The following review was published in
WORLD LITERATURE TODAY
Literary Quarterly of The
Manuel de Pedrolo. Touched by Fire /
Tocats pel foc. Peter Griffin, tr.
One need only read a few pages to understand why Touched by Fire could not be published in Francoist Spain: it is a love story between a clandestine political activist involved in armed struggle against the government and the impoverished daughter of a couple who offer him a few nights’ lodging. Over humble means, the characters discuss capitalism and oppression, and Pedrolo’s genius is in having his angel of agitation, the aptly named "Ange," use his hosts’ few meager possessions to symbolize all that is wrong with capitalism. A lesser writer might have had his armed warrior woo the daughter of wealthy landowners, and the ideological discussions would have been too easy, the contrasts too Manichean. Instead, when the poor couple’s pitiful few acres of land, which they had hoped eventually to work with a hired hand, is used as a basis for a paradigm of how one man always hopes to exploit the toil of another, we see Pedrolo’s uncompromising beliefs in their most fundamental form.
Ange’s love-interest, Sogues (whose name means "ropes" or "ties"), undergoes a conversion to Ange’s beliefs that results in her casting off the ties of home, family and aspirations to traditional marriage in order to follow him in his underground campaign. At the end of the novel Ange is wounded and in hiding, and she is hurrying off to find him and share in his uncertain fate. On leaving, Sogues abandons her suitor Jau, in whom she was never much interested despite his determination. Jau, whose name might suggest the verb jaure, "to lie down," outwardly seems the fine, upstanding young man that the parents seek for the daughter and that the state would have proclaimed as the ideal of industrious youth. Jau drives a delivery tricycle and is saving every cent in order to buy his own vehicle and thereby get ahead. Again, even this modest aspiration is decried by Ange, who sees it as exploitation waiting to happen.
In a time and country where free speech and open participation in the democratic process are possible (even though, of course, many people in the autonomies within the Spanish state are far from satisfied with the results of this process at the moment), readers may feel differently from Pedrolo’s 1959 character, who asserts, "Sometimes you have to stain your hands with blood. It’s not all words. ... Things don’t get done by themselves. Someone has to sell his conscience to evil, in order that one day we can all be better and more just." The assertion cannot be read today without the sound of muffled explosions in the background: on the one hand, that of the 1973 bomb that killed Franco’s handpicked successor, Carrero Blanco, and opened the way for democracy; on the other, the bombs that maimed innocent children like Irene Villa, who just happened to be passing by when other, more "strategic" targets were attacked.
Pedrolo’s novella ends with Sogues’s parents giving her what amounts to their blessing as she goes off to join Ange in his uncertain clandestine struggle. The reader who picks this novel up today may fill in the open spaces that Pedrolo left in the text with his or her own subsequent experiences and observations. This participatory act, one of which Pedrolo would surely have approved, is made possible for English and Catalan speakers alike in this overdue volume. Peter Griffin’s deft and careful translation lifts away all distractions so that Pedrolo has his unadorned and penetrating say on both sides of every page.