‘Once near a border, it is impossible not to be involved, not to want to exorcise or transgress something. Just by being there, the border is an invitation. Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare. To step across the line, in sunshine or under cover of night, is fear and hope rolled into one . . . People die crossing borders, and sometimes just being near them. The lucky ones are reborn on the other side.’
Borders define us and deny us; they carve out entire tracts of the planet, reward those born by chance within certain territories, and condemn others to a condition of otherness and anomie. Crossing borders is, for much of the world’s population, an act of transgression and often involves huge risk.
Borders not only shape lives; they serve a political purpose by promoting a sense of insider and outsider, of belonging and of exile. But perhaps exile itself is a kind of belonging, the forging of an outsider identity that involves, as Kassabova notes, being reborn.
Roberto Bolaño said – rather ungraciously, perhaps – on being invited to speak on the theme of Literature and Exile: ‘I don’t believe in exile, especially not when the word sits next to the word ‘literature’.’ And I can see his point: unless you are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Taslima Nasreen (or even Ovid) few writers are threatening or influential enough to be exiled specifically for what they write, although they may – and in some parts of the world still are – beaten to death or poisoned or imprisoned for long years. A brief scan of PEN International’s register of imprisoned or missing writers will confirm that.
But exile? When and how do writers find themselves in exile? Wole Soyinka has written: ‘When is exile? . . . Where is exile? Is there a state of exile? For surely even an exile must exist in some space physical and mental.’ There is even, he claims, a strong temptation to describe exile as simply a state of mind.
And here it is useful to reflect on the voluntary exile associated with writers such as James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves and many others, whose self-banishment might be expressed in terms of a kind of disgust born of over-familiarity with aspects of the homeland that make it impossible to remain. Exile of this kind might be explained in the terms chosen by Solinka – by his own admission, whimsically and only half-seriously – as ‘the true temperament of the writer or the artist tribe in general: a creature in a permanent state of exile, since his or her real vocation is the eradication of the barriers of reality.’ In a strange way, this reminds me of Alastair Reid’s concept of the ‘foreigner’ – of which anonymity is a crucial component: ‘Anonymity is peculiarly appealing to a foreigner: he is always trying to live in a nowhere, in the complex of his present’. The anonymity of the foreigner is cognate with the detachment of the exile: ‘From there, if they are lucky, they smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.’
There is little doubt that for Robert Graves, exile from his home in Deía during the period of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two was a far greater wrench than leaving England had ever been. As he writes in the autobiographical short story ‘God Grant Your Honour Many Years’:
Thus we became wretched refugees, and wretched refugees we continued to be for ten years more until the Civil War had been fought to a bloody close, until the World War had broken out and run its long miserable course, and until the Franco Government, disencumbered of its obligations to the Axis, had found it possible to sanction our return. Reader, never become a refugee, if you can possible avoid it, even for the sake of that eventual happy homecoming . . . [stay] where you are, kiss the rod and, if very hungry, eat grass or the bark off trees. To live in furnished rooms and travel about from country to country . . . homesick and disorientated, seeking rest but finding none, is the Devil’s own fate.
But Graves’ exile was, ultimately, a choice. The enforced exile of the refugee, the flight from terror and from war, the fear of armed men appearing in one’s street with intent to harm or murder, is today a plight which, sadly, seems as inevitable as ever it was if you happen to live in Syria, or any one of a dozen other countries. However, I would like to focus on a very different part of the world: a zone that extends from Collioure in France down the coast to Portbou, just inside Spain, and inland a little to the village of Rabós d’Empordà, nestled among the Alberas, where the Pyrenees descend toward the Mediterranean. This roughly triangular zone constitutes a region that the Catalan surrealist painter Joan Ponç referred to portentously as the ‘ground zero of the universe’. The area is sometimes known as ‘Greek Catalunya’ and there is a topographical resemblance to the Greek landscape: sheer rockfaces, isolated headlands, an agriculture based on olives and vines, and from many vantage points a view of the sea.
Rabós is part of a landscape that might serve as a trope for transit; it is surrounded on all sides by markers of the past, most notably dozens of Neolithic dolmens and burial chambers that are scattered over the ridges and hillsides, commanding views of the Bay of Roses to the east, the snow-covered peaks of Mount Canigó to the north-west, and the extensive plain of the Ampurdán, stretching towards Girona in the south. Hannibal passed this way with his elephants – elephant remains have been found nearby and dated to the second century BC – and the serial civil wars of Spain have made the place a crossing point in more recent centuries. Traffic has also come the other way, as we shall see. Travelling north out of Rabós, one can walk to France in an hour and a half; by car you can drive there in twenty minutes. The trail past the 9th Century monastery of Sant Quirze, which only became a covered road in the late 1990s, used to be known, in Catalan, as el camí dels contrabandistes – the smuggler’s trail – and from Sant Quirze it snakes over the Col de Banyuls into France. The place resonates with the echo of night crossings, of rushed departures, of struggle and of loss.
This region was a focal point of movement in and out of Spain at the end of the Civil War and throughout the World War that followed. My account describes the experiences of three individuals, two of them well-known writers, the third an unknown teenage girl who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Antonio Machado has long been one of my favourite poets, and the victim of some of my earliest efforts at translation – a mistake, since Machado is a poet fiendishly resistant to translation, as others have discovered. He left Spain in late January 1939. He had been an active participant in and spokesperson for the Republican cause and exile seemed the only sensible course of action. His elderly mother needed medical care that she was unable to receive in Spain, and Machado, along with mother and brother, José, headed for France; the ultimate destination was Paris.
The small group travelling with the poet had to leave most of their luggage when they abandoned the car in the bottleneck of escaping vehicles during a violent rainstorm at Portbou. They were refused food or even water in Cerbères by the French authorities because they could not pay. They made it along the coast as far as Collioure and, after receiving financial help from the Spanish novelist Corpus Barga, they stayed at the hotel Bougnol Quintana, now seemingly deserted, but adorned with a plaque that states, simply: ‘Antonio Machado, poète espagnol, est mort dans cette maison le 22 février, 1939.’
Two years ago, after reading an article by Javier Cercas in El País, I drove to Collioure to visit Machado’s grave. I knew much of history already, but in Cercas’ piece, he is given a strange account by two elderly English residents of Collioure, named the Weavers: according to them, Cercas tells us, in the days before the poet’s death, Machado and José would never appear in the hotel dining room together, but always separately. Nobody could understand why this was, other than to put it down to some bad blood between the two, brought on by the hardships of exile. Only later was the truth discovered: they only had one suit between them and took it in turns to come down to eat. Antonio left the hotel only once, to visit the harbour, and sit for a while by the sea. He died three weeks after arriving in Collioure, victim to an undisclosed illness, probably pneumonia, although in popular legend he died of heartbreak at the fall of the Republic. His mother died three days later.
In the account given by Cercas, the story of Machado’s last suit suggests that there are certain individuals who will not accept a loss of dignity even in the face of the worst of defeats, and that Spain will only have removed the last remaining anguish of its Civil War when, in Cercas’ words, one is able to stand before Machado’s grave without having to restrain one’s tears for his sake, and on that day the war will truly be over.
Fifteen minutes down the coast from Collioure by car, Portbou lies just inside Spanish territory. I first walked this coastline on a baking June afternoon in 1984, arriving dehydrated and exhausted at the crossing, where the border guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the adjacent bar for a beer. That night I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up. But I have always felt an attraction to this ugly, shy little town. Today it exudes a strange, sad energy; a place that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its purpose as a centre for customs control. All that remains of its past glory is its vast and cavernous railway station.
Portbou was the final destination of the German philosopher and polymath, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years’ exile in France and numerous changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers, the photographer Henny Gurland and her son Joseph, was guided across the Alberas from Banyuls and arrived in Portbou. Benjamin, suffering from a heart condition, found the crossing extremely arduous. Nowadays, in a display of cultured tourist chic, there are signposts on the mountainside offering instructions on how to follow in his tracks: the Walter Benjamin Trail, which continues with key landmarks into Portbou itself, terminating at the spot where the hotel once stood in which he died (next door to the recently demolished Guardia Civil barracks). Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was valid for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. There, he hoped to join his friends Horkheimer and Adorno and resume the work of the Frankfurt School in America.
However, Benjamin was prevented entry to Spain because 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 a pension, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room. He had taken an overdose of morphine.
According to a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin in Portbou, ‘The Last Passage’:
‘If they [Benjamin and his companions] 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, were permitted to continue their journey, and a few days later, Henny and Joseph boarded a ship for America. Benjamin, apparently, carried on him 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 leather suitcase, 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 . . .’, a tragic list that successfully conveys the essence of rushed and involuntary departure – exile, in a word.
After seven years of wandering, Benjamin’s suicide in Portbou can been seen as an act of defiance against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of the modern era. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis even holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the argument for this hypothesis is summarised by Stuart Jeffries in his Observer article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin?’). In an intriguing turn, 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.’ Was this a different suitcase from the one referred to in the judge’s report? Unlikely, as the refugees were limited by their guide to one piece of luggage each. Were the ‘few papers’ referred to in the judge’s report his final manuscript, or did this go missing? The authors of ‘The Last Passage’ seem not to know, and conclude that ‘the suitcase was never found and its fate is unknown’, which would contradict their earlier reference to the judge’s report. However, another account, cited by Stuart Jefferies in his Observer article, records that Benjamin’s briefcase, containing the elusive manuscript, was entrusted to an unnamed fellow refugee, who ‘lost it on a train from Barcelona to Madrid.’
The extraordinary memorial Passages at Portbou was created by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, and sits next to the cemetery where Benjamin was buried. It comprises an enclosed staircase of 87 rusty steel steps down which one can walk, terminating in a thick transparent glass wall that protrudes thirty metres above the blue waters of the bay. 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, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. Perhaps the translation from the German is at fault. But the memorial itself is memorable.
My third account is more personal.
I was visiting a friend, Ramona, and her mother, Victoria, in Castelló d’Empúries, twenty minutes’ drive from Rabós. I’d last seen Victoria at the funeral of Ramona’s husband, Lluís Peñaranda, a Catalan artist with whom I had been friends since the mid 1980s. Victoria was ninety years of age, and the meeting took place in 2012, two years after Lluís’ death. As though making an announcement, Victoria, who was delicate-boned and frail, but alert and inquisitive in her manner, said ‘I have a story for you, Richard.’ I am transcribing this from notes that I took immediately afterwards.
In the final weeks of the Civil War, Rabós provided a staging post for the shattered remnants of the Republican army, and these stragglers were provided with food and shelter before crossing into France. The soldiers slept in the church, in the village hall, and in the narrow, cobbled streets. It was February, 1939, and the nights were cold. A soup kitchen was set up and Victoria, then aged seventeen, along with other volunteers, was able to provide a little nourishment to the exhausted men. The soldiers killed whatever mules remained for meat, hunted rabbits, and might, if they were lucky, shoot the occasional wild boar, though most of these had already been taken by hungry locals. The war was lost, and Victoria, in speaking of those days, evoked the utter devastation of this rag-tag army, but also, I noted, a sense of pride in her teenage self, an excitement at having been able to do something to help by working at the kitchen and caring for the soldiers, many of whom were wounded. Her father was a member of the Guardia Civil in nearby Figueres, and one of the few who had remained loyal to the Republic. Although she was able to cadge a lift home to her parents most nights, sometimes she had to sleep over in Rabós and it was on such a night that the news came through that a large detachment of enemy troops was on its way, and she became caught up in the mass exodus from the village without being able to get a message home. Perhaps she felt obliged to remain with the team of nurses tending to the wounded, or simply got caught up in the general panic, but one way or another she found herself a refugee in France, hoarded into the encampment at Argelès-sur-Mer. No one knew what was going to happen next, what was to become of them. Rumours abounded and food was scarce. The French gendarmerie didn’t seem particularly welcoming, that much was certain. However, she remained only two weeks in the makeshift camp at Argelès before being transported by train to a large camp near Clermont Ferrand, where the refugees were given basic accommodation and food. At this point, her story became rather vague; it seemed as though the passage of the years had transformed her memory of the camp at Clermont into an indeterminate blur of days and nights with no foreseeable conclusion. Many died of malnutrition and dysentery. But Victoria was a resourceful young woman and she got lucky. Among the refugees, she happened into a man, a member of the Guardia, who knew her father, and this man acted as some kind of go-between with the French authorities. Somehow – she was elusive as to the exact nature of its acquisition – she managed to secure a pass to travel by train to Biarritz, and from there crossed over into Irún, the frontier town close by San Sebastian. Six months had passed since her flight from Rabós, and she had not been able to get word to her family. She realised that they probably assumed she was dead. In San Sebastian, she knew no one, but was determined to get home. She begged from strangers, cajoled, insisted that she had to get back to Catalunya. ‘You can’t go there’ one person told her, ‘they [the fascists] are killing everyone.’ But others were willing to help. Someone gave her money and she managed to board a train for Barcelona, and from there – because the rail tracks had been bombed by the Luftwaffe – a bus to Girona, and from there another to Figueres. At this point, she paused in her story, perhaps because its conclusion was so unlikely. ‘When I stepped off the bus in the market place at Figueres the first person I saw was my mother.’ Her father has been detained by the fascists in Girona prison, where he was tortured and would die shortly after his release. The news of her father’s imprisonment soured her return, but the journey itself had been something of a miracle, a round trip of eight months, in which she had escaped, encountered the deprivations of two refugee camps, escaped again, and come back home across a war-torn country.
Victoria’s story seems to me exemplary in so many ways: how the innocence of a teenager can unravel within the space of a few short months, how refugees were welcomed by the French authorities in 1939 and are treated still today across Europe, and the way – in spite of her given name – in which her round trip serves as a kind of elaborate trope for Spain’s defeat. She arrived home an adult, her father imprisoned, the land laid waste, and her language forbidden.
Living again in an era of mass exodus and of refugees being turned away by unsympathetic governments, an era which the veteran war correspondent Patrick Cockburn described recently as one of War without End across an entire swathe of the planet – in which even the relative comforts of European unity are threatened by fragmentation thanks to the resurgence of nationalism and a political tunnel vision almost inconceivable to anyone with even the vaguest sense of history – make the experiences of Machado, Benjamin and Victoria seem only too real. A border might be an idea wedded to a geography, but that idea has teeth and claws. If we take the memorial to Benjamin seriously, we must also take to heart the plight of those nameless hordes who each week become refugees, and whose nameless shadows we find mirrored in ourselves.
‘Borders and Crossings: Varieties of Exile’ was presented at the 14th Robert Graves Conference in Palma, Mallorca, on 12th July 2018. A version of this essay was published in PN Review no. 244 (Nov-Dec, 2018).
Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta, 2017. pp xv-xvi.
Roberto Bolaño, ‘Literature and Exile’, in Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003, translated by Natasha Wimmer. New Directions, 2011.
Wole Soyinka, ‘Voices from the Frontier’, The Guardian, 13 July, 2002.
Alastair Reid, Notes on Being a Foreigner’, in Outside In: Selected Prose, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2008, pp. 147-158.
Robert Graves, ‘God Grant Your Honour Many Years’ in Complete Short Stories, (ed. Lucia Graves). Penguin, 1995.
Javier Cercas, ‘La leyenda del ultimo traje d Antonio Machado’. El País Semanal, 25 Sept. 2016
Ajuntament de Portbou: Walter Benjamin in Portbou: The Last Passage.
Stuart Jeffries, ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. The Observer, 8 July, 2001.
Patrick Cockburn, The Nick Lewis Memorial Trust Lecture, Cardiff University, 25 May 2017.