The Sons of Night by Antoine Gimenez and the Giménologues [Book review]
history of anarchism |
Tuesday May 07, 2019 00:54 by KSL - Kate Sharpley Library
This is your chance to meet Antoine Gimenez who, by anybody’s standards, led an interesting life. In Italy, back around 1922 (when he was still Bruno Salvadori), he defended a classmate from bullying fascists. ‘It wasn’t chivalry or political beliefs – I was about twelve years old – but was quite simply that the girl was a student in the same class as us. […] When I came to […] I had been rescued from the Blackshirts’ clutches by some anarchists.’ [p551] So young Bruno became a subversive and set off down the path which would lead him into exile in France and later Spain.
Antoine doesn’t set himself up as any sort of revolutionary superhero: ‘In 1936 I was what is conventionally referred to nowadays as a “marginal”: someone living on the edge of society and of the penal code. I thought of myself as an anarchist. Actually, I was only a rebel. My militant activity was restricted to smuggling certain pamphlets printed in France and Belgium over the border without ever trying to find out how a new society could be built.’ [p1] The Giménologues (who are bringing you his story) call him ‘a bit of a hobo’ [p1] and his troubles with the French police were more about trying to survive than politics, like the time he was arrested with some boiler suits and had to claim ‘that he had been given them by an unknown person to sell.’ [p554]
Antoine was working in the fields in Catalonia when the Spanish revolution erupted in July 1936. The early part of Sons of Night shares his experiences of the revolution in Lérida, after which he joined the famous Durruti Column. Alongside the story of the anarchist militia’s push towards Zaragoza, we’re shown the change of life in the countryside that the revolution made possible. When the Durruti Column arrived in Pina de Ebro shoes were dished out from the shop to children who’d previously had home-made tyre sandals. He doesn’t ignore the anticlerical violence of the revolution, nor its complexity: ‘I realized that day just the extent of the tolerance of these uneducated men; they stood ready to kill every priest on earth with a laugh and at the same time, in order to please some old man or elderly woman, were ready to help them hide a crucifix or blessed virgin.’ [p46]
Antoine, having survived everything that the twentieth century could throw at him, drafted his memoirs between 1974 and 1976, when he was in his mid-sixties. It feels like the book of an older person. I don’t mean to suggest there’s any disillusionment. His epilogue ends with a clear statement of anarchist belief: ‘I see the earth, my home, I see humankind, my family, slowly being entrapped by the profit motive, by the sordid interests of the few on the march toward death and utter destruction, and as my thoughts turn to you, my friends, who perished fighting for an ideal of absolute equality and total freedom, I say to myself that you had it right: only a libertarian society can save humankind and the world.’ [p198] But inevitably, telling of the deaths of many of his comrades gives parts of the book a real sorrow.
But it’s not all sorrow! Antoine doesn’t hold back in celebrating the women that he loved, something that made the book unpublishable in the 1970s, at least to certain ‘old-fashioned prudes’ in the Giménologues’ words. [p2] Antoine is an eyewitness who doesn’t feel the need to pass over in silence how the revolution challenged the old ways in personal relations as well as economics.
A salute to the comrades
Antoine recounts what he experienced, but there’s little egotism, rather a concern to remember all his comrades. This is not just about accuracy: he credits them with helping him to grow from a rebel into an anarchist. In his own words, before the revolution ‘My sole concern was living and tearing down the established structure. It was in Pina de Ebro and seeing the collective organized there and by listening to talks given by certain comrades, by chipping into my friends’ discussions, that my consciousness, hibernating since my departure from Italy, was reawakened.’ [p1] In particular, he credits his friend Mario: ‘like a wood-cutter, he had removed the clutter from my mind and patiently cleared away all the thorns that were smothering the craving for freedom, which drive the young and spurred us into revolt, albeit often blind and unconscious revolt, against social injustice.’ [p162, note 1] So, to tell his own story Antoine has to tell us all about his comrades from the Durruti Column and the people of Pina de Ebro. And that’s the task that the Giménologues take up in the second part of the book, ‘In search of the Sons of Night’.
I’ve been hearing about Sons of Night
for so many years that this book and the people behind it have a legendary status. I was told the Giménologues were dedicated, but there was always the question: would it ever be finished? They want to know everything! You get a sense of excitement and discovery hearing about every eyewitness who contacts them or every comrade they identify in the archives. It’s a pleasure to read anarchist history written by people who feel like they’re kindred spirits. Their work reminds me of Paul Avrich, gently correcting the inevitable slips of chronology or spelling you get in a memoir, but letting the protagonists speak for themselves. That mixture of burning curiosity, respect and need to get it right leads to the best sort of history.
History from below
In the 1980s the Spanish revolution was an important inspiration and reference point to British anarchists (as in other times and places). Much anarchist history was hidden by the ‘success’ of Leninism but the Spanish revolution showed anarchists opposing capitalism, fascism and Stalinism. In a world shaped by the second world war, it gave a radical view of anarchy in action.[note 2] There’s always a danger that history can be ‘an escape from our time and from our world’ in the words of Antoine’s comrade Louis Mercier Vega.[note 3] But Sons of Night
is a book for those who want to think critically about the Spanish revolution.
This is a great work of history from below, full of untold stories and unheard voices. There’s Hans ‘Jack’ Vesper who dragged himself back through no-man’s land and ended up in such a state that he thought he was a bear.[p519-20, note 4] Other parts remind you that in history, not much is simple. Listen to the leading CNT members lecturing the IWA in 1937: ‘we displayed an extraordinary intuition and a mental agility that left other antifascists astounded’ [p188]; or Antoine talking about how Hermann Gierth survived the Stalinist repression: ‘For a German Trotskyite, the [International] Brigades were a safe haven as long as he held his tongue and accepted the discipline.’ [p169, note 5]
I’m not used to books that tell you how to read them. At the start you’re advised to read Antoine’s account straight through, and then read it again with the end notes from part two. It works, but you may need another go round. Bring two bookmarks, some blank paper and an open mind. Listen to the sons and daughters of the night. As the Giménologues say ‘the history of the social war in Spain will never be over until we have done with the world that made it a possibility, and a necessity.’ [p9]
1, Mario might be Mario Bellini, see page 631.
2, For just one example, see ‘The Spanish Revolution: In Their Words’ Northampton Libertarian, 1987; reprinted in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 53, February 2008 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/cfxqf6
3, in ‘Rejecting the Legend’, Témoins 1956; Reprinted in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 91-92, October 2017 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/573p98
4, information from accounts by from Helmut Kirschey and Nils Lätt. A German seaman, Vesper lost a leg, but his life was saved by being ‘adopted’ as Swedish by the Swedish seamen’s union.
5, Gierth survived the Stalinist secret police, the French ‘democratic’ internment camps, Dachau and Auschwitz.
The sons of night : being Book I: Memories of the war in Spain (July 1936-Februrary 1939) by Antoine Gimenez ; plus Book II: In search of the sons of night by The Gimenologues, foreword by Dolors Marin Silvestre, translated by Paul Sharkey.
AK Press and Kate Sharpley Library, 2019. ISBN 9781849353083. 732 pages. https://www.akpress.org/sons-of-night.html
The Giménologues’ website (in French) is at http://gimenologues.org/