Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A Rose For Winter - Laurie Lee


Fifteen years after being rudely ejected from Spain during the Civil War, Laurie Lee returns to the country that has indelibly marked him. Time and tide, however, waits for no man and the Spain to which Lee returns has now forgotten him but then could it have been any other way?
Since he was last there, of course, a number of events have taken place, not least the Second World War. Spain is now ruled by Franco though this is no longer Lee's primary concern particularly when the sights, the sounds and the smells of Spain are so intoxicating. This, then, is the focus of A Rose For Winter: The beauty and the tragedy of Spain in all its glory as seen through the eyes of an English poet.

Lee waxes lyrical and sings the praises of everything Spanish, finding beauty and eternity in even the most lowliest of beggars. On his first trip there as described in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he had been little more than a beggar himself, earning pesetas and food primarily from playing his violin in market squares.
When last he was there as described in A Moment Of War, it was as a youthful idealist, come to join the International Brigades in a bid to halt Franco and the rise of Fascism. This time, however, he's essentially a tourist but though it's unspoken, it's obvious he also has a few ghosts to lay to rest.

This aspect of A Rose For Winter is an interesting one, particularly as it's unspoken though clearly there between the lines. But what does it benefit a man to revisit his past? Is there ever anything there to be found? After all, if the past is a foreign country then does that not mean it is full of strangers? It would appear so, as this is exactly what Lee finds. All his friends from his previous sojourns through Spain have now long gone and even the locals still there left holding the fort are unclear as to where.

After the events of the Spanish Civil War, truth and in particular the truth about the past is unendurable and only the memory and the tricks played by memory remain. No more so is this illustrated than when Lee enquires about the poet Lorca and the circumstances surrounding his death. Every story Lee is told is different, except in its effort to prove that Lorca's killing had not been political. Regarded as a communist in the Franco-dominated city of Granada where he lived, Lorca's death, however, was clearly nothing but political.

Near the end of the book, Lee meets an ex-captain of the Republican Army who had fought against Franco during the Civil War. Whilst his comrades in their thousands had been executed, he had been thrown into jail under sentence of death but then forgotten about. Having managed to escape, he was now condemned to living as a fugitive, unable to ever return to his family.
All we wished for,” he tells Lee “Was an honest life. A life of clean breath and happy conscience. We wished to raise ourselves a few steps from the dust only. Why were those in the high chairs so terrified? We in Spain were the first victims of that fear. Hired gunmen were sent against us, and they slaughtered the best of us. Why did none of you stop this thing? It was the beginning of evil. All the world is a prison now. And the spirit of man is polluted.

If the killing of the poet Lorca is the guilt of Granada, Lee surmises, then the lack of help and support from the West for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War is the living shame of the world. The consequences forever echoing down the ages.
A Rose For Winter is a lament, a paean to all that was, all that could have been and all that is left of a dream called 'Spain'. It is a hymn to life and to the living but also an elegy to death and to the dead but perhaps more so to the ghosts of the dead and to the ghost of a dream...
John Serpico

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