Portbou, with its cavernous and now largely useless station
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)
Yesterday an excursion to Portbou and a picnic on a nearby beach to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend Juliette. As usual our large and straggling international party effectively turned a section of the beach into an ever expanding occupied zone, and a feast of fresh fish, chickens, salads, melon, cake, wine, coffee and cigars unravelled, the younger hooligan element ensuring total isolation from other beachgoers, which, on this particular beach was no problem, as it is not easily accessed except by the more adventurous or robust sun-seeker.
I do not know Portbou all that well, but have always felt drawn to it in a strange way. It is a shy place, giving off a sad, mysterious energy; a border town that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its role as a centre for customs control. All that remains is its vast and cavernous railway station.
We once ate here, late at night, about ten years ago, and Mrs Blanco and I fell into conversation with the young Moroccan waiter, no doubt an illegal, who had got this close to France in search of a better life, and had decided to stay. We left the restaurant as it was closing up, and headed for the car, which was parked a few streets away. We were about to pile in, when the young waiter appeared, panting, with our younger daughter’s jacket, having run down the streets searching for us. That reassuring incident helped formulate my ideas about the place, of a small, neglected border town with heart, where people end up by chance rather than by choice.
The coast road runs down the final miles of France’s ‘côte vermeille’ from Collioure, a charming and now very chic resort, for fifty years the home of the English writer of historical fiction Patrick O’Brien. In my vagabond days I once walked this frontier road on a baking June afternoon, arriving bedraggled and exhausted on the Spanish side, where the friendly guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the nearby bar for a beer, which turned into many. He dropped me off in Portbou later that night after a hair-raising 7 km descent in his old Simca, and I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up.
Portbou 1939, after the final battle of the Spanish Civil War
But Portbou is mostly famous as the final destination of the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years exile in France and 28 changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers and their guide, arrived exhausted at Portbou after a trek across the mountains from Banyuls. Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was permissible for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. However, he was prevented entry to Spain since he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in an hotel, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room.
I didn’t realise that Benjamin killed himself by taking an overdose of morphine (he had a supply with him, for this eventuality): I had read elsewhere that he took poison, surely some kind of euphemism. If you’re going to go, morphine must be preferable to having some hideous acid gnawing through your guts.
The following account is taken from a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin at Portbou, The Last Passage:
‘If they had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in. The Gurlands, at any rate, Benjamin’s travelling companions, were permitted to continue their journey, although perhaps this was due in part to the impact made on the local authorities and police by the death of ‘the German gentleman’. A few days later, Henny and her son Joseph boarded a ship for America.
Benjamin left a suitcase with a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as a suitcase leather, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown, and some money. . .
. . . In Portbou Walter Benjamin put an end to seven years of exile and the possibility of a new future in America. For the local people, the death of the mysterious foreigner became shrouded in legend, but for others it was a freely chosen exit, an authentic rebellion against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of modernity. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the full arguments of this hypothesis is collected by Stuart Jeffries in his ‘Observer’ article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. What is more, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure. Did it contain his final manuscript? The suitcase was never found: its fate is unknown, and in the judge’s report of the property of the deceased there is no mention of any manuscript.’
The memorial ‘Passagen’ at Portbou was designed by Israeli Artist Dani Karavan, and an inscription reads that “it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” Puzzling, that last sentence, and possibly meaningless, certainly untrue, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. But the memorial itself is spectacular, and a video clip, attached below, gives some idea of the approach and setting, enclosed by the mountain landscape and opening out onto the sea.
In the nearby gated cemetery, on Benjamin’s gravestone, there is a quotation from Thesis VII of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History': ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism‘.