The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War

The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War
By Serge Pay
180 pp. Archipelago Books. $18.

I try and balance my reading out. I’m naturally drawn to novels, but I love a great short story collection or non-fiction read as well. If I read only one book at a time, it’s almost certainly a novel, and then as soon as I’m done with it I tend to just pick up another novel. I can easily subsist on a diet of purely novels.

But, to diversify my reading life, I try to keep a rotating list of one novel, one short story collection, and one book of non-fiction. It’s all carefully scheduled too, you see. Right after I wake up, I’ll read a short story in whatever collection I currently happen to be on. Then, whenever I happen to have time to read during the day, I’ll tackle the nonfiction book. Finally, in the hour or so before bed, I’ll pick up the novel — saving the best for last, as I’ve always done.

On top of that I usually listen to an audiobook when performing mundane tasks, brushing my teeth, for example, or making a commute. I find that I’m too easily distracted when I listen to fiction (I don’t like my novels listened to, unless I happen to be reading them at the same time), so I usually listen to non-fiction, something uber compelling that will pull me in easily, as, again, I’m not a particularly good listener (that despite having taken an actual listening class when I was in college). I find true crime works best.

Which brings me, at last, to my most recent short story collection, “The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War.”

I’d never heard of the author, Serge Pey, before, nor did I know really anything about the Spanish Civil War, outside of what I know of Hemingway’s biography and Picasso’s “Guernica,” of course. Though to remedy this, and because I thought it would coincide nicely with my reading fictional stories set during this very real event, I’m also currently listening to a history of the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

It is only because of my subscription with Archipelago Books, a wonderful little publisher I’ve almost certainly mentioned in previous reviews, that I received this collection, as I likely would never have even heard of it otherwise.

These stories are gripping. Of the 16 that compose this collection, there were six real standouts for me. Here they are, in order of appearance:

1. “An Execution.” Brings to mind one of those old Clint Eastwood westerns, only far more poetic and heart rending. Includes some of the most beautiful language of anything I’ve read lately.
2. “The Washing and the Clothes Line.” Very sort of cloak and dagger, illustrates the role that townspeople played in the war.
3. “The Scarab’s Revenge.” My favorite. A delicious tale of revenge, with scorpions!
4. “The Piece of Wood.” My second favorite. Heartbreaking look at how Franco’s troops would break their captives.
5. “The Arrest.” I love this idea of “the enemy among us” that plays out as Republican captives, imprisoned inside a railroad car on their way to a concentration camp, debate amongst themselves over whether to attempt an escape.
6. “The White Library.” Think Italo Calvino merged with Belle’s cute little French village in “Beauty and the Beast.”

Some readers will doubtless find that these stories are not to their taste. They all have that very surreal, sort of magical realism you’d find in the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and the aforementioned Italo Calvino. If you go for their books, as I do, I think you’ll find this to your taste. If you prefer your stories’ language more grounded in reality, then you might be better off giving this a pass. For me, though, this collection is a treasure.

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