The Anarchist Who Shared My Name

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The Spanish writer Pablo Martin Sanchez has written a memorable historical novel, one which deals with the painful yet heroic story of a band of rebels who tried in 1924 to overthrow the brutal regime of the fascist dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera.

THE ANARCHIST WHO SHARED MY NAME mixes fiction and non-fiction for some 587 pages, yet never seems to flag or stumble. On the contrary, the novel is so skillfully written and constructed that it kept me turning its pages with eager fascination.

The novel (skillfully translated by Jeff Diteman) opens in an unusual way. The author, young and unpublished at the time, Googles his own name and finds it in an international dictionary of anarchist militants who had been “captured, condemned to death and executed” for having taken part in the uprising against de Rivera. Intrigued, he works long and ceaselessly to track down more information about his tragic namesake. Ultimately, he decides to write a book about Sanchez, commencing with his subject’s years in Paris when he was scratching out a living as a typesetter for a left-wing newspaper read by expatriate Spaniards.

We also meet Sanchez’s best friend, “Roberto Olaya, known to all as Robinson, whom he has not seen since the end of the Great War, back in 1918, when they went their separate ways at the Gare d’Austerlitz with lumps in their throats.” Robinson has a loyal wiener dog named Kropotkin and is a raffish character, a red-headed and -bearded anarchist who sports a bowler hat and dabbles in vegetarianism and nudism.
Pablo Martin Sanchez

It's Robinson who persuades Sanchez to take part in the attack on the despicable Spanish regime. Although Sanchez has doubts about the wisdom of the attack–-“what business does he have getting involved in some crazy plot? Primo de Rivera will soon fall under his own weight, and a failed coup would only serve to reinforce his power”–-he lets himself be talked into becoming an activist. Soon he is not only printing anarchist manifestos but attending secret meetings and collecting money and arms for the guerrillas.

There is something both noble and ludicrous about the enterprise. A hundred-odd men, many of them old and infirm, must somehow journey to the Spanish border without being detected by the French police and then hike up into the Pyrenees and make it across the border and into Spain, joining up with a mass uprising. Shades of Don Quixote tilting against windmills.

THE ANARCHIST’s story is not told in tidy, linear fashion. The author continually halts his narrative to deal with Sanchez’s childhood, his family, friends, loves and hates. These flashbacks help to paint not only a three-dimensional portrait of Sanchez but the society in which he grew up: Spain with its rich but blood-splattered history, its beautiful landscape but hard, bitter life, its long, desperate struggle for democracy and freedom.

The novel’s depth and scope are truly remarkable. Sanchez deals with hundreds of characters, some of whom are famous (like Miguel de Unamuno and Victor Blasco Ibanez), others of whom are unknown (except by their fellow anarchists). The author somehow manages to bring each of these disparate people to vivid, believable life.

The author’s skill at portraiture is matched by his equally impressive way with research. He weaves bits and pieces of history into the narrative (the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of Verdun) and much newspaper commentary as well (from both the Left and Right). But mostly he focuses on the tragic fate of his namesake, the ex-typesetter known as Pablo Martin Sanchez whose life was cut short by his decision to join a worthy but doomed battle for liberty and democracy.