that few books can rival.
What distinguishes Herrick’s novel from the recent spate of books dealing with Spain is not its historical or political comment of this or that aspect of the Communist betrayal, but the “mightier justification” which Serge suggested for literature - “as a means of expressing to men what most of them live inwardly without being able to express… a testimony to the vast flow of life through us, whose essential aspects we must try to fix for those who come after us”.
From: Black Flag, reprinted in Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review #2 .