from To Live (a novel)
That Could All Change
On Friday evening Carles has arranged to drop in and see his dad. The old man was a baker until a few years back and is still active in the CNT trade union, but now he works as a doorman in a warehouse near the docks.
The nearest tram drops Carles off at the bottom of Via Layatana from where he takes one of the long narrow streets which run directly to the harbour. The buildings here are five or six stories high, with only the occasional side street to let in some air, so he enters the dark canyon between them with his head down, intent on just getting to the other end.
At the first side street he looks up to check the traffic, and that’s when he sees it – an amazing, even inspirational sight. The very top of the buildings on one side have caught the setting sun and been transformed into a thin strip of brilliance. It’s still the same buildings – still just a jumble of little top floor windows; balustrades with plaster cracking off them; a few improvised shacks and even, on one roof, some red geraniums – but now these mundane details have got the power to evoke a different world from the one he’s walking through.
What a contrast. How things are and how they could be, if we took back control of the war against Franco. Got rid of the Stalinists, and got the revolution back on track.
And another thing this contrast emphasises is how much the buildings in this part of Barcelona have dilapidated over
the years – how dilapidated the capitalist system has become, and how close that better future is, if we can just give their rotten system one final push.
It’s amazing to think that some of these houses were built as villas, in the days when factory owners still built their villas this close to the port. And back then, even the industrial buildings were given little stylish touches to show how successful their owners were. By now, though, they have all been patched up, split up or had extensions added
to them. Like that wide stone arch which spans right across three windows, but one of those windows has been filled with bricks and is almost completely blocked off by the corner of a flat roofed out-house.
No, whatever capitalism may have achieved in the past, it is on its last legs now, reduced to the wretched remnants of a failed system. And that’s why, when we do eventually win the struggle against fascism, we’ll have to start a whole new struggle to completely transform the miserable inheritance which the capitalists will leave us. Until then, there
will only be one place where anyone can really be free, and that’s in their plans for the future.
He glances up again. In the future and, yeah, briefly perhaps, at moments like this when the setting sun gives us a glimpse of what that future will be.
Before long he arrives at the entrance to his dad’s warehouse, and that too is typical of the decayed grandeur of this whole area. A once impressive stone archway is disfigured by a mass of grooves where hundreds of trucks have scraped past over the years, and the two wooden doors which fit beneath it are pitted with holes and cracks.
Carles steps through a small oblong door set within the bigger doors and immediately sees his dad though the window of his little office. The old man is bent over a pamphlet, marking it with a stubby pencil, and the curve of his back places his head right beneath the overhead lamp. So, with its light illuminating the wispy hair behind his ears and making his scalp glow, the whole scene has a scholarly, almost medieval quality.
As Carles enters the office he shouts, “Dad, how are you?” at which his dad starts grappling with the arms of his swivel chair to manoeuvre himself round. While he’s doing
this Carles slips a small package containing some cured ham and a packet of fags onto a shelf by the door, then sits down on the edge of a filing cabinet.
“Good son, good. Still totally fucked, but...” and then, as if to illustrate the point, he goes into a brief but fierce coughing fit.
He always looks like a baby when he coughs, the way his mouth makes that tight little
oval shape – or maybe that’s just an image Carles had thought up to make the whole thing less upsetting.
“What are you reading?” he asks, nodding towards the pamphlet.
“Old stuff, this is. Luis Delgado. You don’t know him, eh?”
Carles just shakes his head and smiles.
“Well, don’t worry,” his dad says, “when I’m gone this pamphlet’ll come to you along with all my other possessions.” And that little quip starts the coughing again.
While he’s waiting for this to subside Carles realises he’s rubbing his hands on his knees, so he stops that and concentrates instead on the first thing he sees, which is the seat of the swivel chair. There are several books on the seat to raise it up and then on top of them an old brown rug. That rug looks a bit shabby and, to be honest, so does his dad, but there’s a limit to how much charity he’ll accept. And anyway, there’s a limit to how much Carles can give him.
“This bit I was just reading,” his dad says now as he starts to move back, crab-like, towards the pamphlet, “I reckon it might be worth repeating tomorrow night at the Co-ordinadora.”
Co-ordinadora is the organisation which brings together all the different food distribution co-operativas, and although Carles isn’t up on the latest developments, he knows the basic drift of what is going on. It’s the usual story – total collapse of the old system after the revolution on July 19th when most of the owners fled; an amazing achievement by the CNT in terms of improvising new structures based around workers co-operativas; and then the gradual undermining of these structures by the Republican government.
By now his dad has handed him the pamphlet and slumped back in the chair – transforming himself from a turtle-necked creature into a crumpled heap of clothing, on top of which is balanced an animated little face. Carles locates the underlined passage, but just as he does so the old man starts to recite it from memory.
“Our victory must be achieved by radical methods, by methods which challenge the ordinary man and encourage him to develop his abilities as part of the process of attaining his liberation.”
“The co-operativas, then.” Carles says, briefly scanning the rest of the page.
“Got it in one, son – we’ve got to defend the central role of the co-operativas in our economy.”
“Agreed.” Carles says, looking up. But rather than leaving it at that, he adds, “And part
of that defence is the conquest of political power.”
“Aha.” his dad says, as if noticing a familiar chess move from one of his old cronies – a move he counters with a one word response, “Politics.”
“Yeah, politics – but it’s a kind of politics that goes way beyond just getting another seat in the latest cabinet reshuffle. The main thing we need is for the co-operativas to link up and ultimately replace the government.”
“So what the hell are we arguing about?” the old man says, and his laughter starts another coughing fit.
“Maybe I’m not arguing with you, dad,” Carles says, once the coughing has subsided, “but you’ve got to admit there are plenty of people in the CNT who think they can just rub along with the politicians, just wait until we win the war, then...”
“Ach, we’ve always had people like that in the organisation. They’ll get shoved aside once things hot up a bit.”
So there it is, Carles thinks to himself, the optimistic attitude which has always been the CNT’s greatest strength but also its greatest weakness. He used to think it was self-confidence, back in the days after the European War when his dad was winning one strike after another, but now, looking at this crumpled creature –physically destroyed, even if he is still mentally defiant – he can’t help thinking it is also a way to hide a terrible sense of defeat and insecurity.
“It’s like I said at the last meeting.” the old man says, bringing Carles back from these thoughts. “I said to them, ‘You keep telling us to wait until after we’ve won the war – that we can have our revolution after the war. But do you know what you’re like’?” He pauses here for a bit of rhetorical effect. “You’re like two men arguing over how they’re going
to harvest the fruit of a tree that hasn’t even been planted yet. And while you’re arguing over that,’ I told them, ‘while you’re enjoying yourselves with a bit of idle speculation, there’s a tree that has already been planted, fruit that has already ripened, and that fruit could end up going rotten if you don’t do something about it.”
“The co-operativas.” Carles says again, but this time with a big smile.
Maybe if they were all like dad, maybe then it would work. But they’re not. So it starts off with false confidence, then it’s self-deception, then in the end comes a stoic acceptance of defeat – that and a defensive refusal to see where they went wrong.
“You’ve got to admit, though,” Carles says out loud, “the Stalinists are getting stronger while we’re getting weaker. And that wasn’t meant to happen.”
“No, you might be right there, son. Maybe we did make a mistake in giving them the benefit of the doubt when they said we were all on the same side now, but... well, even generosity is a vice when it’s taken to excess. Still, don’t worry, all that can change, it can change in an instant.”
“Yeah, but this time dad, if we do ever get back in the driving seat, we’ll need a clear programme of action that everyone can get behind. A definitive, step by step programme.”
“Ah right,” the old man says, wriggling a bit to get comfortable, “a programme that everyone has to follow, or in other words, the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
“A dictatorship to end all dictatorships.” Carles says, touching his glasses, but his dad just says “Aha!” again with that triumphant tone.
“I’m just saying that we need a list of practical next steps, dad. That’s all a programme boils down to.” At which point, while he’s still wining, Carles decides to change the subject. “But anyway, look, I’ve got a question for you.”
In response to this the old man says nothing, but just wriggles round a bit more, preparing himself for the next job to hand.
“It’s about a certain comrade, a Vincente Rosell. Just, I was wondering if you know him? Chairman of Co-operativa Vigor.”
The old man sits for a few moments, licking the gums at the top of his mouth, then a smile appears on his face.
“Oh yeah, Rosell – The Walrus.”
“That’ll be him.”
“Yeah, that’s right, Co-operativa Vigor. Chairman now, is he? Well I’ve known him since he joined the CNT. When was it? 1908 maybe. Used to be in an affinity group called ‘Action
and Culture’. So, anyway, what’s he done now?”
“He’s leading the investigation into who stole those tanks.”
“Is that right?” the old man says, a smile spreading across his crumpled face. “Yeah, Vincente, not a bad sort. Bit cautious, but then he hasn’t always been like that.”
At this point a lorry driver in a beret raps on the office window, so the old man motions for him to open it and the driver says, “Potatoes from Granollers.”
“Potatoes and Cauliflowers?” he asks.
The old man looks away briefly and swallows what seems like a lot of phlegm, a gesture which somehow signifies a willingness to accept ‘just potatoes’.
Now he’s struggling to his feet, and saying, “I’ll show you where to put them.” But then he adds for Carles, “Wait till I get back, I’ll tell you a few things about Vincente Rosell.”
Mick Parkin © 2008