A stubborn and engaging army corporal tries to survive the Spanish Civil War in this U.S. debut by a veteran Spanish novelist.
Muleteer Juan Castro Pérez tends the animals that carry army supplies—and sometimes bodies. Unlike many of his compatriots, Castro (as he is called throughout) is not strongly motivated by politics. In fact, he and his mule Valentina have switched sides from the republicans to Franco’s nationalists. His main concern is not ideological but pragmatic; he simply wants to survive. When a bishop asks if he finds strength in God, Castro responds, “No, Your Holiness, I think of my mother and how mad she’d be if I got killed.” This attitude makes him willing to engage in any activity, including lying and stealing, that furthers his ends. Along the way he tries to nurture a romance with Conchi, a local beauty who thinks his social rank is higher than it actually is. (Before the war he was a stable boy for a noble family.) But Castro saves his most tender moments for Valentina, who is also caught in circumstances not willingly chosen. Ironically, toward the end of the war, Castro becomes an unwitting hero of sorts when he meets some former friends who, hoping to save their own lives, surrender to the unarmed muleteer. In an attempt to persuade the public that military matters are well under control, the media seize upon this supererogatory act of “heroism” and glorify Castro, who is eventually given a medal by Franco.
Galán’s portrait of war’s brutality and absurdity echoes both Hemingway and Heller, but he gives the narrative his own cynical and idiosyncratic spin.