In September 2019, the Catalan publishing house :Rata_ released Muriel Rukeyser’s posthumously published novel Savage Coast, translated into Spanish by Milo J. Krmpotić and into Catalan by me. This is a first step to making the North American poet known in a country where she spent five transformative days, in July 1936. She came there to write an article about the alternative Olympic Games in Barcelona but ended up writing a novel instead. The games never took place, there was a military coup, the people’s revolutionary response broke out, and the confrontation was the beginning of a three-year civil war. I first discovered her and some of her writings in 2000, when I was doing research on women, literature, and the Spanish Civil War at the University of Kingston upon Hull (UK). At that time, her book The Life of Poetry made me realize the importance of making poetry accessible to everyone and its power of transforming human consciousness.
In Spain, and especially in Catalonia, we still have a long way to go to acknowledge Muriel Rukeyser as an activist, a radical poet, and a feminist woman. When she died on February 12, 1980, she did not leave us; we still do not know her enough and she should really exist among us, especially now. Since she has a lot to give us, we must go to her, bring her in, return to her work and make it germinate within our present historical moment. Muriel Rukeyser has not been discovered and valued to the extent she should have been. She has been occupying a space of silence as many other women authors have, in the US, in Spain, and in other countries. Not only was there an extended and organized persecution of leftists, communists, Jews, and free thinkers during the interwar period and after the Second World War (a period in which Spain experienced the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the Second Republic, the civil war, and four decades of Franco’s dictatorship), but there have always been prejudices against women authors and their work. Like other women who had been silenced and considered incapable of producing enduring works of art, Muriel Rukeyser needs to be rediscovered now, her literary work must be published again, translated into other languages and read if we want to understand our past from perspectives that have been forbidden and obscured to us.
During the last two years, we have seen a lot of social and political dissent in Catalonia. A popular peaceful revolution 1 has taken place, but it is being repressed by means of a legal and judicial system that menaces some rights we had taken for granted, such as the rights of assembly, public protest, and free speech. At stake is the viability of a strong and developed democracy. We are talking about defending civil rights. The price being paid for political dissent is prison, exile, and huge economic penalties. Long shadows, like those of cypresses, originating in the repressive right-wing military rule of the past, are now obscuring our lives and liberties and adopting legal forms. What is going on in Catalonia now should matter to European citizens and to the people of the whole world. It is a question of fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, there is a silence and a postmodern2 distortion of the meaning of words, such as coup, democracy, and rebellion that hides the reality of what is happening.
It is from this space and time of language manipulation, silence, and negation that Rukeyser’s transformative voice can speak to us to “split open” and reveal the actual truth of a woman’s, and a country’s, life, unveiling the gear mechanism of the time we live in, uncovering those structures that exclude and marginalize people and ideas that criticize, destabilize, or endanger the status quo of ruling politics, literary canons, and social ideologies. Confrontation, opposition, difference . . . they all seem inevitable, but are we going to fight them with war, exclusion, persecution, and exile? All that is oppressed and repressed can at any tensional moment explode and bloom. Art and creativity, specifically poetry, can become a powerful, peaceful, and joyful arm against injustice, exclusion, and pain. This is what I learned when I discovered Muriel Rukeyser as a poet, a social and political activist and an engaged woman of her time.
My interest for her grew slowly and steadily throughout more than a decade. In 2013 the Feminist Press published Rukeyser’s documentary, biographical, and experimental novel, Savage Coast. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein recovered the manuscript of the “lost,” unfinished novel in the Library of Congress, edited and prepared it for its first publication. 3 After reading the novel, I realized that there was a gap in our social, historical, and literary construction of the Spanish Civil War. Our cultural archetypes of revolutionary fighters in the civil war are mainly those of armed men holding an active role. By contrast, Savage Coast offers a different vision of revolutionary activity, penned by a feminist poet who fought ardently throughout her life by means of her poetic work produced after witnessing, not only fights, barricades, and shootings, but everyday scenes, the role of women and the common people during the war, and the strength and hope for social change of those who gave their lives as voluntary soldiers and members of the International Brigades in the Popular Front. Her novel, together with other writings of hers about the civil war, brings an enriching and unique perspective of the conflict, which deconstructs dominant masculine visions of it, most of them focused on the military contest and the death and repression imposed afterwards.
Savage Coast portrays the personal experience and transformation of a young woman, Helen, who like Muriel was in Moncada and Barcelona from the 18th to the 24th of July 1936. Rukeyser’s novel narrates the time when the people’s revolutionary response to the military coup had just begun, that is, before the fight became a war and before it was called a civil war. Soon after, in the Fall of 1936, Rukeyser explored this deeply personal and private experience, as well as its communal and public reverberations, in her first and only novel. Its subsequent rejection by her publisher, Pascal Covici, is most likely due, as Rowena Kennedy-Epstein explains in her introduction to the novel, to its experimental and sexual nature, e.g. its poetic and symbolic narration of a free sexual relationship, its focus on a young woman who did not fit feminine standards of the time, its politically unsettling topic, and its experimental writing style. In the course of the novel’s voyage from darkness toward light, Helen evolves from a confused tourist, who cannot speak the language of the country, to a mature woman who is no longer scared and takes on the responsibility of telling others what she believes and what she has witnessed in Spain. In the first chapters the author focuses on the common people. Helen travels to Barcelona in the third class of an express train that gets stuck in the town of Moncada for three days, where a general strike has just been called. Everyday events, such as washing and finding something to eat or a place to sleep, the conversation with country women, taking care of others, the train passengers’ difficulties to understand what really happens in the country as they wonder how to continue their trip to Barcelona when the train is stuck, are as important as the internal discourse of the main female character, the surrealist narration of dreams, the poetic and symbolic depiction of a sexual encounter in a train compartment, the dialogues among train passengers and athletes, a publicity board, the lyrics of a jazz song or a speech broadcast on the radio. We constantly realize that the situation is dangerous: there are car horns blasting one-two-three, groups of young armed men on open trucks or breaking into houses to seek and destroy religious objects; there is shooting, the persecution of a fascist who runs up a hill, the execution of five military chiefs. On a hot luminous day, volunteers who are parading with the Olympics get ready to embark for the Aragon front, and the French Olympic team takes its leave by ship among raised fists and the singing of “The Internationale.” Time expands and dizzily speeds, or it slows down as the train does. Scenes pass by like those on a film.
The novel Savage Coast is unique, experimental, poetic, a jewel that opens a window to the past and which Rowena Kennedy-Epstein’s superb and clarifying introduction makes present and more understandable and enriching for readers. After reading the novel, I immediately wanted to translate it into Catalan. The task took me eighteen months. This is my first literary translation and, in a way, I also “split open” by engaging in this project. I wanted my people to know about Muriel Rukeyser and understand her vision because it can help us face the present convulsive moments in our country. In the novel there is a feeling of uncertainty that fades as events and actions take place. The open ending does not talk about the war, but about taking responsibility, fighting for what you believe, and hoping for a better future that can be constructed through our collective action.
While translating the novel, I visited Moncada several times and contacted two local historians, Josep Bacardit Sanllehí and Ricard Ramos Jiménez, who published the only history book that explains with detail the civil war in this town: 940 dies. La Guerra Civil a Montcada i Reixac.4 Thanks to their cooperation I was able to compare the historical events that appear in Savage Coast with the historical facts. There is no doubt that the novel has a real and precise setting and context and that it has a true documentary spirit. With the text in mind, I was able to recognize the streets, visualize the cafés like the Worker’s Café and the Fonda España, which have since disappeared, or the ABI Café that retains its ancient atmosphere. There is the train station, the so called Estació de França; the Town Hall with its original facade, its inner balcony and the two sets of stairs. The Church of Saint Engracia has since been demolished after an explosion; only some of its stones, placed near the riverbank, remain. The Ignasi Iglesias School, where the athletes and passengers slept, has also vanished, but Mr. Ramos found a photograph of it. All descriptions of the people and places in the novel were based on Muriel’s experience and memories. Moreover, she kept her traveling notes in a little diary where she wrote down the special moments that she lived through in Moncada and Barcelona. These notes provided the initial structure for her novel. Although the local historians recovered and scanned all the council documents that had not been destroyed after the war was lost, the letter signed by some of the train passengers and given to the ruling political committee, together with the money collected to help the villagers, was never found. Mr. Bacardi and Mr. Ramos helped me to interpret Muriel’s map of Moncada, 5 the one that she drew and that indicates the important settings for the action in the first chapters of the novel.
It is an exact map with an outline of the mountains of Moncada and its two electricity towers. The name “Louis” and the arrow next to it signal the way to a local pension called Hostal Les Tres Línies. Its name refers to the three railway lines that pass by Moncada, including the one that connects the city of Barcelona with Portbou, at the French border. Les Tres Línies had a bar, a restaurant with a little garden, a cinema and rooms where the athletes were welcomed. The expenses were paid by the Olympic Committee at that time. Les Tres Línies was run by Louis Amoignon, a French man, and it remained open until nearly the seventies.
With the help of all this comparative data, the two historians and I tried to revive those days Muriel lived in Moncada and, surprisingly, they told me that there still exists a record of the nearly one hundred athletes and passengers of the express train in Moncada. The train stopped on the 18th July 1936 at about 8:30 in the morning, when the general strike was declared, and the revolution started. All of this is in a personal diary of Jacint López Herrero. He was a Moncada citizen who was just thirteen years old at that time. I reproduce and translate a fragment here below. His diary is the only remaining historical record of the events that took place in Moncada referring to the train in which Muriel and the athletes were travelling:
A group of armed people were walking along the Main street, and one of them was saying:
– The express train going to Barcelona has stopped at the Estació de França, the head of the station says that he doesn’t allow it to depart, and he has communicated that this train will be detained until new orders.
– Damned! And who are all those people that nobody understands what they say?
– They say, speaking Spanish poorly, that they go to the Popular Games of Barcelona, that they are all athletes.
– No way, no way -Murcia, a well-known fascist, said- somebody must tell them that they cannot take any photographs, if you see anyone who wants to take one, turn off their cameras and hang them back on their shoulders.
– Listen! They are asking where they can have something to eat, because they are very hungry.
– Well, then… take them to the Main street. Bakeries must be open as well as butcheries, and they can buy whatever they want; and if you see Vicenç, tell him to make you a voucher in case they do not have money, because we are also hungry.
The platforms of the station were full of young people, getting on and off the train, speaking different languages; this scene reminded me of the passage in the Bible that refers to the Tower of Babel.
Next day, J. López refers in her diary to Albert Ubach’s testimony, a vacationer in Moncada when the train remained stuck in the same place:
The athletes were paying with the currency of their countries, because the Hispano Colonial Bank on Main street was closed. Due to this circumstance the shopkeepers of Moncada were making good profits, while others, who did not know the exchange value of the currency, were losing money. The Fonda España had a lot of work serving meals to such a multitude. It can be said that the shopkeepers and the restaurant made the big bucks.
My historical research in Moncada helped me resurrect, feel, and understand what Muriel Rukeyser had experienced in Catalonia during the first days of the civil war outbreak. Helen never visited the Costa Brava, the coast that provides the novel’s title. In a similar way, Muriel never returned to Moncada or Barcelona, although in the mid-sixties she drove to the Spanish border, but did not cross it, choosing to stay on the French side. Somehow, I think that Savage Coast tells us about the things that could have been possible but that ultimately did not happen. “Everybody knows who won the war,” she says in the first chapter of the novel she kept revising. This does not mean they do not exist. They continue to exist potentially as they can occur in the future and we must go on fighting to make them happen. This is the message she held on to as she left Spain on the ship Ciudad de Ibiza and accepted the responsibility to tell what she had seen the day she “was born” in Spain. My goal, from now on, is to make her experience and literature available to the Spanish and the Catalan people. Muriel Rukeyser has a lot to give, and her poetry and work should be translated into our languages. Her son, William Rukeyser, whom I thank very much for helping me during my translation and research task, told me that she would have been proud to see that Savage Coast can now be read by my people. May her poetry transform our spirit, heart, and mind and may we, one day soon, live in the freedom she believed in.
To cite this article in MLA, 8th edition: Eulàlia Busquets, “Returning to Savage Coast,” Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive, http://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/2020/05/08/eulalia-busquets-returning-to-savage-coast/.
Author Bio: I was born in December 1966 with wide-open almond eyes, impressed by the colors and the rough Montsant territory. Of a humble origin, I was a playful kid who grew up among nature, books, and cinema, and I adored going to school. At the age of five I already wanted to be a feminist, a rebel, and free. These ideals were embodied by the Catalan writer and translator Maria Teresa Vernet Real, my grandmother’s close friend. Forged by the stories that my parents told me about the Spanish Civil War, I wondered about death before I could understand it. An initiatory trip around the world at eighteen introduced me to adulthood. At the beginning of the new millenium I obtained my degree in English Philology at the Rovira i Virgili University (Tarragona- Spain) and an MA on Women and Literature in the English Language from the University of Kingston Upon Hull (UK). In 2019 I completed my first literary translation to present the activist and poet Muriel Rukeyser, whom I want to rescue for our history and culture from a women’s point of view. I work for public schools as an English teacher because I like learning. Words have saved me because they originate in silence. With them I look and with my eyes I speak. I love literature and life.