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A Wide-Eyed Witness to War : A MOMENT OF WAR, By Laurie Lee (The New Press: $17.95; 178 pp.)

May 02, 1993|Albert Hoxie | Hoxie teaches history at UCLA

Laurie Lee's memoirs are little known in the United States, though in English schools his first two volumes occupy about the same place thaD. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" has filled here. "A Moment of War," the third volume of Lee's story, had a substantial run on the British bestseller list last year--five decades after the first volume appeared.

Lee's prose has much the same kind of spare elegance and direct, heart-wrenching clarity of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; and both Lincoln and Lee are dealing with that most painful of all types conflict: civil war. This book is Lee's account of his efforts to join the International Brigade in Spain in December of 1937.

Lee was born in 1914 in a village in Somerset. He has recounted the story of his adolescence in "Cider With Rosie," a memoir of gentle humor and great charm. At 19, he walked out of Somerset with little money and a fiddle to confront the world, going first to London, where he managed to earn enough money to get himself to Vigo, Spain. From there, he walked across Spain in the blazing July that saw the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War. His account of that was called "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning," published in 1969; he recorded the life he found in the villages of Spain, for it was in those that he spent most of his time, detailing indelibly the life and tone of a country poised on the brink of disaster. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, comes this memoir of the look and taste and feel of that disaster.

I don't know of any book that captures as clear-eyed and desolating a view of the realities of war. Christopher Isherwood in his "Berlin Stories" referred to himself as a camera, but Lee is far more genuinely just that. Lee is a poet (he has published verse along with his newspaper writings and memoirs), and he writes with the care of a poet who must weigh each word to find the precise one that will be the most telling and the most true. The language is always simple, direct and unornamented. In the entire work, there is not one cliche, no easy, borrowed phrase. Each word rings as true as though newly minted for this one purpose, fresh and clear as a winter morning.

There are no judgments, no romanticizing, no attempts to explain what is inexplicable. He simply records with the bleak honesty of a recording angel what he saw. Beside this work, George Orwell's account of this Civil War is angry and judgmental. Hemingway's is romantic and soft, for all of the Hemingway macho bravado. This is the reality of a land numbed by bitter cold, starvation and so much death that death no longer holds any meaning.

Lee was then, and has remained, a Socialist, based on his absolute faith in the simple goodness of people; and it was that belief that led him to walk into Spain in December over the snow-covered Pyrenees to the aid of the embattled Republicans, carrying a camera, which was taken from him immediately, and his violin, but no gun. He describes himself: "I was at that flush of youth which never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible." Knowing virtually nothing of the real situation in Spain, he arrives in a paranoid, brutalized, totally disorganized world with few means of simple survival, much less any hope of waging a war against an enemy that is fully equipped, organized and supported by massive aid from a Germany and an Italy eager to use the Civil War as a testing ground for the new weapons and tactics with which they will launch World War II.

Nothing is ever explained to him. At one point he is put in a prison cell to await execution as a spy, though for no reason ever given to him. There he spends three weeks, with one sandwich a day to keep him alive, only to be released as mysteriously as he had been arrested. He is shipped to Tarazona, close to the front at Teruel. There, now as a member of the Brigade, he is shown a photograph "of a slight, round-shouldered youth, with dark, fruity lips and the wide, dream-wet eyes of a student priest or a poet. His brow was smooth and babyish, his long chin delicately pointed." No one knew the name of the boy, so they called him Forteza, which was written on the back of the photograph.

Lee and another soldier are told only that the boy was a hero of the Barcelona uprising; a gunman, dynamiter and killer of three leading Trotskyists; had been kidnaped, tortured, condemned to death and had escaped and headed south. It is their job to find him and give him protection before any others find him, for he has lost his nerve. The boy is located, being cared for by a girl Lee has met before:

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