Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2021

The Stein Report, by José Carlos Llop, translated by Howard Curtis

The Stein Report is one of those short books that’s about more than it seems at first glance.  The title, punning on the reports that are written about school students that so very rarely tell you anything about the human beings to whom they refer, introduces the central character, Guillermo Stein, who makes his presence felt from the moment he arrives at the school.

Guillermo Stein came to the school in the middle of the year, arriving on a bicycle.  None of us came to school by bicycle.

Guillermo Stein’s bicycle was an Italian bicycle, black in colour and very high.  You would hardly have seen him over his bicycle, this newcomer Stein, if he hadn’t been wearing a red rain cape over his shoulders, tied at the neck, off which the raindrops slid onto the ground.  Because that was the year it rained all it ever could, when it didn’t stop raining throughout the school year.  That was why none of us came to school by bicycles.  Beneath the line of umbrellas we saw Guillermo Stein arrive: we saw his back sheathed in that red cape and, beside the lamp on the rear mud guard, a white oval plate with two black letters —CD—and a coat of arms with a Latin motto and unicorns and fleurs-de-lys.  Guillermo Stein had come to school on a bicycle that belonged to the diplomatic corps of a nation whose coat of arms did not appear in the atlas.  (p.9)

What is that coat of arms which does not appear in the atlas, and why is it sufficiently important to be on the first page of a story set in the era of Francoist Spain?  (We can date the story from a reference on p.98 to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968).

From what I can see at Wikipedia, I think the coat-of-arms is this one, the arms of the Spanish monarch between 1924 and 1931.  It’s not the coat-of-arms of the short-lived Spanish republic (1931-1938), nor is it the coat-of-arms of Francoist Spain (1938-1977).  No, these arms referred to by the narrator are the arms of Alfonso XIII, the Spanish king who acquiesced to the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera  (1923-1930).  Alfonso bunked off to exile in 1931 when he realised that the monarchy was just as unpopular as the dictator, and—having watched from afar as Spain tore itself apart in the Civil War, (1936-1939) renounced his claim to the throne in 1941.  And while his two eldest sons renounced their claim as well, the third son Juan did not.  And so… this school student Guillermo Stein not only has connections with a possible restoration of the monarchy, but is not afraid to show it.

A little later, there’s a reference to exploring the jungles of that nation whose coat of arms did not appear in the atlas.  This is a reference to the Rif War (in Morocco, 1920-1927) with which Alfonso was closely associated.  Constitutional monarchs are supposed to keep out of politics, but Alfonso supported the Africanists who fancied a new empire in Africa to compensate for the possessions they’d lost in the Americas and Asia. They were opposed by the abandonistas who wanted to abandon Morocco as not worth the cost in lives.  The point being that Spain was deeply divided, not only by these issues but by stark inequities and the right-wing conservatism of the Catholic church.   But Llop is also alluding to the denial of Spain’s history under Franco: even the atlas is in denial about what is, in the 1960s, recent history.   And that alerts the reader to the question of how it is that a teenage schoolboy is able to recognise that contentious coat-of-arms.

The answer is, in his grandfather’s home, where there are old photos, magazines and books.

The allusion to the coat-of-arms in a way that enables it to be identified, goes some of the way to explaining why the narrator’s parents have abandoned their child and left the country, and why their postcards never provide an address for him to reply.  He yearns for his parents.  They’ve been gone so long he’s no longer sure what they look like, and there’s a poignant scene where he listens to the radio so that he can connect with the places they’ve been to, if not with his parents themselves.  The reasons for their departure can be inferred, and so can the reason why he lives a very restricted and boring life with his grandparents, who go nowhere and do nothing to attract attention.

Intriguing aspects to this novella make more sense after this quick bit of research to identify the coat-of-arms.  I didn’t know the significance of it when I read the book.  It was a ‘handbag’ book, read in doctors’ waiting rooms with the phone turned off, so I couldn’t chase things up with Google.  My first reading made me think that it was primarily a coming-of-age story,  narrated by the teenage Pablo Ridorsa, who is preoccupied by the idiosyncrasies of his teachers at a Jesuit Catholic school and by the dictates of his school mates.  These are the class captain Palou, who leads them from the shadows, with the kind of impunity possessed only by those who are strong and shrewd at the same time; Planas, who is their ‘war expert’ (i.e. WW2, not the Civil War which is never discussed); and Rovira their messenger who could run like the wind and was so small, he could go anywhere pretty much without being seen.  And the enigmatic Stein.

The fascination with Stein seems at first just to be the kind of interest that any new student arouses.  But when Stein announces that his father was a friend of Count Ciano (who, Wikipedia tells us, was an Italian diplomat and politician who served as Foreign Minister in the government of his father-in-law, Benito Mussolini, from 1936 until 1943) and that he, Guillermo Stein himself, is a secret agent of His Holiness, this announcement electrifies the boys.  It puts some excitement into their lives, and leads to unanticipated revelations about the past.  Planas’s uncle Raimondo, for example, was not only in cahoots with fascists from Germany and Italy but was also one of the Blackshirt militia with an itchy trigger finger.  The book is not just about the illusions of youth.  If it’s read in the context of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath under Franco, it’s also a book that faces up to the truth of civil war: everyone was guilty of something.

Author: José Carlos Llop
Title: The Stein Report (El informe Stein)
Translated from the Spanish by Howard Stein
Publisher: Hispabooks, 2014, first published in Spanish in 1995
ISBN: 9788494228414, pbk., 107 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository

Still available at Fishpond and probably elsewhere as well: The Stein Report


Responses

  1. This sounds like it packs a lot into a short book – seems really interesting.

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    • So often these little translations do. I think they’re chosen for publication because they’re about more than they seem, plus they’re short so it doesn’t take so long to get them translated and onto the market.
      But sometimes the gap between publication in the original language and translation can be so long that the allusions can be hard to grasp. There were events where I felt sure some person or event was being referenced but I had no way of working out what it was.

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  2. I love reading about the Spanish Civil War. Like your mother, I would love to have taken part in it, it was always viewed very romantically from the ‘radical’ sixties. And I am gaining some understanding of why, until the end of the dictatorship, Spanish writers had to cloak their meanings to avoid censorship. But. I will not accept the false equivalence ‘everyone was guilty of something’. The fact is Franco and the Catholic Church and the Spanish upper class were threatened by the Republic and squashed it, killing a lot of people and imprisoning many more. And that is something we would all have fought against.

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    • Well, being ‘guilty of something’ is Llop’s claim, and—from a U3A course that I undertook last year (before Lockdown) and my reading of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia; Ghosts of Spain by Giles Trembath; and The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor— I think I agree with him. There were atrocities on both sides, though scholars argue about whether those on the Republican side were organised or spontaneous (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Civil_War#Atrocities).
      In Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, there is a vivid scene where the Republicans herded the town burghers into a ravine, and it was based on real events. I would argue that those who stood by and watched, and went home afterwards and did nothing, are guilty of something, even if only the sin of not speaking about what happened to bereaved relatives.
      People on both sides yearn to know what happened to their loved ones, and witnesses are going to their graves without ever telling even where the mass graves are.

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  3. It seems a big read in a short text. The Spanish Civil War was adult conversation in my childhood. A neighbour I ran errands for was there and she was a Communist which to me was fascinating though the 50’s of my childhood was divisive and conservative. My father would not let me go to Spain for a holiday because Franco was in power. I was disappointed. These recent events still very important for it’s a huge scar on the cultural psyche. Must say I do believe in the Republican cause and from my limited knowledge it seems Europe is still dealing with those schisms and so it continues.

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    • Yes, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. My parents talked about the Spanish Civil War too, perhaps because it was a prelude to WW2 and it would have been major news in the Britain of their youth.

      The Spouse tells the story of a night when he was living in Fitzroy and the surrounding streets erupted into revelry. The Spanish community had just learned that Franco had died…

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