In 2020, I read some Earle Birney, Mordecai Richler, and a few offerings from smaller Canadian presses like Coach House. The last book I read this year was Ted Allan’s 1939 novel, This Time A Better Earth.
The University of Ottawa Press publishes an excellent Canadian literature series, and my copy of Ted Allan’s novel is their 2015 reissue. I had previously read their reissue of Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage, and earlier in 2020 I read their fantastic collection of Earle Birney’s early Trotskyist writings, edited by Bruce Nesbitt. The epithet “critical edition” is more than applicable to the uOttawa Press editions, which contain scholarly introductions that highlights each work’s literary and historical importance.
This Time A Better Earth is a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Allan’s book is based on his own time serving in the International Brigade during the war, specifically the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which housed most of the American and Canadian volunteers. The novel follows a Canadian volunteer, Bob Curtis, who goes to Spain to serve in the International Brigades and support the Republican forces against the Spanish fascists. After being wounded during an aerial bombardment while travelling to the front, Bob is tasked with writing and sending English radio broadcasts to North America and sent to Madrid. In Madrid he cultivates a romance with a German photojournalist named Lisa Kammerer.
The only work about the Spanish Civil War I’d read previously was George Orwell’s autobiographical Homage to Catalonia. The two books make for an interesting contrast given that Orwell served in the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) faction of the Republican forces rather than with the International Brigades. The POUM had a broadly Trotskyist membership that opposed the Stalinist communism adopted by much of the Popular Front that led the Spanish Republic forces. There was significant infighting between the POUM and the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War, despite their being on the same side of the conflict, culminating in the May Days clashes in Catalonia.
From Orwell’s perspective the POUM was antagonized and suppressed by the Stalinists — eventually being declared illegal. Ted Allan, however, adopts the perspective of the Popular Front government:
A week later came the news that the POUM had attempted to overthrow the Popular Front government in Barcelona. With it came the news of an intensified fascist drive in Asturian and Basque provinces. The communiques were brief and to the point. After three days of street fighting, the Popular Front government had restored order. The leaders of POUM were arrested.This Time A Better Earth, 137
At best the description of the May Days street fighting is an over-simplification. Though in fairness to Allan, this is surely how the Popular Front government in Barcelona would have told their members in Madrid the events occurred. POUM is only mentioned in passing in This Time A Better Earth, since the action of the novel focuses on the International Brigades near Madrid. Several characters express exasperation at the Republican infighting, though in Allan’s novel the fault lies squarely with POUM.
Related to the brief mentions of the POUM in Allan’s novel, the problems of unification and divisions within the Republican forces recur in the story. Early on Comandante Kuller addresses the amassed volunteers of the International Brigades heading to the front to tell them that there are no politics or party divisions in the Brigades, they are simply unified by opposing fascism in Spain. Kuller’s speech is less a statement of fact than a instruction not to allow sectarian divisions to undermine the cause. Although most of the international volunteers are socialists or collectivists of some stripe, there are some interesting outliers. Late in the novel appears Captain Brown, a self-described Tory Imperialist from Britain who joined the International Brigades to promote Britain’s imperial interests in Spain. The novel does not have much explicit to say about the fault lines in the Republican forces yet it does effectively capture the perspective members of the International Brigade had towards the divisions.
As the critical introduction helpful explains, the character of Lisa Kammerer — the protagonists’ love interest — is based on real life female photojournalist Gerda Taro, who died during the Spanish Civil War. Taro was a compelling figure to fictionalize in the novel, although Lisa Kammerer’s personality and vocation are more interesting than her romance with protagonist Bob Curtis. The romance is the weakest aspect of the novel. The constant objectification of Lisa Kammerer the “pretty blonde” by the other characters, while maybe true to life, is also grating. The real Gerda Taro was a skilled artist and daring war photographer. While there are glimpses of that in her fictionalized counterpart, the more intriguing questions surrounding her motivations and vocation are sidelined for the stilted romance.
Don’t let my complaints about the romance subplot sour your impression of the novel, however. This Time A Better Earth is strongest in its depiction of the Civil War itself. Allan’s early portrayal of aerial bombardment employs a clipped, staccato prose that effectively communicates the chaos and dread. Bob is continually shaken by the destruction he witnesses, and unnerved by how his comrades come to accept it so quickly once stationed at the front. Though clearly aligned with the Republican cause, the novel does not avoid depicting their disorganization and frailty. This Time A Better Earth has the hallmarks of an early career work, but for a debut novel penned in Allan’s mid-twenties it impresses.
Next I plan on looking at another novel of historical interest, this time reprinted by the sadly defunct Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT). More on that soon.