Balancing the domestic and the tragic, The Wrong Blood explores the ways in which political history and personal histories intertwine: the novel is an invaluable reminder of how, in the midst of war, love and continuity preserve the potential for a richer life despite the disaster.
The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope. Translated from the Spanish by John Cullen. Other Press, 288 pages, $14.95.
By Mónica Szurmuk.
The Wrong Blood is a mistranslation of the original title of Manuel de Lope’s 2000 novel La sangre ajena, first published in Spain. In Spanish, “ajena” means “not mine,” and metaphorically applies to what is foreign; it does not carry the suggestion of error in the word “wrong.” This linguistic point is significant because the novel deals precisely and concretely with what one claims as one’s own, and what one rejects as “other.” In the case of blood, this becomes eerily suggestive: how do we decide what is our blood? How do we define blood relations and animosities? In this superb novel, blood refers to the way families are built and preserved as well as to the bloodbath of civil war.
Like many recent literary works published in Spain, The Wrong Blood deals with the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that lasted three years (1936–1939) and claimed the lives of half a million Spaniards. It also inaugurated 40 years of tyrannical rule by Francisco Franco and plunged Spain into a period of obscurantism and violence. The recent interest in revisiting the Civil War is fueled by the boom in oral history studies as well as recent trials of Spanish military personnel in human rights violations during the 1970s in Latin America.
Unlike the political terror in those countries, Spain’s dictatorship lasted almost half a century; two generations of Spaniards grew up without a public acknowledgment of what happened during the War. Reconciliation and memory came late; the reverberations continue to haunt the present. The recent granting of the prestigious Comillas Prize in biography and history by Tusquets Publishers to A cambio del olvido by Jon Juaristi and Marina Pino, a memoir of the authors’ families’ history during the Spanish Republic and the Civil War, attest to the resonance of the historical trauma in Spanish society.
The Wrong Blood focuses on the lasting effect of the Civil War on the lives of two women whose lives are marked by the war: Isabel is widowed; María Antonia is raped. A succession of events that I will not reveal ties their lives together and blends their blood. Set in the monumental landscape of the Basque Republic, close to the French border, the novel shows that, living in isolation, the women construct a life for themselves, making the best of their losses during the Civil War. Their secret is shared by a country doctor who lives next door and was spared participation in the War because of a crippling accident.
In the novel’s vision of the present, Isabel’s grandson joins María Antonia and the country doctor in Hondarribia, the estate that Isabel has bequeathed to María Antonia. He arrives from Madrid to study for his notary public certification and, in spite of his interactions with María Antonia and the doctor, returns to Madrid with little awareness of the secrets that bind together the women of Hondarribia.
The presence of blood in the novel is prominent, yet mercifully there are no graphic descriptions of the cruelty of war. Instead, we are privy to the personal thoughts of those who experience the violence first-hand. The memories of a “red” captain who, in the moments before he is executed, remembers the wet footsteps of his wife on the floor of their honeymoon suite are paradigmatic of de Lope’s narrative and its determined focus on interiors. The writer is fascinated by both the interior spaces of houses and the subjective worlds of his characters. As he is dying, the captain painfully recalls his honeymoon: “. . . there was something exceptionally painful in recalling it, like an excess of pleasure whose absence torments the mind.”
Nothing escapes the violence: the captain is killed in a schoolyard by a firing squad, his blood “now beating in (Isabel)’s womb.” His wife receives two of his letters as well as knick knacks of his life on earth:
The letters arrived, the first because it had been deposited in a box in the main post office and because of the absurdly good postal service, which continued even in the darkest moments of the rebellion, and the second because it was delivered after the captain’s execution with his belongings, that is a watch, a souvenir of Loyola, a hip flask, and some other knickknacks of the kind that the executed always seem to have about them, but not including his field glasses, which had been confiscated as military equipment.
The novel focuses on how the imagination builds our sense of the past, limning the passionate ambiguity of remembering. “There could be no greater misfortune, no greater solitude” de Lope writes, “than memory.” Balancing the domestic and the tragic, The Wrong Blood explores the ways in which political history and personal histories intertwine; it is an invaluable reminder of how, in the midst of war, love and continuity preserve potential for a richer life despite what seems to be utter disaster.
Mónica Szurmuk is Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Instituto Mora in Mexico City. She is the author of Mujeres en viaje: escritos y testimonios, Women in Argentina, Early Travel Narratives, Memoria y ciudadanía, and co-editor of the Diccionario de estudios culturales latinoamericanos.