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Reviewed by:
  • Shifting Ground: Spanish Civil War Exile Literature
  • Murray Sperber
Michael Ugarte, Shifting Ground: Spanish Civil War Exile Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1990. 257 pp. $36.50.

This title is too modest. Michael Ugarte, the son of a Spanish Civil War emigré, attempts to define the condition and language not only of the diaspora resulting from that conflict but also of all exilic literature, from the Jews in Babylon to writers in flight from various regimes in our own time. He says that "Exile has to do with the borderlines and dividers that an individual is forced (or desires) to traverse. In literary terms, it has to do with crossings of languages, of settings, of times."

In an early chapter, he uses Nabokov, Brecht, and Thomas Mann as paradigms of writers forced into alien cultures and employing various strategies in their lives and works to come to terms with their exilic situations. Ugarte's point of view provides valuable insights into these writers, including his suggestion that Brecht's exile was integral to his dramatic technique.

Into Ugarte's paradigms of exilic writers neatly fit the refugees of the Spanish Civil War. He not only considers major expatriate authors like Ramon Sender but also claims for literary fame many little known or unknown figures, such as Lopez Barrantes, the treasury official who at the end of the Civil War turned over the Republic's millions in Paris to the Franco regime. This fatal error haunts Barrantes' memoir, Mi exilio, and distinguishes it from the flow of nostalgic or bitter reminiscences by the majority of Spanish war emigres.

After reviewing the autobiographies and autobiographical novels by the refugee writers—Jorge Semprun's Autobiografia de Federico Sanchez (Semprun's name in the clandestine Communist Party) is at the top of this critic's list—Ugarte settles into his main task, nine long chapters on Max Aub, Luis Cernuda, and Juan Goytisolo. Except for the last named, these authors are not very familiar to English language readers. Thus Ugarte attempts simultaneously to introduce and analyze their works, and although this approach generally functions well, sometimes he tells us too [End Page 638] much about a particular work. He describes the excessive writing in Aub's Laberinto as "a response to [Franco's] Valley of the Fallen, that grotesquely large monument," but Ugarte, especially in the sections on the Laberinto and later, on Cernuda's poems, falls into the same imitative fallacy.

These are minor flaws in a major and successful book. Not as successful as the author claims when he writes "that no literature can be excluded from the ranks of exile, that, in effect, to study exile literature is to study literature itself: if this were true, why does he ignore writers such as Gustav Regler and Arthur Koestler who passed through and wrote about the Spanish Civil War on their way to long years of exile, as well as the rich tradition of American exiles in Europe, especially Hemingway, Stein, and their compatriots? But, within more narrow terms, in Ugarte's attempt to define the major paradigms of exile in terms of writers' careers and language, and especially the frustrating lives but often brilliant literary works of the Spanish writers in their awful diaspora, he succeeds.

Murray Sperber
Indiana University


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